Tomato Swan Song

tomato harvest

This weeks tomato harvest

The heirloom tomato plants pumped out fruit all summer long. We ate them raw and in salads, sliced between sandwiches and Mike made the surplus into salsa. Oh yum.

Alas, tomatoes are a summer annual and they’ve come to an end. Here in the Northern Hemisphere,  fall is just a couple of weeks away. It’s time for the tomato swan song.

The plant is still pumping out fruit, but the lower leaves are browning and the fruit isn’t nearly as sweet.

tomato ripening vignette

Ripening vignette

tomato plant in decline

Tomato plant in decline

I collected a huge bowl earlier this week, washed them and popped them in the freezer. We’ll be able to enjoy them in another salsa or sauce. I harvested some green tomatoes as well, and put them in a paper bag. If green tomatoes have released a gas called ethylene then they’ll continue to turn red. Otherwise they’ll remain green. The bag simply traps the gas and allows nature to follow its course.

Here’s an excerpt from Garden Know How:

The main determiner in how fast a tomato turns red is the variety. It will determine how long it takes for a tomato to reach the mature green stage. Tomatoes cannot turn red, even forced by modern technology, unless it has reached the mature green stage.

Another factor  is the outside temperature. Tomatoes will only produce lycopene and carotene, two substances that help a tomato turn red, between the temperatures of 50 and 85 F. (10-29 C.) If it is any cooler that 50 F./10 C., those tomatoes will stay a stubborn green. Any warmer than 85 F./29 C., and the process that produces lycopene and carotene comes to a screeching halt.

Tomatoes are triggered to turn red by a chemical called ethylene. Ethylene is odorless, tasteless and invisible to the naked eye. When the tomato reaches the proper green mature stage, it starts to produce ethylene. The ethylene then interacts with the tomato fruit to start the ripening process. Consistent winds can carry the ethylene gas away from the fruit and slow the ripening process.

If you find that your tomatoes fall off the vine, either knocked off or due to frost, before they turn red, you can place the unripe tomatoes in a paper bag. Provided that the green tomatoes have reached the mature green stage, the paper bag will trap the ethylene and will help to ripen the tomatoes.

This year’s crop planted themselves. I call them ‘volunteers’, seeds unintentionally planted thanks to the wind or a bird dropping seed. They’re often the healthiest plants in the garden.  So while I’ve saved some seeds, I’m also lobbing the occasional tomato back into the veggie box, hoping they’ll plant themselves again next year.  Sometimes, a gardener just needs to get out-of-the-way.

tomato long view

Tomato Plants: the long view Dear Reader, I wish you were here! This is a recent shot of my tomato plants. I’ve been harvesting tomatoes all summer long and putting them to good use. If you were here we could make a salad together while we caught up on our news. Until recently, that ugly pipe was hidden with cherry tomatoes. Just behind the tomato plants are the recently pruned raspberry vines. Let’s catch up soon. Cheers, Alys


26 thoughts on “Tomato Swan Song

  1. Isn’t it so sad to see how brown the vine turns as summer fades! Your tomatoes look so lovely – and when you mentioned green tomatoes my mind immediately says “Fried Green ……” I have always wanted to try them and never have. Hopefully I shall grow my own this year and will get the opportunity 🙂 We have just been to the DIY store and purchased some necessaries to get my planter tubs up and running – Danella bought me some seeds and seedlings for my birthday, just to start me off. I am so excited!


    • The idea of green tomatoes has always been lost on me, yet here you are excited to give them a try. I really must broaden my eating horizons.

      So glad to hear Danella bought you seeds and seedlings. I can’t wait to see this year’s garden. Are you still planning the vertical approach? I hope your poison-spraying neighbor is on notice. That was worrisome.

      Happy spring.


      • I am going up – not sure yet how much and it may be something that takes me a season or two to work out – but up it is. I was eyeing some sweet pea seedlings today and then caught myself just being silly – it is a very small area even ‘up’ space is limited. But who knows what may happen! 🙂


  2. Nice looking tomatoes, Alys. I usually cut the lower leaves from my tomatoes to let more light into the plant, many books suggest to remove leaves up to the first truss. My tomatoes are also coming to an end but I can’t complain, I’ve been picking since June and I have a year’s worth of sugo Italian name for sauce in the store cupboard so all is well with the world


    • Hurray for you and your stock pile of tomatoes, Christina.

      I did remove some of the lower leaves early on, but I guess I needed to remove more. The plants quickly exceeded the stakes I had in place, then staring spilling over the top and down the sides. An amazing crop!

      I’ll try to do better next year.


