Keep Those Tomatoes & Peppers Coming (Or Going)
A friend recently sent me a link to a hot pepper-grower’s site that offered suggestions on over-wintering your pepper plants. While I haven’t tried this with peppers myself, I have over-wintered tomatoes of various sizes. I’m fortunate in having both a glassed-in south-facing sunporch and a large, glassed-in west-facing bump-out in my kitchen. I’m not sure I’ve ever written a sentence with quite that many hyphens before. Huh.
Anyway, these sunny places allow me to grow temperamental tropicals indoors, where weather vagaries don’t harm the plants or diminish the harvest. Even during warm summers like this year’s, I keep basil indoors, where it flourishes better than on my sunny deck. After cooler summers, I often bring in a pot or two of cherry tomatoes loaded with unripe fruit at season’s end. Some years, the same plants have gone on to produce steadily for months. A few robust plants survived for several more years indoors.
The hot pepper pros suggest cutting back pepper plants hard, leaving a framework of a main stem and one forked pair of side stems and removing all foliage as well. It’s obviously a lot easier to bring plants indoors if they are in pots, so they either pot or re-pot the pruned peppers, replacing spent potting soil in the latter case. Barring a sunny window, they keep their peppers under grow lights, watering monthly or just enough to keep them alive without forcing new growth.
The next suggestion is hugely important: spray each plant, soil, pot and all, with mild horticultural soap. Let stand for a few minutes, then rinse with luke warm water. That ought to take care of any pesky bugs that might otherwise sneak in past your guard. The last thing you want on any outdoor plant that’s coming inside is a cargo of whitefly, aphids, and so forth. When I bring in tomatoes, I give them a thorough shower first, but only prune lightly so I can keep as many of the unripe fruit as possible.
Or Just Bring The Bounty Within
When you have way too many plants to bring indoors, lots of unripe fruit can present a dilemma; do we pull the plants and lose the crop or leave the plants and (maybe) lose the crop anyway? In fact, both tomatoes and peppers will continue to ripen indoors if picked green. True, they won’t taste quite as terrific as those ripened outside, but they’ll definitely taste better than anything you can buy at the supermarket. Carefully gather as many unripe bell or sweet peppers and green tomatoes as you have room for indoors, where they will continue to ripen for several weeks.
I’d say now was a pretty good time, since night temperatures have been getting pretty low. A sharp frost will wipe out all tender tropicals overnight, leaving mushy, slushy compost material in place of those promising tomatoes and peppers. If you are bringing a few potted heat lovers in, give them a light, bright place. A south or west facing sunporch is ideal, especially if it has curtains to pull at night. (That minimizes heat loss.)
Let’s Take This Someplace More Comfortable
Though they flourish in summer heat, I never put my refugees in a super-heated situation. Given enough light and adequate warmth (60’s and up), cherry tomatoes will continue to crop well into winter. Thanks to my new ductless heat pump, my house now stays a cosy (for me, anyway) 66 degrees all the time, which suits basil and tomatoes (and presumably peppers) just fine.
If all your tomato plants are growing in the ground, pick over the lingering unripe, looking for good-sized, firm, and undamaged fruit. Green tomatoes that are mature enough to ripen will be a light, fresh green with a glossy skin. Any that are already starting to turn red will continue to do so indoors. Start hunting amongst the best looking, most healthy vines, taking the largest ones first. Smaller, dense or soft green fruit are better off composted. Avoid any tomatoes that have been damaged, investigated by bugs or birds, or look diseased.
Prepare For Ripening
Once you get your harvest to the kitchen, wash each piece carefully to remove dust or dirt, and trim any stems. When dry, the twiggy stems can easily jab holes into tender neighbors, a common cause of rot. Another rot-inducer is moisture, so dry each one individually. It works best to place them on baking cooling racks to be sure they are completely dry on the bottom. Whatever you do, never store tomatoes in the refrigerator. The cold will turn the stored sugars unto starch and they”ll lose their delicate flavor in no time. Instead, store ripening fruit and vegetables on several sheets of newspaper, which help keep them nice and dry.
If your haul is a big one, store it in berry boxes or the shallow plant boxes you got at the nursery. Line each with newspaper and carefully layer in your tomatoes and peppers, making sure they don’t touch. If you need to make two layers per box, add several sheets of newsprint between them. Smaller tomatoes and peppers can be stored in egg cartons as well.
Dim & Dry Works Best
Keep your harvest in a dim, fairly dry place with good air circulation, out of direct sunlight. A warm garage is fine, as is a kitchen or pantry shelf. A moist environment like a laundry room may encourage molding, while an overly warm, dry one can make tomatoes and peppers shrivel up. If you really want dried ones, use a real food drier; the results are a lot better.
You’ll notice that as the reddest tomatoes ripen, their neighbors do too. That’s because, like apples, tomatoes give off ethylene, a natural gas that promotes ripening in fruit. You can use this handy happening to encourage slower ripeners to catch up; just rotate your greenest ones closer to redder ones. Your most mature peppers and tomatoes will ripen over 2-3 weeks if your house stays between the mid 60’s and mid 70’s. Any cooler, and they’ll take another week or so (too cool–low 50’s–and they’ll taste lousy as well). If this sounds like too much trouble, simply slow roast the whole batch and freeze or can the results, which are fabulous in sauces, soups, and stews.