Late-Season Tomatoes: Management, Season Extension and Preserving

Reader Contribution by Kathy Shaw
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Untrimmed tomatoes 

We can never grow enough tomatoes. It might be autumn by the calendar, but I’m not ready to give up on tomatoes just yet. They are my favorite vegetable and I will not let them go without a fight. Because we prefer the taste and productivity of heirloom indeterminate varieties, we typically grow 16 to 24 varieties, one plant of each. This gives us a great flavor mix for all the canning we do: salsa, stewed, sauce, soup, juice, catsup, and a long (for Wisconsin) tomato season to enjoy them fresh-picked from late July until early October.

By mid-September, the plants are huge and overgrowing their 5-foot concrete reinforcement wire cages, as seen in the first picture. Since any new flowers won’t have time to ripen before killing frost — which comes any time from mid-September to mid-October here in central Wisconsin — we give all of the plants a trimming and cut off the growing tips of each branch back to the last green fruits or to the top of the cage if there are no fruits beyond it. That makes it easier to cover the plants for the first few light frosts and let them continue to grow and ripen through Indian summer.

The tomatoes are shown with their haircuts in the photo below.

Trimmed tomato plants.

In the photo below, I’m holding up a branch of the more than 10-foot cherry tomato vine which we didn’t cut back. It has grown all the way back to the ground and is now going along the ground.  If that one dies, we are okay with no more cherries this year.

Ten-foot cherry tomato vines

What to Do with Late-Season Tomatoes

Canning. But we’re not done yet! With the shortage on canning lids due to Covid-19, we were still able to get most of the tomatoes processed as usual but are saving our last few dozen lids for the pears that are being harvested this week, so we are now coring and freezing the tomatoes whole. Coring them before freezing makes them much easier to process when they thaw, with the added bonus of the skins slipping right off without the boiling water. We will probably be making more salsa and sauce as soon as lids are available. (I don’t know what will happen if we don’t have lids back in stock before hunting season and the meat section of our freezer is needed again!)

Seed-saving. I also plan to save tomato seeds for the first time this year. A lot of our seed packets are getting older and there are some varieties we couldn’t do without. I won’t be doing large batches of seeds like Pam Dawling does, so I will just squeeze the tomato pulp into a jar marked with the variety and let it sit for a few days. After the fermentation is complete, I will wash the seeds and spread them to dry on a napkin. Once dry, I may even leave them on the napkin and just fold it into an envelope marked with the variety and date since I don’t think we will be sharing them with others at this point. If someone does want some seeds, it will be easy enough to pick off the seeds from the napkin at that point.

Tomato chutney. Finally, after a killing frost is forecast, we will pick all the tomatoes from the plant, ripe and green. They will be sorted and anything blemished or fully ripe will be processed (or frozen). The green ones with blemishes are made into a green tomato chutney, minus the blemishes, for use on winter salads (so we still can have tomatoes on them!) or on chicken dishes.

Ripening green tomatoes for months. The unripe, blemish-free tomatoes are put into plant trays with dividers (a seasonal use for our starting trays). and are kept in a dark, unheated storage area where it typically stays around 55 degrees. Our goal is to enjoy fresh tomatoes on salads until Christmas, though we don’t make that every year.  The flavor isn’t as good as when they ripen on the vine, but they are still better and more satisfying than anything purchased.

Sorting unripe tomatoes

Stored tomatoes for monitoring

Kathy Shawhas gardened for more than 30 years, including as a test gardener for Organic Gardening magazine. She and her husband, Pat, are Master Gardeners and owners of Kathy’s Island Botanicals, where they make and sell natural bath products. They live in an earth-sheltered home on 35 acres in central Wisconsin. Read all of Kathy’s MOTHER EARTH NEWSposts here.

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