  3. I am torn at this time of year, Alys. I love the last push of effort from the garden–and feel saddened for the loss of potential for some of the garden’s desperate attempts to keep pumping out produce, and yet I’m joyful for my favorite time of year when autumn creeps in. It’s almost an alarming thought as to how much I enjoy death–and the smell of it–in a purely nature/garden/woodland/field kind of way I promise.
    Thanks for the terrific explanation of the tomato’s biological life cycle. That’s a keeper. Today is a tomato sauce making event. Tonight is a tomato sauce eating contest. I plan to pack away a sizable amount. 😀
    Cheers to you!


    • I enjoy watching the last-ditch efforts of my garden. I have a pumpkin plant taking off, in complete denial of the calendar. It makes me smile.

      I know exactly what you mean about the earthy smell of decay. It’s organic in nature and it delights the senses. It’s signalling the next stage in the life of a garden. I was just reading today in the Heifer Project newsletter about the growth that takes place in the soil during the winter months. So much going on under our noses when we think all is still.

      Are you really have a tomato-sauce-eating contest? What fun!


  4. Geez, that’s an interesting bit of science and information. I never dreamed it was all so exacting. I just buy em and eat em…slurp and yum. I really, really love tomatoes on toast with a wee bit of Miracle Whip (never mayonnaise, blech). My favourite Pizza is Onion, Green Peppers, Veggie Pepperoni and then put fresh tomato slices on top *after* it bakes…the warm pizza and cool tomato thing is so good together. Great Macro photo on the ‘ripening vignette’. I can see the hairs on the stem, wow! So, in the winter, do you just buy them at your market or do you just get your fill all summer and move onto something else? xoxoK


    • We grew up eating just that: tomatoes on toast with Miracle Whip.

      Thanks for your kind words on the photograph. Those may be the last juicy red tomatoes of the year.

      I only buy cherry tomatoes, or heirloom if they’re available. Otherwise they have no flavor. I’ve been disappointed too many times. I mistakenly ordered a Caprese Salad at Georgio’s and the tomatoes were greenish, tough and bland. So disappointing.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Completely agree re tomatoes seeding themselves. I’ve found little tomato plants in all sorts of strange places – sadly nowhere sensible enough that they’ve grown very large – which can only have seeded from the discarded remains of last year’s crop. Meanwhile this year’s crop is only just getting going here. Maybe we’re late developers…


  6. I think we will all miss the gardening season, just not the extra warm summer. I have a couple small tomatoes on the vines my friend gave me. We are having some very cool nights so I’m not sure there is time for them to get grown up enough to make it to the table. I wish I could keep the plants going till next year. They are in pots but I have no real sun in the house except in the middle of the kitchen under the skylights. I knew about the paper bag thing. Works on avocados too. Somehow, volunteers seem hardier than what we plant and nurture so carefully. Next summer I’ll have tomatoes. 🙂


    • I’ll have to remember that for avocados, Marlene. Thanks for sharing that.

      Once the evenings cool off, it’s hard to convince our plants that fall and winter approach. You could try erected a cheap wind block from a couple of sticks/stakes and some painter’s plastic. With all you’ve got going on though, it may just be a lot of work for a small return. Next year…


      • Yes, that’s my mantra these days. “Next summer”. I am only one old lady and working as fast as a one armed paper hanger. I took pictures of the wanna be tomatoes yesterday to save for posterity. 🙂 Working on the journal you sent as well. I’ll blog about it soon. Seems to be my favorite word these days. “Soon” 🙂 Hugs, M


  7. Thanks for sharing the info about ethylene and tomatoes in paper bags! I was at a friend’s home and saw tomatoes on the ground that, other than being green, looked to be in good shape. She’s a gardener and may know this, but I’ll share it with her.


  8. The information about things that affect how tomatoes ripen is interesting. It’s not been a good summer for tomatoes here. It’s been a relatively cool and rainy summer, which apparently is not a good combination for tomatoes. .


    • I’m sorry to hear that Sheryl. I didn’t realize how exacting they were in terms of the perfect conditions.

      I grew my first tomato plant (a cherry) in a planter on our porch when my son was two. The moment he spotted them, he pulled them off. It took a vacation away for a week before one or two finally had a chance to turn red.

      Even two year old’s can affect the outcome.

      As we gardeners like to say…there is always next year.


  9. Alys, did you know that ripe apples produce ethylene gas? Put one in the bag with the tomatoes and it will speed up the ripening. (that’s why we aren’t supposed to store apples near things we don’t want to ripen) Lovely photos, even of the aging plants . . . ~ Linne


  10. I’m almost at the end of my tomatoes too, Alys, It’s a sad sight! This is my new blog I’m responding through by the way, I fell out of love with Denobears and PKP. I’m sharpening up my old writing posts and ‘thinking’ about a new gardening blog. In the meantime I will post garden pics on my new FB page. (AJ Burge). Hope all is well and good to hear you had a great holiday 🙂 x


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