You’ve worked hard to grow and nurture your tomato plants, but their production seems to be petering off at the end of the season. If you want fresh tomatoes at Labor Day BBQs and autumn festivities, there are several ways to extend your tomato season.
As an organic farmer, I invested a ton of money and labor into my tomato plants, so I need them to last as long as possible. Proper variety selection, staggered plantings, and wise pruning are just a few of the ways you can maximize your tomato plant yields over an extended time period. Use these nine tricks to enjoy as many vine-ripened fruits as possible through late summer and fall.
How Do I Keep My Tomatoes Producing All Summer?
You can ensure a consistent supply of fresh heirloom tomatoes with careful planning and attentive care.
The keys to an extended tomato season are proper variety selection, succession sowing, regular pruning, and thoughtful irrigation. The right planning and care can keep your tomato plants producing throughout the summer, so you are never without a fresh heirloom for your sandwiches or a juicy cherry tomato for your salad.
Use these strategies to extend your harvest all the way to the first frost:
Unlike determinate tomatoes, these tomatoes produce until frost.
Succession sowing helps stagger and lengthen your harvests.
Remove suckers that take energy away from fruit production.
Too much water during the fruiting phase dilutes flavor and slows ripening.
Too much nitrogen can cause an excess of foliage and less fruit.
Late-season pests and blight can prematurely halt harvests.
If possible, use a cold frame or row fabric to keep tomatoes cozy when temperatures dip below 55°F.
9 Ways to Extend Your Tomato Harvest
Tomatoes are one of the most high-maintenance plants in the garden, so you want to make your efforts worthwhile. As long as they are healthy, plants should eagerly produce vine-ripened fruits for as long as the weather allows. Use these tricks to grow tomatoes like a pro all season long.
1. Choose Indeterminate Varieties
Indeterminates continuously produce flowers and fruit without predetermined growth limits.
Indeterminate tomatoes, also called vining or pole varieties, naturally produce a continuous supply of new flowers and fruits. Indeterminate means their height or growth is not predetermined. The tallest tomato plant on record grew over 65 feet tall in the UK! It was clearly an indeterminate variety.
They grow foliage and fruit for as long as the weather stays between 60°F and 95°F. Colder and hotter temperatures can trigger flower drop, but plants often recuperate and start producing again when favorable conditions return.
In tropical climates, indeterminates are perennials that yield tomatoes year-round. The only thing stopping these plants in temperate climates is cold weather.
In contrast, determinate or bush varieties tend to set fruit all at once. In other words, their height and production are predetermined by their genetics. Once the day length shifts, their foliage growth slows, and they channel all their energy into a big flush of fruit production. This is great if you need a large harvest of sauce tomatoes for canning, but it’s not ideal for an extended harvest season.
Some of our favorite long-season indeterminate cultivars are:
- ‘Sun Gold’: Arguably the tastiest cherry tomato, these plants are prolific producers.
- ‘Cherokee Purple’: This classic heirloom eagerly produces dark burgundy fruits all summer.
- ‘Better Boy’: These classic, flavorful tomatoes reliably produce throughout the season.
- ‘Beefsteak’: These massive, dense tomatoes will keep growing until frost.
- ‘Early Girl’: Though considered an early-season variety, this indeterminate yields into fall.
When in doubt, search your seed packet or catalog for clues like “vining,” “pole,” or “indeterminate.” For an extended tomato season, avoid cultivars labeled as “bush” or “determinate.”
2. Provide Sturdy Support
For extended harvesting, you must provide sturdy support for your tomato plants.
If you plan to pick tomatoes for months, your plants will need reliable support. Trellising encourages upward growth to keep fruits off the ground. Moreover, they ensure that your vines don’t snap or bend from the weight of all those heavy fruits.
Indeterminate vines do best when trained up a strong T-post pole, cattle panel, or A-frame structure. Use twine or plastic trellis clips to secure the vines and train them to grow in your desired direction. Sometimes, a heavy cluster of fruit needs added support, like a mesh bag, to hold them up while they ripen.
A sturdy trellis can reduce your spacing needs for prolific tomato plants, but it is still crucial to provide at least 18” between plants so they can continuously produce without feeling overcrowded.
3. Practice Succession Planting
This method involves strategically timing your seed sowing to ensure a consistent yield of crops.
Succession planting is the science and art of staggering your seeding dates to yield continuous harvests. In zones eight and warmer, an extended tomato season may warrant 2-3 successions of tomatoes separated by 3-4 week intervals. In early spring, you can start your first round of tomato seedlings, then wait about a month to sow another round.
This creates a bit of an “insurance policy” because as the first planting matures and fruits, you have another round of plants ready to account for any losses. As your spring planting of tomatoes fades in late summer, the later plantings can buffer your harvests with more autumn fruits.
Commercial growers use succession sowing to harvest a continuous supply of any crop. Even though a single planting of indeterminate tomatoes can yield all season long, some plants get infested by pests or diseases or get worn out. The younger, later planting is ready to fill any gaps in your harvest window.
For the best success, ensure the later successions are quicker-maturing varieties with fewer days to maturity. In colder climates, you may only have enough time for two succession plantings separated by 2-3 weeks.
4. Cut Back on Watering and Fertilizing
Farmers reduce watering before harvest to intensify tomato sugars and flavors, boosting the concentration of taste.
It may seem counterintuitive, but too much irrigation or fertilizer at the end of summer can stall fruit ripening and cause watered-down tomato flavor. Excessive nitrogen can cause more lush foliage growth at the expense of fruit production.
