Q: This summer, my tomatoes have stayed green and don’t seem to be ripening. What’s going on?

Answers: Most likely, your green tomatoes are the result of the hot days and nights we have experienced since July. According to Rosie Lerner, an extension specialist for horticulture at Purdue University, “Tomato fruits go through several stages of development during their maturation process. During early stages, the fruit continues to grow in size and remains green, typically requiring 40 to 50 days. Once the fruit has reached full size (called “mature green”), changes in pigment begin to take place, causing the green to fade to light green then to the appropriate pigments for that particular cultivar, be it red, pink, yellow or orange.

“Ripening and color development in tomatoes is governed primarily by two factors: temperature and the presence of a naturally occurring hormone called ‘ethylene.’

“The optimum temperature range for ripening mature green tomatoes is 68 to 77 degrees. The further temperatures stray from the optimum, the slower the ripening process will be. And, when temperatures are outside the optimum range for extended periods, conditions may become so stressful that the ripening process virtually halts.

“At the same time, tomatoes do not produce lycopene and carotene, the pigments responsible for ripe tomato color, when temperatures are above 85 degrees. So, extended periods of extreme heat cause tomatoes to stop ripening. The resulting fruits often appear yellowish green to yellowish orange.”

You might consider using an organic mulch to cool the soil temperatures and to help protect soil moisture. Make sure that your garden is well watered early in the morning so that plants have enough water to face to the hot dog days of summer.

Q: How difficult is composting? I need to prepare for the onslaught of falling leaves! Can you share some easy steps to successful composting?

Answers: Composting can be as much or as little work as you want to make it. The more effort you put into it, the faster you will have finished compost. A “hot pile” can reach temperatures of 140 degrees at its center. It decomposes faster because the pile has the optimum mixture of materials, moisture and air. These conditions attract the most efficient microbes to do the work of breaking down organic materials into compost. A “cold pile” takes little effort and will also produce compost in the end but will take more time.

Here are some steps:

1. Is a container needed? There are a few ways you can go. One is to not have a container at all. Many people compost in a heap in a corner of their yard. Because composting is a natural process, there is no need for any kind of structure. Some people choose to use plastic containers or wooden bins. Benefits of containers would be retaining moisture, containing odors and keeping animals out.

2. Where to compost? Try to find a spot on bare ground that gets a fair amount of shade so your pile does not dry out by the hot sun in the summer months. Keep the compost pile far enough away from your back door so it is not in the way of everyday activities. But do try to keep it close enough so that it is not a long trek with kitchen waste especially in the cold winter months.

3. Build your compost pile. To create the ideal conditions for your compost pile, layer equal amounts (or mix) of high nitrogen (green) and high-carbon material (dry and woody) together. A pile with too many greens may generate odors temporarily and a pile with more browns will still turn into compost but will take longer. Bury food scraps under browns such as leaves to avoid odor and possible pests digging. The easiest way to do this is to keep a bag of browns (leaves) nearby so you can throw some of them on when you add the new greens.

4. Add air and water. The micro-organisms in a compost pile need air and water to work efficiently. To make sure that air can penetrate to the center of your pike, it shouldn’t be larger than 5 feet high by 5 feet wide. Adding coarse materials on the bottom can help with air circulation, too. You can accelerate the process by turning your pile with a pitchfork or shovel or special compost turning tool. Your pile should be damp — sort of like a wrung-out sponge. You may want to water periodically during a dry spell or after adding lots of brown materials, such as dried leaves, straw, or cardboard.

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Mary Jac Brennan is the agent for fruit and vegetable horticulture for small farms and local food for the Forsyth Cooperative Extension. Contact Mary Jac about commercial production, local foods, and sustainable agriculture questions. For information on home and gardening issues, contact the Forsyth Cooperative Extension office at maryjac_brennan@ncsu.edu or call 336-703-2850.

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