Q. My tomatoes are ripening much later this year compared to last year. What happens if we receive an early frost?
A. The early cool wet weather we received this spring resulted in later planting and development of many vegetables.
Tomatoes can handle a bit of frost. But as long as there is any color change on the tomato fruit, they can be ripened indoors. The fruit can be placed in a warm place in the home where they will eventually ripen.
Some folks even pull the entire plant out of the ground if there is danger of imminent hard frost or freeze. They hang the plant in a garage until they ripen.
Small amounts of tomatoes can be placed in an open paper bag with a few pieces of apple. The ethylene gas given off by the apples will help the tomatoes finish ripening.
Root crops such as beets or carrots store best right in the ground where they are grown. Postpone harvesting as long as possible by hilling soil and straw over the shoulders of carrots and beets to protect from freezing. We always leave our carrots in our raised beds mulched deeply. The carrots can be harvested for most of the winter. The cold just makes the carrots sweeter.
Kale and Chinese cabbage can also be left in the garden long after the first fall frost. Harvest as needed until the foliage finally succumbs to cold weather.
Harvest onions soon after the tops fall over. Pull the onions, remove the tops, and cure the onions in mesh bags or crates where they have good air circulation until the necks dry down. When they rustle upon handling, they are ready to move to a cool, dry storage area.
Do not harvest winter squash and pumpkins until the vines are frost-killed and the skin is hard to the touch. Most experts recommend curing these warm-season vegetables outdoors for three to five days and then placing them in longer-term storage.
Potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, rutabagas, winter radishes, kohlrabi and parsnips adapt well to home storage. This group stores best at near freezing with a high relative humidity. One can also place root crops in bins filled with moist sand or vermiculite.
Store onions near freezing but with a low relative humidity to discourage neck rot.
Pumpkins and winter squash store longer at 50 degrees to 60 degrees and a low relative humidity.
Always discard any immature, damaged or diseased vegetables.
In the olden days, the root cellar under the house was the most popular means for storing vegetables before the days of central heating. Nowadays, a cold basement or even an unheated garage can also work. The optimal temperature in the basement or garage should be between 33 degrees and 45 degrees.
A wonderful reference for learning more about home storage of vegetables is Root Cellaring by Mike and Nancy Bubel. Information about canning, freezing and storage of vegetables is also available at your local County Extension office.