Glorious green tomatoes and gassy bananas

Race Week always makes me feel anxious.

No, I’m not talking about Indianapolis or Daytona prior to either of those famous car races.

I’m talking, instead, about the week right before the date the weather forecaster’s picked as the first frost of the season, when your tomato plants are practically dripping with fruit – the green kind.

That’s the time when I can’t help but waffle between picking the tomato stems bare and trying to ripen everything indoors, or staying the course, hoping just a few more days in the great outdoors will squeeze some orange into their little jade-tinged hides.

I’m particularly worried this year because I have so much more to lose than I usually do. I’ve actually managed to nurture five full-sized plants to motherhood on my deck and they’re loaded with fruit.

What’s more, I’ve gotten a taste for the few I’ve eaten - the delightful Stupice, a cold-hardy, early heirloom variety that bears smaller fruits.By cold hardy, I mean it actually prefers temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees, though it won’t set fruit if the nights drop below 55 degrees.

Now fall is almost officially at hand and I’m looking at my tomatoes like a first-grader would look at a box of kittens that are headed to the pound: I can’t bear to see them go!

But September is rapidly creeping toward October and studies have shown Whidbey Island’s average first frost date is Oct. 27.

As long as the weather holds, I’ve got some time. But if the little blighters don’t get the lead out, I’ll be stuck with more green tomatoes than I’ll know what to do with.

Well, actually, I do know what to do with them.

The first thing I can do is to stave off the frost by wrapping my plants in a warm blanket. This will work for peppers and other warmth-loving plants, too.

I can build a framework around each plant using stakes or a tomato cage, then wrap the whole thing from ground level to a few inches above its highest point with bubble wrap or floating row cover fabric.

Since it’s the end of the season, I’ll go ahead and cover the top, too.

I’m a fan of old-fashioned, spring-loaded wooden clothes pins to keep row covers in place, while packing or duct tape will keep bubble wrap secure. The air pockets in the bubble wrap can really add insulation.

Another thing I can do is pull my plants up and hang them upside down in the garage. Or put my clean, dry tomatoes in a closed container with a banana or an apple. The ethylene gas emanating from the fruit may help them turn red.

Ethylene is a naturally occurring plant hormone that signals plant tissues to do any number of useful things, like stunting upward growth if growing in a windy environment or telling leaves it’s time to drop in the fall.

It also happens to signal fruit to ripen.

When all else fails, I’ll fry up those green tomatoes. Or how about mock apple pie, green tomato jam, green tomato relish, green tomato chow chow ... green tomato cake?


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