Way back in Spring, when the first few seeds were sprouting in the propagators on our spare-room window-sill, someone on Twitter encouraged me to blog about my gardening efforts.
It seemed like a good idea, but my attempts failed at the first hurdle, when I realised that the only camera I had available just wasn’t going to cut it for close-up pictures of seedlings and hoped-for fruit. Luckily, this summer was such a bloody awful one for growing fruit and veg round these parts that none of us missed much as a result of me failing to pull together any sort of blogging discipline.
It wasn’t a complete disaster. We got quite a few courgettes out of the vegetable patch, and a lot of fresh basil – the source of my only real achieved growing goal this year, because I wanted to make fully home-grown pesto, although I still had to go elsewhere for pine-nuts. Where the hell do pine-nuts grow, anyway, Narnia?
Potatoes and carrots earlier in the season did well, too, but as usual I timed things badly and we got them all at once, and the truth is we probably don’t eat enough carrots to make the haul we got worthwhile. We ate the four small cobs of sweetcorn with our lunch this week, and as tasty as they were it was a bit depressing that that’s all we managed to grow. The peas were disappointing.
Our broccoli got totally wiped out by caterpillars – the leggy terrorist bastards – and despite early signs that we might get a lot of peppers – sweet and chilli – a lot of fruit early on grew to a decent size and then just sat there, failing to ripen.
Most depressing were the tomatoes. After deciding early on that I wouldn’t be going as crazy with tomatoes this year as I did in 2011, an impulse buy of a pack of six varieties of tomatoes I’d never seen before meant that decision went out the window soon after I made it. Yellow tomatoes, though! Orange tomatoes! Why wouldn’t I want to grow those?
In the end more than twenty viable tomato plants went into the vegetable patch – two each of the peculiar varieties, and a few standard and cherry plants. After a promising start inside the house, the plants took a while to take hold in the dry and cool early summer, but eventually fruit appeared and it looked like we’d have another late season on our hands. We found and used a few green tomato recipes last year, but a late flurry of ripening meant we eventually did pretty well.
I had high hopes, and my inability to throw anything away meant we had a bunch of pepper and tomato plants in planters scattered around the garden too.
Then a few weeks back we had a sharply cold, wet weekend, and overnight I lost all but two of the tomato plants in the vegetable patch to blight. Some of them hung on for a week or so – a mathematical approximation of “hope that it might not spread if I worked hard” – but basically the tomatoes were buggered. Lucky that I’d had a few in the more protected planters, but even so, we only got a handful of lovely small yellow fruit before it got too cool for even them.
Last year, I had a little luck with ripening off tomatoes indoors at the end of the season, but it’s a tough decision to make, because once you decide it’s time to do it, you’re basically admitting that no more growing is going to happen outdoors, and essentially the season is finished. It’s also a hard call because it’s a gamble – the plants will always do better outside rooted in soil if conditions are even remotely favourable. You’re unlikely to get extra growth by pulling plants inside; you just get nicer colour from the fruit you manage to salvage.
Once it starts getting cold enough at night indoors that you need to double duvet, though, you just have to make the call. Autumn in the South of England will always throw you a few glorious sunny days, when out of the shade the sun on your neck feels like summer, but to a gardener those days are a vicious lie.
So on Sunday I pulled up our garden. The basil is still out in the greenhouse, and I’m going to leave the courgettes to their own devices because we might get a few more small ones. There’s also one final broccoli plant that I’d planted out near the courgettes as a kind of joke at my own expense, expecting it to die, but I’ll leave that to hang on because the caterpillars don’t seem to have found it yet. But everything else has been yanked up.
This meant a lot of tomatoes and peppers that either need to be eaten green, or that I need to ripen off inside. As I mentioned I had a bit of luck with this last year, but one of the problems with the posh tomato varieties is I have no idea what constitutes a normal size for them, and so can’t make a decent guess at which fruit are actually likely to ripen.
