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Growing a Tomato that Stores Well into Winter

December 30, 2009

Do you dream of finding a great winter storage tomato to grow in your home garden? If you’re anything like me, you pine for a good, garden-fresh, ripe tomato in the mid-winter months. Sure, hothouse tomatoes have come a long way in recent years, and those sold “on-the-vine” at the grocery store can provide the illusion of garden-fresh.

Late December Long Keeper Tomatoes

Late December Long Keeper Tomatoes

But really, they just aren’t the same. We may be able to bruise the stem and capture a brief whiff of that summery tomato plant scent, but when we slice the waxy red fruit, it never quite lives up to our expectations (and the high price). Plus, my inner locavore really wonders how much these grocery tomatoes really cost in fuel production and transport. So, I look to myself to solve the problem.

In my on-going quest to produce a homegrown tomato for winter, I grew indoor Red Robin cherry tomatoes in my dining room in 2008, with mixed success. And, in 2009 I decided to try Irish Eyes’ Long Keeper in the garden. And, this was definitely a success. Making a few modifications to my regime last year, I’ll definitely be growing this winner again. Here’s the story…

The Long Keeper tomato is an indeterminate (that in my experience performed in pots more like a determinate). It is sold as 82 days to ripening (more on that later). Although the catalogs warn that you may give up a bit in taste, your return on this crop lies in it’s ability to store for a long time — some suggest even all the way through winter.  And, frankly, in mid-winter any store-bought tomato is going to be lacking in taste, spendy and likely a very long-distance traveler from a greenhouse. So, hoping to prove the promises of keeping this tomato into winter, I added it to my seed order last January.

Because I grew several other varieties of tomato to enjoy during the summer and because the Long Keeper was intended as a fresh-storage tomato for us, I scheduled seeding it much later than my other tomatoes. My summer tomatoes were seeded indoors in early March; my Long Keepers were seeded in the greenhouse (unheated and without supplemental light) in late May. In theory, on an 82 day schedule, this would have me harvesting Long Keepers by about the middle of August.

In the end, I found myself harvesting slightly-blushed Long Keeper fruits starting in early October and through the weeks of that month — not the 82 days advertised, but still within the growing season. (And, I have to wonder, is it 82 days from flowering rather than seeding that I should have counted?) By mid-September, I had moved the potted plants from breezy spots throughout the garden into the unheated greenhouse where they were protected from cool temperatures and seasonal rains. Although the fruits didn’t fully ripen on the vine, I went ahead and harvested as a few of them showed a bit of color, knowing they were reputed to finish ripening, slowly in storage. Then, toward the end of October, when I found a couple of fruits splitting from colder night temps, I cleared the last — green or not — from my vines and began the ripening wait.

Cellared Long Keepers in October After Harvest

Cellared Long Keepers in October After Harvest

To store these tomatoes, I used an empty canning jar box with its jar separators to keep each tomato from touching another. I placed the boxes of tomatoes in my basement cellar area near storage onions, squashes and potatoes — they’re all in separate containers stacked in a particular area, sheeted to keep out any of the mild light that makes its way into that dungeon of a room.

Every few days, I check my storage foods for spoilage. As the saying goes, “One rotten apple can spoil the lot.” A few of my storage tomatoes did crack and begin to fail (and were immediately removed to the compost bin). But, most slowly but surely colored up — even the ones that went into storage hard and only slightly starting to turn a lighter shade of green. I found it important to handle them minimally but be sure to rotate their position periodically; the portion touching the cardboard tended to ripen the fastest, so sometimes a fruit that appeared unripe from the top view was actually ready to eat based on the ripened bottom. As I anticipate wanting a tomato or as the cellared gems begin to really blush, I bring them up to the kitchen and place them in a bowl in a warm window where they finish their ripening a little more quickly. (I would not recommend trying to store or rapidly-ripen off these tomatoes all in a window; they can go to rot pretty quickly this way.) Then, I enjoy them, fresh sliced in a salad or on a sandwich. Note: I find that few of them finished ripening near the stem. In some cases it remains yellow but still tasty near the stem. In other cases, I simply tossed that part into the worm bin; they’re always happy to have the fresh snack even if it doesn’t taste good to me.

Yes, the flavor isn’t as magnificent as a Gold Nugget cherry off the vine on the 4th of July. But, in winter, I’m just happy to be able to enjoy a fresh tomato I grew, from seed, in my own backyard. That’s about as locavore as I can get at the end of the year. Sure, I’m making soups and stews with frozen garden tomatoes and sauces and antipastos with dried, but there’s nothing like a fresh one to really brighten up a wintery day.

Long Keeper Sliced into a Late December Salad

Long Keeper Sliced into a Late December Salad

So here’s the thing, I’m still kind of in awe that we were able to enjoy a green salad last night with tomatoes from our garden. And, nope, that wasn’t our last tomato. We still have a few continuing to slowly ripen in the cellar. My guess? They’ll all be done by February, which is well before my tomato harvest will begin again for 2010, but hey, I’m still jealous of myself for having them now!

So, what will I do differently in 2010? First, I’ll definitely seed my Long Keepers in late April as well as later in May. Unlike in 2009, I won’t be traveling in early May this year, so seeding at that time will be possible. And, I’ll grow at least one plant in the ground (as well as in pots again) so I can see how indeterminately it will grow (and how well it might perform in-ground, under hoops in late summer). Oh, and this year I’ll also order Long Keeper Organic seed, which wasn’t offered in 2009, but is now listed in the Irish-Eyes Catalog.

Need help planning your vegetable garden for 2010? Get in touch with Garden Mentors soon for a garden coaching or design program that will help you get your gardening going. Now is the time to start planning. Winter is the time to get your beds ready, test your soil, and order and plant your seeds. Don’t wait ’til Spring to start or you may already be too late!

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