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Garden Q&A: Ripen green tomatoes in paper bag

| Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012, 8:59 p.m.
If you still have unripe tomatoes on the vine, now is the time to pick them and force ripen them. Credit: Jessica Walliser

Q: I have a lot of tomatoes that are still green on my plants. Should I leave them be? Will they still ripen? Or should I take them off and just use them green?

A: Unless we get another warm, sunny spell, it is unlikely that your tomatoes will ripen this late in the season. If you leave the fruits on the plants and we get a hard frost, they'll soften and be unusable. Because of this, I suggest you harvest the fruits green and force ripen them.

This technique will not work on underdeveloped tomatoes, but for those that have reached their mature size and already have a touch of color, it works very nicely. Select only unblemished fruits and cut them from the vine rather than pulling them off (which can damage the skin and cause rot to develop). Leave the stem attached.

Place two or three unripe tomatoes in a brown paper bag with an apple, and roll the top closed. As the apple continues to ripen in the bag, it naturally produces ethylene gas, a plant hormone responsible for the ripening process. The gas trapped in the bag will cause the tomatoes to ripen. How long this process takes depends on the maturity of the fruit. It can happen in a day or two, or take up to two weeks. Peek in the bag every day or two to check. Ethylene gas is used to ripen early-harvested tomatoes, bananas, pears and other commercially grown fruits en route to market.

You also can allow any fruits that have developed some color to ripen on a countertop. Keep them out of direct sunlight and away from excessive heat and cold, and place them on their shoulders rather than on their blossom ends. Only about half of the tomatoes you'll pick in this state will ripen via this method. Use the paper bag and apple method if you want a better chance of success.

There's also a lot you can do with green tomatoes. Fried green tomatoes, pickled green tomatoes, salsa verde, green tomato jam, and even pasta sauce call for the unripe fruits. A quick Internet search for “green tomato recipes” provides you with more recipes than you'll ever need.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is www.jessicawalliser.com.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to tribliving@tribweb.com or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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