"… and the low 50s north and west"

I’ve started paying attention to weather forecasts when they predict temperatures in the low 50s. The early-morning temperature at our house was 53.1°F. Friday and 51.2° Saturday when I checked our digital thermometer. After the oppressively hot summer of 2010, the cooler September temperatures suit me just fine. And my fall veggies—lettuce, beets, chard, and turnips–are growing beautifully.

But night-time temperatures in the low 50s aren’t good for my favorite garden fruit—tomatoes. You’ve heard repeatedly that you should store your tomatoes on your kitchen counter and not in your refrigerator. The reason is that the temperature in your refrigerator is about 36°, and tomatoes begin to turn mealy when the temperature dips below 55°, or some say, 50°.

An Internet posting headlined “Tomato Secrets Unveiled” explains, “Tomatoes are greatly affected by temperature, even during the growing process. They originally came from the warm western coast of South America and don’t respond well to temperatures below 50°. Cool temperatures can change a tomato’s composition, converting its natural sugar into starch and resulting in a tasteless, mealy tomato. For this reason, never refrigerate a tomato. The cold environment causes the water in the tomato to expand, ruining the texture.”

So however much my fall veggies and I are enjoying cooler temperatures, I have to remember that at some point my tomatoes—especially large-red slicers—will begin to suffer in quality. I’ve got to be prepared to pick some unripe tomatoes and to store them in our garage.

In Chapter 17, “Vegetables,” of the University of Maryland Master Gardener Handbook, Jon Traunfeld counsels about tomato storage: “Don’t refrigerate tomatoes. Allow them to ripen fully indoors at room temperature. Green tomatoes may be picked before the first killing frost and stored in a medium cool (50° – 70° F), moist (90% RH) conditions; 1 to 3 weeks. When desired, ripen fruits at 70° F.”

My experience is that stored tomatoes ripen best if they’re near maturity in size and have some “color” before picked—either a slight hint of pink or at least pre-pink white. One reference suggests you leave a half-inch or so of the tomato’s stem on the tomato when you clip it, but I haven’t met a gardener yet who does that.

In coming weeks, as garden temperatures gradually decrease, I’ll expect the few remaining “big ones” to begin to get mealy. And when frost threatens, I’ll pick whatever the stink bugs have spared and bring them into our garage to extend Tomato Season 2010 for a few more weeks.

If you have a tip on fall tomato storage to share, please post a Comment.

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