Saving the tomatoes from the first frost

September 26, 2013 in Gardening by Claude

Summer’s definitely over now! Well, it’s been autumn for a few weeks already, but now it’s getting serious. Last night we had the first frost. This morning, everything was covered in white. And not just the ground either, but all the trees and shrubs too. Our greenhouse was totally covered in frost as well. I have no idea what the temperature inside was. I didn’t want to open it to check, in case it was actually warmer inside than outside.

Frosted greenhouse

The greenhouse all frosted up after first frost.

The weather had been cold now for a few days with a stiff breeze from the north-east. Yesterday the sky was clear, so the conditions were perfect for a cold night. The frost had been forecast, so I spent all evening harvesting the tomatoes we were growing outside the greenhouse. We had planted quite many tomatoes in the greenhouse in the spring, although a little late, because it took a while to get the greenhouse built. The seedlings grew amazingly well so I transplanted many of them into the raised beds out on the field. The raised beds are actually very shallow hugelculture, or woody beds. We actually had so many that we ran out of decent soil to plant them into, so we gave as many to the neighbours as they were willing to take. As an experiment, I seeded tomatoes in between the little seedlings to see how they would do.

Frosted kale

Frosted kale with a small tomato I missed in the harvest the evening before.

Other than growing two tomato plants from purchased seedlings in pots, we had never grown any before, so this was all experimental from our point of view. It tuns out it all worked out splendidly. The tomatoes on the field grew more stubby with stronger stems than the ones that were sheltered next to the house or inside the greenhouse. because of that, they were standing quite well on their own, so I didn’t bother tying them to sakes at all. Once they started producing fruit, though, they quickly became too top-heavy and started falling over onto the ground. Never mind. I figured, before I put in any extra effort, let’s see if that matters or not. Turns out it doesn’t matter much. They all produced loads of fruit and, somewhat to my surprise, didn’t rot. I found maybe a dozen rotting ones yesterday while harvesting in what amounts to a good wheelbarrow full of fine tomatoes. That’s a pretty good return on a very small investment. Basically all the effort that went into these tomatoes after planting them was some watering along with the rest of the vegetable beds during the several dry weeks early in the summer and adding a bit of organic fertilizer once they started flowering. That’s it.Oh, and then harvesting them, obviously.

vegetable garden after the first night frost

Our raised bed vegetable garden after this autumn’s first frost.

The only downside I found with having the tomatoes lean over an lying on the ground is that they covered the onions and carrots I had planted next to them. All the tomato plants fell over to the east, because the wind blows predominantly from the west. I had planted the tomatoes in a row down the middle of the beds, with a row of carrots followed by a row of onions  followed by another row of carrots and then a row of dill on either side of them. It all grew well and there was no insect pests at all on any of the plants, but the rows in the east side stopped growing once they got smothered by the tomatoes. For that reason, I’ll probably tie them up next year.

ripening green tomatoes

Green tomatoes spread out to ripen indoors.

It turns out that the most effort comes after the harvest, because the majority of the tomatoes had to be harvested green, so they need ripening indoors. That’s a bummer. The greenhouse has been providing us with delicious ripe tomatoes since the end of July, but on the field, they took much longer. A few turned red outside, but the majority did not. I’m hoping this is partially die to the late start we had last spring. Next year we’ll try to get them going earlier, under a cloche and maybe avoid transplanting them, so as not to loose two weeks to transplanting shock. The tomato plants that I direct-seeded never really caught up with the transplanted ones but they were not lagging to far behind, so maybe they can actually do better, if planted straight in their place and kept warm for a start. We’ll see next year.

For now, the hope is that we can get the green ones to ripen and not rot. I have no experience with this sort of thing at all, but from what I read, temperature is the main factor in ripening tomatoes, so we spread them out on a tarp and keep the room they are in at 20°C. I added a few apples too; they are known to trigger ripening in other fruit, so maybe it works for tomatoes too… We’ll see how it goes.