Ask a Master Gardener: How to make use of green tomatoes

Have you ever noticed that certain times of the year bring certain garden discussions, like how to pick a watermelon or when to plant potatoes? This time of the year one of the more popular topics is what to do with all those green tomatoes left on the vine when the garden is done, or when you are done with the garden, whichever comes first.

A couple of years ago I dug out an old recipe and made "chow chow" with my green tomatoes. I still have quite a bit of that left, turns out I am not much of a condiment eater. It might also have something to do with the fact it didn't taste anything like grandma's.

This year, I will just bring in the best green tomatoes and let them ripen inside. Here are some tips if you would like to do the same:

You will need to pick your tomatoes before the first frost appears. Frost will make the texture soft and pulpy; the fruits won't be edible if you don't pick them before frost. I usually avoid the deep green tomatoes -- those are good for recipes, not so good to ripen. I have better luck with the ones that have lightened up a bit, kind of already starting the ripening process. Give green tomatoes a little squeeze. If they give a little, the ripening process is already underway. Hard green tomatoes cannot ripen once picked. Tomatoes tend to ripen best with part of the stem left on.

Late-season tomatoes can carry various fungus and molds so don't forget to wash your fresh green tomatoes with water or light bleach solution after harvesting. This will help to remove dirt, bugs, fungus and other molds that stick to the tomatoes.

There are several methods for storing your tomatoes while you wait for them to ripen. To ripen a few green tomatoes, put them in a paper bag, close it up, and store in a warm location in your home. Kept enclosed together, the ethylene they emit will stimulate ripening.

If you need to harvest a lot of tomatoes to save them from frost, then the cardboard box method will work best. Wrap each green tomato in black and white newspaper and put them into a cardboard box. The newspaper helps to keep them separate from each other and absorb the extra fruit moisture. Besides, it also reduces the chances of fruit rotting. Avoid using any colored newspaper because it contains harmful chemicals that often bleed over into the tomatoes. Don't make more than two layers of tomatoes in a box. Store the box in a cool dark place.

If your tomatoes have already started to show some ripened color, you can put them on a counter or shelf out of direct sun. Inspect them daily for progress. You can also remove tomatoes you have ripening in a bag or box once they start showing signs of color and continue their ripening in a more visible area -- just keep them out of direct sunlight.

Keep a semi-ripe banana or an apple inside the box or bag to boost up the ripening process. If you want to ripen your tomatoes even faster, keep an unripe banana or apple inside.

You can also speed up or slow down the ripening process by simply controlling the room temperature. For example, it will take around 18-28 days to ripen your mature green tomatoes if you keep them at 55 degrees room temperature. Or you can ripen them within 7-14 days if the room temperature is 77 degrees.

These methods do not enhance flavor. No tomato is going to be as delicious as vine ripened right out of the garden. But, it's a better option than having them go to waste.

Happy gardening!

Peter Sutter is a life long gardening enthusiast and a participant in the MU Extension's Callaway County Master Gardener program. Gardening questions can be sent to [email protected]