Time’s running out: what to do to get your tomatoes to ripen quickly

Tiffany Daneff / 29 September 2014 ( 29 September 2014 )

Saga's Gardening Editor, Tiffany Daneff on the importance of timing during the growing season.

Lately, I’ve found myself reiterating something that Anna Pavord said in an interview we ran with her in Saga magazine: “Because I come from farming people,” she told the writer, Vanessa Berridge, “the importance of getting jobs done at the right time is stitched into me.” The truth of her words struck me at the time I was editing the piece and they’ve haunted me ever since.  

Download the June issue of Saga Magazine to read the interview with Anna Pavord.

Haunted, because it is with a terrible feeling of guilt that I realised, earlier in the summer, that I had missed the moment to sow some more lettuces and that I still hadn’t sown any spinach.  (Those are just two examples, there are, I confess, plenty of others.)  

It’s even worse now that we’ve had our first light frosts. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from gardening in a frost pocket, it’s that you can’t mess with the weather and the seasons. Short of having a greenhouse or conservatory, gardeners have to work with the material they’re given. If it freezes, plants suffer and die and there’s an end to it, literally. In the same way, we British gardeners only have a limited growing season.  Here, (this year at least) the period from the last spring frost to the first autumn frost runs from June 1 to Sept 15.  What’s that? Just 15 weeks of growing time when the earth is warm and the days are long.  

That said, this has been a good summer, with more than the average amount of sun, and we have had a bumper year with the tomatoes and sweet peas, both of which we are still picking – just.  

But I noticed today that the flowers I have indoors are showing brown patches on their petals, as the result of frost damage.  So their time is limited.  

As for the tomatoes?  Well, despite my horrors in May when I lost the lot to the frost, things picked up dramatically and the replacement plants – kindly donated by a much more organised friend – have produced a huge crop.  But when she dropped round the other day she reminded me that I had better get a move on if I wanted the remaining tomatoes to colour up.

“Take off all those leaves,” she admonished, in her strictest voice, “they’re blocking the light from the sun. And the growing tips need removing!”  (Isn’t it always the way? You think you’ve done the job, having pinched out all the growing tips and picked off all the leaves back in July and there you are, it’s suddenly the beginning of September, and a whole load more have appeared and are embarrassing you in front of horty friends. Or maybe it’s just that I don’t wear my reading glasses when I garden so all those close up details pass me by?)  

She was so right though.  Every day the sun is cooling and the days are drawing in and with every passing day the number of ripe tomatoes dwindles. A week ago I was picking up to 20 a day. Today, it was only seven. Time is running out.

When you think of gardening in this way, as our forebears always did and farmers still must, it certainly sharpens the mind. Next year, with Anna’s voice in my thoughts, I hope to be more on the ball, more attuned to the imperatives.

PS. Once ripening outdoors is no longer an option, bring in the green tomatoes and sit them next to some ripe cousins or even a nice ripe banana. That’ll encourage them.  Otherwise it’s time for green tomato chutney.

Tiffany Daneff is also the editor of the award-winning intoGardens app - the world's first magazine app for gardens. Visit the appstore to download a free sample or go to the website for more information. Gardening has never looked better or been more exciting. Visit www.into-gardens.com for more info. 

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