Many farmers also cut back on water before tomato harvests to ensure the fruits have concentrated sugars and flavor profiles. This also prevents fruits from cracking, which can be problematic if you overwater.
Moreover, autumn brings rainier weather in many climates. As you near fall, reduce your supplemental watering to once or twice a week. Always check the soil before irrigating. If it is slightly damp in the upper inches, leave the plants for another few days so they can focus their energy on ripening existing fruit.
Remember, consistent moisture is crucial for happy tomato plants. In fact, huge fluctuations in soil moisture (from extremely dry to extremely wet) are the primary cause of blossom end rot, which causes nasty rotten tomato “butts.” This trick only applies to the latter half of the season when you want to encourage the ripening of tomatoes already on the vine.
5. Ensure Proper Pollination
Encourage pollination and enhance fruit production in tomato flowers by ensuring that pollen reaches the female pistil.
Prolonging your harvests means more flowers need to turn into fruit. This can’t happen if your flowers are falling off the plant and/or failing to pollinate.
Tomatoes are primarily pollinated by wind and bees. If your plants are growing in an area without much airflow or pollinators, you may need to hand-pollinate to secure the longest possible harvests. This is particularly important when extending your tomato season. Late-season storms can cause pollen to become too sticky or waterlogged to travel inside the flower properly.
Every flower has the potential to turn into a fruit as long as the pollen reaches the female pistil inside each flower. Because tomato flowers are “perfect” (containing both male and female parts), they can pollinate themselves as long as there is some motion. You can shake the plant or gently vibrate an electric toothbrush on the back of the flowers to encourage pollination and a greater fruit set.
6. Harvest Regularly and Remove Damaged Fruit
Don’t leave damaged fruits in your beds to rot, as they can attract future infestations.
Fruit left on the vine for too long sucks energy away from the plant. Instead of devoting resources toward developing new fruit, the tomato plant will try to funnel its energy toward seed production inside an overripe fruit.
Harvest them as soon as your tomatoes turn the desired color (blush pink, dark purple, bright orange, or vibrant red, depending on the variety). I typically check my tomato plants for ripe tomatoes every 2-3 days.
Any time you spot a damaged, rotten, or overripe tomato, remove it ASAP. If it’s not diseased, compost it or feed it to your chickens. If there are any signs of pests or diseases, throw them in the trash. Avoid leaving leftover fruits to rot in your beds, as they can become a harbor for future infestations.
7. Prune Wisely
To prevent disease problems, remove the pruned parts from the plant bed entirely.
Pruning is crucial for healthy, long-lasting tomatoes. Of course, an unpruned plant will grow wild and yield plenty of fruits, but it is unlikely to last until autumn. Don’t skimp on pruning if you want to maximize tomato production, particularly in a small space!
Most indeterminate varieties do best with a single or double-leader setup. This means you choose a central vine (or two) and remove all lateral branches. These lateral stems (“suckers”) tend to suck the energy away from fruit production in an attempt to ramble far and wide. We are clearly growing tomatoes for the fruit rather than the vines, so removing these suckers can make a world of difference.
Use sharp, sanitized pruners to cut suckers in the “elbow ditch” where the side vines intersect with the main one. Always clean up trimmings to prevent disease issues. At the end of the season, you may remove any lower leaves that are starting to wither or die. However, the plant still needs its foliage to photosynthesize, so avoid pruning more than two-thirds of its leaves at any given time.
8. Keep Plants Warm
The simplest approach involves placing row covers or frost blankets over mature plants.
Tomatoes stop ripening at around 55°F and drop flowers when temperatures reach 50°F or lower. If the nights start to cool and you still have lots of unripe fruit or flowers on your plants, you can employ season extension techniques to create a microclimate of warmth.
Row cover or frost blankets are the easiest to drape over large, mature plants. After all, bees no longer need to reach them for pollination. Secure row fabrics with clamps or sandbags around the edges, and be sure they aren’t so tight that they damage the vines or dangling clusters.
If you are fortunate enough to have a greenhouse, low tunnel, or large cold frame, secure it during the afternoon to capture as much solar heat as possible. This can help ripen straggler tomatoes and even encourage a few more flowers to fruit.
When growing in pots, move your tomatoes indoors at night and put them back on a sunny porch in the morning. This can prolong your harvest for at least a couple of weeks in the chilly autumn.
A dense layer of mulch at the base of plants can protect the roots from chilly nights and give you an extra week or so of production.
9. Pull the Partially Red Tomatoes
These partially red, pink, or orange tomatoes have a higher chance of ripening in the cold than fully green ones.
When frost is inevitably on the horizon, you can harvest partially ripe fruits as a last resort. While vine-ripened tomatoes have superior flavor and texture, partially red (or pink or orange) fruits will have a better chance at ripening in the cold than their fully green counterparts. Harvesting the partially ripe tomatoes signals the plant to ripen the remaining green fruits if the weather permits.
To ripen tomatoes indoors, place them in a paper bag or cardboard box on your countertop. Keeping a bunch of bananas nearby encourages ethylene production, a plant hormone that promotes ripening.
The flavor may not be as great as vine-ripened fruits, but it is certainly better than the grocery store! You can always make salsa verde or fried green tomatoes as a last resort!
Enjoy the longest tomato season possible by planting indeterminate, long-season varieties, regular pruning, and consistent harvesting throughout the summer. Practice succession sowing to stagger your plantings and allow for later maturity. When autumn arrives, cut back on water and protect your plants with row cover and mulch to ripen the remaining fruits.