And I’ve never grown peppers before. They seem oddly alien to me, and I’ve no idea how to get them to bloom.
There are a few different techniques the internet suggests, and I failed to take any notes on what I did last year, so I had to pick through the Google results again this year. The two most popular ones are:
- Leave the fruit attached to as much of the plant as possible, and hang somewhere light and warm.
- Put the fruit in a paper bag and keep them in the airing cupboard, preferably with a ripe banana or apple in there.
The former seems to be an attempt to try and eke as much out of the departing summer’s sun as possible, whereas the latter is a way of keeping the fruit dry, while also cycling any ethylene created by ripening fruit through the bunch, which encourages the rest of the fruit to follow suit.
I had a lot of fruit in different states of growth or blight, so I tried a couple of different methods.
I had a few plants that had a lot of tomatoes or peppers that I didn’t think were quite ready to ripen, or where I still had a lot of undamaged stem attached. In these cases, I got it into my head that they might benefit from a little more food. I filled a couple of jars and a bottle with water, and put in a decent dose of tomato food, and arranged the fruit like flowers, keeping as much of the stems and where possible some leaves as I did.
There’s absolutely no science – that I know about – behind this. It just made sense to me that it might be beneficial to let the “plants” have a little more water and sun. At least, it probably couldn’t hurt – as long as I kept an eye out for mold – and if I didn’t do this I’d probably end up throwing the fruit away anyway.
So far, in the short time that these have been on the shelf in our morning-lit bathroom, you can see that some of the chilli peppers are changing colour already, and at least one of the sweet peppers is clearly starting to turn a bright red. The bigger sweet peppers are confusing, because they shifted from dark to light green a while ago, and have looked like they were ready to eat for a while, but just weren’t going all the way.
The chilli peppers have been that deep green for months, and showed no sign of brightening, except for one solitary fruit that did so months ago. I really wasn’t sure what would happen when I brought those in, but wasn’t expecting a change so quickly. I can already feel the pain when I forget that I’ve just been chopping them and rub my eyes in a week or so.
So the window-sill method certainly doesn’t seem to hurt. Those fruit may have been about to change anyway, but dipping them in water didn’t stop them, and after a couple of weeks of losing a plant-full of tomatoes a day, the fact that the tomatoes I’m keeping this way didn’t deteriorate makes me happy.
With the loose fruit, I opted for the more traditional method of a paper bag in the airing cupboard. However, I didn’t have a paper bag – I don’t know who keeps a store of them in their kitchen, to be honest – so I used sealed plastic tubs with a layer of paper towel underneath and on top of the fruit.
The only preparation you need to do in this method is make sure your fruit are clean, and if you have to wash anything off them, make sure they’re fully dry. If any of them have really long stalks attached, you should clip those shorter, too, because anything that can bruise other fruit will compromise them.
You have to leave enough room for the fruit to breathe a little, so I didn’t fill them up too much, and because there wasn’t room for a banana, I made sure that each tub had at least one pepper or tomato that looked promising.
The photo shows the pros and cons of this method, and also my biggest error. In the top tub some of the fruit has already ripened nicely – that pepper wasn’t that colour when it went in. However, the bottom tub showed how much of an issue moisture can be – you may need to look at the full-size version to see how much condensation there is.
The fruit sweating is an issue, but I didn’t help matters by leaving the ends clear of paper. I didn’t think it’d be a problem, because I assumed that light was the biggest issue, but in the bottom tub a quick check showed that where the fruit were sweating, and too close to the edge and each other, a few tomatoes had gone to mold and blight. Again, maybe they always would have, but in case not, I replaced the kitchen towel and this time made sure each end was covered up, too.
So, anyway, that’s where we are with our tomatoes and peppers. Most sources say that it can take a couple of weeks to see real results from ripening indoors, so early signs are pretty positive. It’d be nice to close the season out with some good news and productive gardening, in time for all the grunt work of late autumn.