How To Ripen Tomatoes. Ripening Tomatoes, Especially Late Season Tomatoes, Can Be A Problem. Here Are My Commercial Tomato Grower Secrets.

I grew tomatoes in the 80s and 90s on a commercial scale. 10,000 plants a year.  That means ripening and harvesting tons a day. So there aren’t many tricks I don’t know about getting the toms ripe just when I wanted them.  Here are my secrets.

Tomato Ripening: The Facts

It’s no secret, tomatoes love warmth. And they need warmth to ripen. 

Tomatoes need warmth to ripen
Tomatoes need warmth to ripen

But first the fruit has to be mature enough to ripen. So often I see impatient gardeners wondering why their fruit aren’t ripening when they haven’t even finished growing. The first ripening rule is patience! 

Tomatoes ripen far better when the mature fruit are warm. And the warmth of a greenhouse or polytunnel is going to reach the trusses far easier if we remove a small number of leaves to allow air circulation. By small number I mean the absolute minimum number of leaves should be removed. If we remove too many the plants stop growing. That reduces overall yield and fruit size. 

Remove the leaves from the bottom when a truss of fruit starts to show a bit of colour. Then as ripening proceeds ups the plant it is time to remove a few more leaves. but never go above a truss with ripening fruit on it or you will reduce photosynthesis and plant growth. 

Increasing Microclimate Temperature

As mentioned above  we can improve the temperature around the ripening truss by removing a few leaves and improving air flow. But late in the season we need to do something else. We need to increase ambient temperatures. 

At the risk of increasing humidity in the greenhouse or tunnel there comes a time when it is wise to shut some doors and ventilation during the day. This will boost temperatures and speed ripening. But take care not to overdo it and produce Hutton conditions where blight could proliferate. 

Timing Ripening To Need

When I grew commercially our tomatoes tended to ripen at the same rate every day, but our customers,  the large wholesalers and supermarkets only really wanted our crops when their customers shipped at the weekends. 

So we had to time the ripening so we could pick a tomato that reached perfection on the day the shopper wanted to buy them. They didn’t want them too green or over ripe. they want perfection, whatever the weather and temperatures had been all week. 

So we manipulated conditions to slow down or speed up ripening. Opening more vents to cool the conditions or closing a few to ripen them. We’d also deleaf the crop to ripen the next crop at just the tight time to get the maximum yield on the days the buyer wanted them. 

Too Many Tomatoes .. Dig a Big Pit

In my first growing season we had a bumper crop. The weather was hot and toms grew like mad. 

The only problem was that the back garden crops did well at the same time. So gardeners had a glut that they gave to all their friends. We couldn’t sell our crop at an economic price but still they ripened and needed picking. 

So we got a JCB to dig a big pit and every day we dumped tons of tomatoes in a hole in the ground. It was heart wrenching. All our hard work going to waste. 

I’ve heard people say we should have dried them or bottled them. But how would you cope with several tons of tomatoes every day? We were growers, not manufacturers. And the manufacturers had plenty of crops to tin, bottle, freeze, make into juice etc anyway. they didn’t want our problem. 

Ethylene Ripening of Fruit 

Ethylene is a naturally occurring gaseous plant hormone found in many plants. It peaks as fruit ripens. Higher levels also induces ripening and we can use this fact to speed ripening. 

When fruit are slow to ripen all we need to do is ensure there is ripe fruit nearby. their higher ethylene levels will then speed up ripening of other mature fruit. The way many people suggest this is done is to use a banana. But it really isn’t needed for several reasons.

Firstly an unripe banana would have little impact on ripening as the level of ethylene would be low. 

Secondly, bananas don’t produce any special amounts of ethylene. Tomatoes also produce ethylene and leaving a ripe tomato on the vine will do s much to ripen other fruit as the banana will!

Towards the end of the season, when you have a lot of green fruit, you can pick them all and keep a few ripe fruit with them in a sealed bag or area. This will speed ripening as well as adding a banana! Alternatively use the fruit in their green state to make chutneys or to cook with.

Fruit continue to produce ethylene after ripening and it can then speed over ripening! Commercially some producers have an answer to this .. mentioned below.

Commercial Ripening of Fruit

Vine ripened fruit are very popular today. Supermarkets sell pre-packed fruit as complete trusses.  As any experienced tomato grower will tell you, this isn’t natural. In nature the fruit ripen over time and are never all ready at there same time. 

The way most vine ripened fruit is produced is to pick a whole truss when green and then treat them with ethylene gas! It works. But it isn’t natural and isn’t the sort of unnatural chemical ripening I want on my plate! 

Fortunately in the UK ripening gases aren’t available to the public. But overseas, in countries such as India, they are available over the internet

Tomato chutney
Tomato chutney

But worse than using artificial chemical ripening in my book, is the use off chemical scrubbers to reduce the ethylene levels once packed. The pads that fruit sit on, or even the packs themselves, often contain chemicals to remove the ethylene and extend shelf life. 

At this point I’d like to make it clear I have never used ethylene gas and ripening rooms to artificially ripen tomatoes. I would pick all my green tomatoes and sell them to the local Indian diaspora communities where they were used to produce wonderful chutneys.

How To Ripen Tomatoes: Water Reduction

Reducing water intake also speeds ripening to an extent. In the last week of the crop we stopped watering them. And in the last 2-3 days pulled the roots. Today I’d leave the roots but sever the stem at ground level as I want to leave the roots in the ground.

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