Cherry tomatoes are a sweet garden treat and easy to grow in garden beds or containers. To ensure you enjoy the highest quality harvest, it’s important to know when to pick cherry tomatoes. If you harvest them too early, they’ll be underripe and you’ll miss out on maximum flavor. Wait too long and the thin-skinned fruits may split while still on the plants. Below I’ll share tips on how and when to pick cherry tomatoes for option flavor and quality.
What are cherry tomatoes?
Cherry tomatoes are the candy of the vegetable garden. The plants are reliable and productive, and the versatile fruits come in bright shades of red, orange, yellow, purple, pink, and even green. Cherry tomatoes get their name from the fact that the fruits are about the same shape and size as cherries (and grapes!) with most growing 1 to 1 1/2 inches across. They’re sweeter than large-fruited tomatoes and have a bright, fruity flavor. The bite-sized tomatoes are typically produced on trusses, clusters of small stems, which ripen from the top to the bottom.
A cherry tomato plant can be determinate (bush) or indeterminate (vining), but most varieties offered in seed catalogs are indeterminate and require staking to support their vigorous growth. I use sturdy tomato stakes or tall tomato cages for my vining cherry tomato plants. For pots, hanging baskets, and very small spaces, there are new hybrids with ultra compact plants. These are often called ‘micro tomatoes’.
Why you need to know when to pick cherry tomatoes
Knowing when to pick cherry tomatoes is essential as the bite-sized fruits are best enjoyed when perfectly ripe. If you harvest cherry tomatoes too early, the flavor isn’t fully developed and the fruits still too firm. If you wait too long, the fruits can split. Cherry tomatoes are very susceptible to splitting and once a fruit cracks, it begins to rot. Generally a ripe cherry tomato will fall into your hand with a gentle tug. If you need to pull hard, it’s not ready. There are several clues you can use to determine when it’s time to pick cherry tomatoes. These include days to maturity, fruit size, color, firmness, and flavor. More on all of these below as well as advice on how to harvest and store cherry tomatoes.
When to harvest based on days to maturity
The biggest clue of how long it will take for the harvest to begin is the days to maturity information listed on the seed packet or in the seed catalog. Days to maturity is the average time needed for a vegetable to go from seed or transplanting to harvest. For tomatoes, days to maturity is based on transplanting and begins when you tuck the seedlings in the garden. The days to maturity for most cherry tomato varieties falls somewhere in the 55 to 70 day range.
My favorite variety, Sungold, needs around 57 days of growth from transplanting before the harvest begins. Sunrise Bumblebee, another delicious and productive cherry tomato, needs a bit more time. It will be about 70 days after transplanting before the fruits start to ripen. To harvest based on this strategy you’ll need to know the days to maturity for your chosen variety and start checking the plants for ripe fruits as the date nears.
When to pick cherry tomatoes based on fruit size
As the name cherry tomato implies, the fruits of this popular crop are about the size of a cherry. That said, there are certain varieties with fruits that grow slightly larger. Green Bee is a delicious cherry tomato with fruits that have a diameter of about 1 1/2 inches. A description of the mature size of the fruits should be listed in the seed catalog or on the seed packet. This information is helpful when determining if it’s time to pick your cherry tomatoes.
When to pick cherry tomatoes based on color
Cherry tomatoes ripen from green to their mature color, and depending on the variety, the ripe fruits of cherry tomatoes can be red, orange, yellow, green, purple, pink or black. Color is the best clue that the tomatoes are fully ripe and ready to pick. However, certain varieties have striped or bi-colored fruits, like Sunrise Bumblebee, which adds another layer of confusion when trying to figure out when to pick cherry tomatoes.
If you’re like me, as soon as you start to see a bit of color developing on the small fruits you get anxious to start picking. Especially the first fruits of the season! However, you’ll thank yourself by letting those tomatoes ripen completely. The ripening process allows the sugars in the fruit to develop. That means they’ll taste much better if you just give them a little time to color up.
Use the photo on the seed packet, website, or catalog to help you figure out if the fruits are the right color. It’s easy to tell with red, yellow, pink, and orange fruited tomatoes. It’s be harder to deduce ripe tomatoes when the fruits are black, purple, green, or bi-colored, especially for first-time growers. If you’re not sure, use the other signs of ripeness below, like flavor, to determine if the fruits are ready to pick.
When to pick cherry tomatoes based on firmness
Texture is an important quality in a ripe cherry tomato and when gently squeezed, it should be firm, not hard. It should have a little give but not be mushy. The exception to this is Mochi, a new cherry tomato variety with a chewy, squishy texture that has been compared to a gumdrop.
