After a scorching-hot summer in Montana—literally, with more than 1 million acres burned—fall has come on fast and furious, with a chance of snow at my house this morning. The quick downshift from summer to practically winter instantly affected the garden. Overnight, cucumbers and snap beans stopped growing, apples began falling, and large leaves of self-seeded spinach reappeared in my overgrown and ignored spring cold frame.
Within the hoop house, plants are weathering the weather better, but it won’t be long before I’m forced to admit the final round of peppers and tomatillos won’t grow larger and the remaining tomatoes won’t turn red on the vine. Fortunately, unripened produce can still land in the kitchen instead of the compost. With the right timing, you can enjoy every last late-season vegetable.
As the garden slows in fall, I focus on three things: digging and storing root vegetables, snagging late-season vegetables before they are nipped by frost, and ripening what I can indoors.
Dig It, Store It
Winter feels like it may arrive early this year in Montana, and I’m traveling most of October, so we’ve been gathering and storing fall fruits and vegetables earlier than last year. I’ve already wrapped and boxed apples, pulled and dried onions, filled ice chests with potatoes, and tucked beets and carrots into sand. You’ll find more on these storage techniques here.
Even if you didn’t grow large quantities of storage veg, you can put these techniques to use. Check with your local farmer’s market and community-supported agriculture (CSA) farmer: many will be offering stock-up sales and bulk pricing for late season produce that you can put aside for winter.
Fight the Frost
If you grow your own fruit and veg, two key dates should be on your garden calendar in or your canning journal: the average last and first frost dates in your area. As we plan the season, most of us gardeners are good about noting when the weather will remain warm enough that particular plants can survive on their own outdoors. But we tend to forget about keeping an eye on when the first frost of fall is likely to put an unwelcome sparkle on those plants.
Like all weather forecasts, first frost dates are just estimates. But they let you know when to start paying attention to the expected nighttime lows. In my corner of Montana, these can be quite surprising: this year, we saw a high of 84°F and a low of 36°F on September 12, and 4 days later we had our first predicted frost—right on schedule.
Many of the root vegetables that you will dig and store are well protected by the soil until the ground becomes soggy and freezes. Heat-loving plants are another story. If you’re using cold frames, hoop houses, frost blankets, or even hastily slung tarps as protection, melons, peppers, snap beans, cucumbers, tomatillos, eggplant, tomatoes, and more may survive early, unsustained cold snaps. But if in doubt, your best practice is to pull the produce indoors. Frost-bitten vegetables brown and spoil more quickly, because freezing activates enzymes that break down their cells.
If you time it right, you’ll have plenty of fresh melons and peppers to eat, final rounds of beans and cucumbers to pickle, eggplant to puree and freeze, and tomatillos to grill and process. Chances are, you’ll also have boxes of hard green tomatoes. Although it’s easy to despair over these unripened gems, it’s just as easy to turn them from emerald to ruby:
- Sort them. Start by sorting through the boxes and throwing out any that are already frost bitten or damaged and spoiled. The spoilage will only spread to the rest of the box, so these tomatoes are best for feeding your compost.
- Spread them out. Even in my 500-square-foot house, it’s possible to find a place for a couple of large, shallow boxes of tomatoes. It’s almost best that I’m forced to trip over them regularly; doing so ensures I keep an eye out for ones ready to be used and those that won’t improve with time. If you have space in a garage or other area you don’t mind dirtying, pull up whole cherry tomato plants by their roots, bring them as is indoors, and hang them upside down; these little treasures will continue to ripen on the vine.
- Wait for them. It takes longer than you’d wish for tomatoes to ripen indoors, so be patient. Tricks such as supplementing the box with overripe apples or bananas, which release ethylene gas, may help, but I tend to have the best results when I don’t try to speed up the process.
- Grab and use them. Check your hanging plants and boxes regularly, and pull out those that are ready before they have a chance to overripen and soften. They’ll be delicious in 30-Minute Cherry Tomato Soup, ready to grill and turn into Grilled Tomato Chipotle Salsa and Grilled Tomato Bloody Mary Mix, and even give you a final taste of summer in Panzanella.
Twice as Tasty
Of course, all of your late tomatoes won’t ripen—and that’s not a bad thing. Green tomatoes are delicious and can be eaten and even preserved in far more ways than you can imagine. This month, I’ll share some of my favorite green tomato and other end-of-season recipes. You’ll be tempted to pull green tomatoes off the vine for fried green tomatoes and fresh salsa long before the weather turns. Once your ripening boxes are full, green tomatoes that won’t fit are perfect for pickles and chutney. Fall also inspires recipes that use other late-season vegetables, such as cabbage and potatoes. All this and more will be on Twice as Tasty this month. See you next week!
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