A fully ripe homegrown tomato is the highlight of the summer vegetable garden. Yet a ripe tomato is also susceptible to splitting, cracking, and pests. The good news is that there are two ways to harvest tomatoes; when the fruits are fully ripe or when they’re only partially ripe. There are benefits and drawbacks to each strategy. Keep reading to learn more about when to pick tomatoes.
When to pick tomatoes: two strategies
As a tomato ripens, its color deepens, the sugar content rises, and the fruits soften. Traditionally garden tomatoes are picked when fully mature, but in reality ripening can happen on the vine or on your kitchen counter. In fact, I’ve found that there are advantages to harvesting tomatoes before they’re fully ripe; fewer pest issues, less cracking and splitting, and reliable ripening. Below you’ll find information on harvesting both ripe and partially ripe tomatoes as well as tips on how to ripen the fruits indoors.
When to pick ripe tomatoes
A sun-warmed ripe tomato is a summer treat that gardeners wait months to enjoy. If you have a small garden you may wish to harvest the fruits as they ripen. If you have a lot of tomato plants, it may be preferable to harvest the fruits when they’re partially ripe. Craig LeHoullier, a tomato expert who introduced gardeners to Cherokee Purple tomatoes and the author of the best-selling book Epic Tomatoes says that tomatoes allowed to ripen fully on the vine have a short shelf life and need to be eaten or cooked as soon as possible. Hello tomato sandwich! So if you’re in the garden and wondering whether your tomatoes are fully ripe, here are five cues you can use to determine if the fruits have reached peak maturity.
1) Days to Maturity
There are thousands of varieties of tomatoes you can grow with each having a specific days to maturity. That’s the amount of time it takes to go from planting to harvest. In the case of tomatoes, the days to maturity is generally the time from transplanting, not seeding. Early maturing varieties can start to produce ripe fruits in as little as 55 days from transplanting, while late maturing varieties may need 85 or more days for the fruits to fully ripen. Because I’m in a short season climate I tend to plant mostly early and mid-season tomato varieties to ensure I have enough time to harvest a good crop of fruits before the weather turns cold. To learn the days to maturity information for a specific tomato variety, refer to the seed packet or company website. As the days to maturity nears for your specific tomato variety, the fruits should begin to ripen.
2) Fruit color
Another cue to the ripeness of a tomato is skin color. The skin of a fully ripe tomato should have deepened to the mature color indicated on the seed pack or in the seed catalog. It’s pretty easy to tell when a red tomato has colored up nicely, but it can be a bit trickier to tell when a purple, yellow, white, or striped variety is fully ripe. It becomes easier with experience, but if you’re not sure, check the other cues to judge whether it’s ready to pick.
While color is perhaps the biggest cue of ripeness, feel is also important. An unripe tomato is firm to the touch, while an overly ripe tomato is very soft. A ripe, ready-to-pick tomato should be firm, but have a little give when pressed gently with a finger or carefully squeezed.
A couple of years ago I was in a gift store and spotted a candle called ‘vine ripened tomato’. (Here’s a similar one called ‘vine ripened tomato’ – I’m not kidding!) It’s true that ripe tomatoes do have a lovely, tomatoey fragrance, but I’m not sure I want a candle that smells like tomatoes! If you think your tomato is ready to pick, give it a quick sniff as tomatoes do become more fragrant as they ripen.
5) Ease of picking
A final cue to gauging the ripeness of a tomato is how easily it slips from the plant. I don’t recommend relying on this test as tugging tomato fruits from the plants can damage both the tomato and the plant, as well as other fruits still ripening. I prefer to check for ripeness using days to maturity, color, and feel and if I’ve decided the fruit is ready to be picked, I’ll use garden snips or hand pruners to clip it from the plant. That said, if you want to gently pull the tomato to see if it comes off the stem easily that is a sign of ripeness. If it doesn’t separate from the plant with a light tug, don’t try and force it as it’s not quite ready to pick.
How weather can impact when to pick tomatoes
Have you ever gone out to your tomato patch after a rainstorm only to find that many of the cherry tomatoes have cracked and the large-fruited ones have split? Heavy rain, especially when it follows a period of dry weather, is a major cause of cracked and split fruits. Unripe fruit may be affected as well, but it’s typically ripe or almost-ripe fruits that are damaged. Cracked and split fruits spoil quickly and can attract insect pests as well as larger critters. For this reason it’s important to harvest ripe or almost ripe tomatoes before a heavy rain or a deep watering.
Another way weather can factor into deciding when to harvest tomatoes is towards the end of the growing season when the days are getting cooler and shorter. Cool weather can slow ripening and frost can damage both the plants and the fruits. I keep an eye on the forecast and if the first frost or a steep temperature dip threatens, I harvest all unripe tomatoes. Fully green tomatoes won’t ripen well and we use them to make chow chow or fried green tomatoes. Partially ripe tomatoes are placed in a single layer in baskets or boxes and brought indoors to ripen fully.
Harvesting unripe tomatoes
There are several reasons to consider harvesting tomatoes before they’re fully ripe. Craig LeHoullier says letting tomatoes ripen completely on the vine can lead to a couple of issues. “First, allowing fruits to fully ripen on the plants can result in a greater likelihood of cracking,” he says. “Since the tomato is fully grown, size-wise, any uptake of water from rain or watering can cause a split as the skin cells can’t divide to accommodate the swelling of the flesh.”
