Expand Your Tomato Eating Season: Creative Preservation Tips

I’ve had an organic, backyard vegetable garden for over 35 summers, and tomatoes have been in every one. Having a glut of tomatoes as the weather turns cool means taking action. I once brought a potted tomato plant inside when the weather turned cold as an experiment. It survived, but there was no growth. I eventually harvested the fruit, which tasted good, but this is little but an inefficient way of storage. How long the plant will last, I don’t know, but our days are too short to grow tomatoes in winter.

There’s a big taste difference between store-bought tomatoes and locally-grown. Realizing I couldn’t grow tomatoes in pots next to my slider door in winter, and without a greenhouse to extend the two or so month window that Spokane’s climate allows, I strive to expand my tomato-eating season with creative tomato preservation.

Like other gardeners, I use old blankets topped with a tarp or plastic sheeting to cover plants whenever below freezing temps are forecast. I typically have 12 to 16 plants, and I used to cover them all. It was a headache. These days, I choose just two or three in the sunniest location that still have lots of fruit. I pick the other plants clean on the latest date possible, separate red fruit from green and put in trays in my basement. I’ve picked tomatoes into the second week of November. Though cool temps diminish taste and cause black spots to sometimes form on the skin, which I have to cut off, they’re still better than store-bought.

I freeze bags of 12-15 summer tomatoes and, in winter, boil them down to make sauce, adding garlic, onions and other garden vegetables I’ve frozen, which takes a couple hours. I used to boil down several dozen and freeze the sauce. This was convenient for making quick, multiple, spaghetti meals, but boiling down so many tomatoes at once was time consuming, and I gave up this laborious task a few years ago.

I also freeze a bunch of bags containing just two or three tomatoes and add to any dish that benefits from ripe, summer tomato flavoring.

I also dry tomatoes using a dehydrator. It’s somewhat time-consuming, but the dried slices pile up quickly and are so sweet and tasty. Whenever I pull them out, usually adding to pasta, I eat a bunch as if they were potato chips.

I continually fetch the fresh ones I keep in the basement, which can number well over a hundred. As the red ones get eaten, the cool basement delays ripening, and the green ones slowly turn red, lasting into February. I occasionally pull out bad ones—it’s inevitable losing a few. Formerly green tomatoes eaten fresh in the middle of winter don’t compare to summer tomatoes, but they still have taste that beats store-bought.

By protecting plants from frost when planting in April, I get ripe tomatoes by July. By storing in the basement, I’m able to eat fresh tomatoes seven months out of the year. Like that character famous for eating lots of cookies, my tomato eating entitles me the moniker, Tomato Monster. //

Though James P. Johnson really likes homegrown tomatoes, he appreciates and buys commercially grown when his supply runs out.

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