When to harvest based on flavor
Of all the clues gardeners use to figure out ripeness, I rely on color and flavor the most. Color is a visual cue where flavor is all about the juicy sweetness of a sun-ripened fruit. Yum! Remember that cherry tomatoes ripen from the top of the truss, or cluster, down. So if the top fruits seem to be ripe, pick one and pop it in your mouth. Is it very sweet? Does it have a nice texture? If it tastes good, it’s fully developed and you can go ahead and harvest the other ripe tomatoes. If the fruit is bland or very crunchy, it’s not ready to pick. Be patient and give the tomatoes a little more time to sweeten up.
3 tips to speed up cherry tomato ripening
Like most gardeners I’m always anxious for the first tomatoes of the season and do my best to encourage healthy plant growth. This means selecting the best site possible and giving the plants lots of TLC. Healthy plants not only produce more cherry tomatoes, but they may also ripen sooner. Of course Mother Nature often has other plans in mind and a stretch of cool weather or excessive rain can delay the cherry tomato harvest by a week or two. Keep these three tips in mind when planting tomatoes:
- Light – Growing cherry tomatoes in part shade slows the ripening process. Aim to tuck cherry tomato plants in a site with plenty of sunlight, at least 8 hours of direct light each day.
- Fertile soil – Tomatoes are greedy plants and need a good supply of nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Before planting I amend the soil with aged manure or compost, and add a slow release organic tomato fertilizer.
- Moisture – Drought-stressed tomato vines don’t grow or produce well. It’s therefore important to provide consistent moisture by deep watering when the soil is dry about an inch or two down. Running a soaker hose along the base of the plants makes watering quick and easy.
Want to learn more about when to pick cherry tomatoes? Watch this video:
How to harvest cherry tomatoes
The great thing about growing cherry tomatoes is that the plants provide months – not weeks – of harvests. My season typically runs from late July through early October and I pick every day or two to ensure we eat them at peak ripeness. You can gather a handful for a salad or snacking or grab a harvest basket to collect the fruits. Using a container or basket can reduce damage, particularly if you’re harvesting a lot of tomatoes.
When they’re fully ripe, cherry tomatoes come off the stem with very little pressure. They almost fall off into your hand. Place them carefully in the basket and continue to harvest until you’ve gathered all the ripe fruits.
If there is heavy rain in the forecast I’ll harvest all ripe tomatoes as well as those that are nearly ripe as a sudden influx of water can cause splitting or cracking. If you find this to be an annual issue, plant crack-resistant varieties like Sun Sugar.
How to ripen cherry tomatoes
Towards the end of the growing season when the first frost is in the forecast I harvest all the cherry tomatoes still on my plants. Look under the leaves for hidden fruit clusters as the foliage can be quite dense. Any fruits that have sized up ripen fine – even if they’ve not yet reached their mature color. Just give them a couple of days on the kitchen counter or a spot out of direct sunlight with average room temperature.
Some gardeners like to ripen cherry tomatoes by placing them in a paper bag with a banana or an apple. The fruits release ethylene gas which triggers ripening. However, I find using a banana also makes my cherry tomatoes taste like bananas, so I prefer to let them ripen naturally on my counter.
How to store cherry tomatoes
Store cherry tomatoes in room temperature in a shallow bowl or container. I leave them on my kitchen counter, but excess fruits are ‘sun dried’ in my dehydrator or frozen for winter use. Tossing a few frozen cherry tomatoes in cold season pastas adds a burst of summer flavor.
The best cherry tomato varieties to grow:
I’ve grown over 50 cherry tomato varieties in my garden and have certainly found quite a few favorites. Here are some standouts you may wish to try:
- Red cherry tomatoes – Supersweet 100, Jasper, Tidy Treats, Red Pear, Sweetie, Peacevine
- Pink cherry tomatoes – Pink Bumblebee, Pink Champagne
- Yellow cherry tomatoes – White Cherry, Gold Nugget, Apple Yellow, Egg Yolk, Snow White
- Orange cherry tomatoes – Sungold, Sunrise Bumblebee, Esterina
- Green cherry tomatoes – Green Bee, Green Grape
- Black/purple cherry tomatoes – Black Cherry, Purple Bumblebee, Chocolate Cherry, Chocolate Sprinkles, Midnight Pear
For more information on growing tomatoes, be sure to read these in-depth articles:
- How often should you water tomato plants?
- 22 tomato companion plants
- 12 tomato growing secrets for a big harvest
- Types of tomatoes: A complete guide
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