By Amy Grant
Sadly, the time has come. The days have shortened and temperatures are dropping. The time has come to consider what needs to be accomplished in the vegetable garden. You may have questions regarding the end of tomato growing season. Questions such as “do tomato plants die at the end of season?” and “when is the end of tomato season?” Read on to find out.
When is the End of Tomato Season?
Everything, to the best of my knowledge, has a life cycle and tomatoes are no exception. Although in their native habitat, tomato plants grow as perennials, they are usually grown as an annual for cultivation. Tomatoes are referred to as “tender perennials,” as they will generally succumb once temperatures drop, especially once frost hits.
Other “tender perennials” include bell peppers and sweet potatoes, which will also die back once frost is in the forecast. Watch the weather forecast, and when temps are dropping below the 40’s and 50’s (4-10 C.), it’s time to decide what to do with your tomato plants.
End of Season Tomato Plant Care
So what steps need to be taken for end of season tomato plant care? First of all, to hasten ripening of fruit, remove any remaining flowers so the plant’s energy goes towards the fruit already on the plant and not into development of more tomatoes. Cut back on water and withhold fertilizer to stress the plant towards the end of tomato growing season.
An alternate method for ripening the tomatoes is to pull the entire plant from the ground and hang it upside down in a basement or garage. No light is necessary, but comfortable temperatures between 60-72 degrees F. (16-22 C.) are needed for continued ripening.
Or, you may pick the green fruit and ripen in small batches in a paper bag along with an apple. The apple will release ethylene, necessary to the ripening process. Some folks spread individual tomatoes out on newspaper to ripen. Keep in mind that once the tomato is removed from the vine, sugars will cease to develop so while the fruit will change color, it may not have the same vine ripened sweetness.
What to Do with Tomato Plants at End of Season
Once you have decided it’s time to pull the tomato plants out of the garden, the question is what to do with tomato plants at the end of the season? It is tempting to bury the plants in the garden to rot and engender additional nutrients for the following year’s crop. This may not be the best of ideas.
There is a possibility that your fading tomato plants have a disease, insects or a fungus and burying them directly into the garden risks infiltrating the soil with these and passing them on to next year’s crops. You may decide to add the tomato plants to the compost pile; however, most compost piles do not attain high enough temperatures to kill off pathogens. Temps need to be at least 145 degrees F. (63 C.), so be sure to stir the pile if this is your plan.
The best idea is to dispose of the plants in the municipal trash or compost bin. Tomatoes are susceptible to Early blight, Verticillium, and Fusarium wilt, all soil borne diseases. Another effective management tool to combat the spread of disease is to practice crop rotation.
Oh, and the last end of tomato growing season chore may be to harvest and save seeds from your heirlooms. However, be aware that saved seeds may not grow true; they may not resemble this year’s plant at all due to cross pollination.