Garden Q and A: Ripening Green Tomatoes, Peppers, and Avoiding Over-Tilling

This weekend a reader emailed me a few questions she had about my post 5 Fall Things To Do to Prepare the Vegetable Garden for Spring.  I thought that other gardeners may be interested in hearing the answers to those questions as well so for today we'll begin an intermittent series of garden questions and answers!  Feel free to chime in your recommendations or observations in the comments.

Question: Should I harvest all my tomatoes while they are green so they will not be ruined by the frost?

Answer:  You can harvest them before and after a light frost.  Frost can damage the tomatoes themselves so avoid any that may be damaged.  Ideally you should pick them before a frost but you can still use any undamaged tomatoes you find after a frost has hit your garden.  Small and very immature tomatoes may not ripen up at all when brought indoors but you can always make other delicious things with them like fried green tomatoes or green tomato salsa!

Question: Can you ripen tomatoes with a  brown paper bag?

Answer: Yes you can!  Paper bags can be used to ripen tomatoes. Cardboard boxes left open also work well.  Ripening is triggered by a gas called ethylene. Sticking another ripened fruit nearby the tomatoes like an apple will also help to trigger ripening.

Question: I have a number of pepper plants that were supposed to be red, orange, yellow but only one plant has the peppers changing color. Should I leave them on the plant or remove them and store them somewhere to change color?

Answer:  With frosts coming (and cooler temperatures) it is unlikely that leaving the peppers on the plant will encourage them to ripen up to their colors.  Try the tomato ripening techniques above to get those peppers to ripen.

Question: This was my second year of gardening and both years I used a rototiller prior to planting. Your latest post seemed to suggest that maybe I should skip that step next spring, is that correct?

Answer: Sometimes your garden soil does not need tilling.  Tilling is a great technique to use when incorporating organic matter like a cover crop into the soil but over tilling can actually damage the soil structure.  You want a soil structure that holds water and drains well and provides a healthy environment for soil organisms.  Over tilling will break the soil into fine particles which then hold together and make a soil structure closer to brick than soil!  That being said, a once a year annual tilling at the beginning of the season probably will be fine - just make sure you are adding something beneficial into the soil to improve its structure.  Compost, leaf mold, grass clippings, soil conditioner and other organic additives will help the soil become exactly what you want it to be - a living community of beneficial organisms!

Question: Is there any benefit or negative outcome of just leaving all the plants in the garden where they are to decompose on their own?

Answer:  Yes and no.  If your plants are diseased then leaving them in the soil will allow soil based pathogens to gain a greater hold on that location in your garden.  I highly recommend removing all diseased plants from the garden.  For other plants that were otherwise healthy there really isn't an issue with allowing them to decompose in the soil.  One potential benefit to leaving your plants alone at the end of the season is the gradual decomposition of the root systems.  Dying plants with decaying roots will gradually create openings for water and air to enter the soil which is good for that aforementioned community of beneficial organisms.  This is one reason why cover crops are used to great effect.

What do you think?  Do you have any tried and true techniques to ripen your green tomatoes or peppers?

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