Another issue is pests. “Ripe fruits smell great and are a far greater attraction to critters than unripe fruits,” says Craig. Potential tomato thieves include deer, rabbits, groundhogs, chipmunks, and squirrels. I’ve even found slugs feasting on the ripe tomatoes in my garden! So when does Craig harvest his homegrown tomatoes? ” I pick the tomatoes when half to three-quarters of the fruit is colored, but the shoulder part is still green,” he says. “I find there is less cracking and less critter damage potential.” And once harvested it only takes a day or two on the kitchen counter (or another spot out of direct sunlight) for the fruits to finish ripening. “The flavor and texture of the early harvested fruits can’t be distinguished from ones ripened on the vine,” says Craig.
When to pick unripe tomatoes
We know we want to eat our tomatoes when they’re fully ripe, but as Craig says you don’t have to wait until the fruits are ripe to harvest. You can ripen tomatoes on the vine or you can ripen them off the vine. There are six stages in the ripening process for a tomato:
- Green – At the green stage the fruit is completely green with none of the mature color beginning to show. If picked at this stage the flavor and color of the green fruits won’t fully develop.
- Breaker – This is the point where the green color of the fruit ‘breaks’ and begins to hint of the mature color. In the breaker stage up to 10% of the fruit may be pink, red, yellow, etc. A tomato can be picked at this stage and expected to fully ripen indoors.
- Turning stage – At the turning stage between 10 and 30% of the fruit has colored.
- Pink – Between 30 to 60% of the fruit has colored up.
- Light red – The light red stage is getting close to fully ripe with 60 to 90% of the color developed. This is the stage I harvest large-fruited heirloom tomatoes.
- Red or fully ripe – If a fully ripe tomato is what you crave, wait until more than 90% of the fruit is showing its red (or yellow, orange, etc.) color.
Why are the stages of ripeness important to know? If you’re picking tomatoes immature with the intention of allowing them to ripen indoors you can harvest anytime they reach the breaker stage without sacrificing flavor or nutrition.
How to ripen tomatoes indoors
If you harvest tomatoes immature – anytime past the breaker stage – you’ll want to bring them inside and place them in a bright location away from direct sunlight. I don’t recommend a sunny windowsill as bright light can toughen up the skins. I use a corner of my kitchen counter or if they’re in the breaker or turning stage I’ll lay them in a single layer in a box or basket and place them in an out-of-the way spot. Space the tomatoes so they’re not touching and check them twice a week removing any that have ripened or show signs of rot. You don’t need high temperatures to ripen tomatoes. Average room temperature, or slightly cooler is fine, but avoid the refrigerator as the fruits won’t ripen well and may become mealy.
You can also place them in a paper bag and roll the top of the bag closed. The tomatoes give off ethylene gas as they mature and that prompts the unripe tomatoes to turn red. Adding a banana to the bag provides ethylene gas and can also speed up ripening but I find it makes my tomatoes taste like bananas! Therefore I avoid the banana trick.
When to pick heirloom tomatoes
I wait all spring and summer to enjoy fully ripe Brandywine Pink or Black Krim tomatoes from my garden. I grow a wide variety of heirloom tomatoes and have found that it’s best to harvest large-fruited heirlooms when they are slightly underripe. If you wait until they’re fully colored they’re often over mature and may split or rot. Instead harvest when they’re half to three-quarters ripe and let them finish up indoors.
When to pick cherry tomatoes
Cherry and other small-fruited tomatoes are garden candy and plants like Sungold and Rapunzel are so prolific it can be hard to stay on top of the harvest. I check my plants daily in summer, harvesting all of the ripe or nearly ripe fruits. Cherry tomatoes are produced in trusses, sometimes with dozens of fruits per truss. They won’t ripen at the same time so don’t wait for the entire truss to color up before you harvest cherry tomatoes. A fully ripe truss may look impressive in an Instagram post, but by the time the bottom fruits have matured, the top ones have likely split. Instead harvest cherry, grape, and currant tomatoes when the individual fruits have turned their mature color.
How often to pick tomatoes
To reduce the risk of cracked or split fruits check plants regularly and remove any that are ripe. I give my cherry tomato plants a daily check once the first fruits begin to ripen. For large-fruited, saladette, and plum tomatoes I inspect the plants every few days.
How to pick tomatoes
There have been many occasions (too many!) where I’ve gone up to the garden to grab a tomato and realize that there are a bunch of fully ripe fruits ready to pick. Not wanting them to fall prey to pests or split on the vine, I used my shirt as a make-shift basket to try to carry as many as I could back to the kitchen. Of course this meant I ended up accidentally squishing or bruising some of the fruits. To prevent unnecessary damage I now keep a wire harvest basket in the garden. This weather-proof basket is always handy when there’s a bounty of homegrown tomatoes to pick and lets me take them into the house damage-free. If I have a lot of fruits, I’ll also grab my Maine garden hod, which has plenty of space for transporting tomatoes.
When you do pick tomatoes – ripe or unripe – don’t tug or pull them from the plant. This can damage the plant or knock off immature fruits. Instead use garden snips or shears to clip fruits off the vine.
For further reading, be sure to check out these articles:
- Tomato companion plants: 22 science-backed suggestions
- How to grow plum tomatoes
- How often should you water tomato plants?
- Caterpillar pests of tomatoes
- Growing tomatoes from seed: step by step
- Tomato Plant suckers: how to prune the plants
Do you have any advice to add on when to pick tomatoes?