For many gardeners, homegrown tomatoes are one of the best tastes of summer. Growing tomato plants is a rewardingly straightforward process. But there is some skill involved.
As well as knowing when to water and fertilize, knowing when to pick tomatoes is key. Picking the tomatoes too soon means that they will be small and lacking in flavor. Waiting too long leaves the fruit prone to splitting.
Pests such as rabbits, deer and chipmunks can also target the ripe fruits. Even slugs can target the ripe fruit. If slugs are a persistent problem in your garden, there are a number of ways to get rid of the pests.
To avoid these issues, instead of allowing the fruit to ripen on the vine, many gardeners like to harvest the fruit when it is still slightly green or unripe.
Whether you decide to ripen the fruit on the vine or harvest the fruit early and ripen it indoors, this guide to when to pick tomatoes will take you through the entire process. As well as explaining the best time to pick different types of tomato we will explain how to spot the signs of ripening and how to store the fruit.
Knowing when to pick tomatoes is a key part of growing the fruit.
When to Pick Tomatoes
For growers with limited space, such as a small garden, it is better to harvest the fruits as they ripen. You may also find it easier to pick tomatoes when they are partially ripe if you are growing lots of tomato plants indoors or in a greenhouse.
As the fruit grows and develops, inspect the fruit for signs of maturity. There are a number of ways to tell whether your fruit is ripening. The following are 5 of the most common.
1 Days to Maturity
Each tomato variety requires a different amount of time to grow, set fruit and mature.
The days to maturity is usually measured as the number of days that it takes from planting to harvesting. In the case of tomato plants this count starts at the point of transplant into the final growing position. For some fruit and vegetables the count starts upon sowing or germinating the seeds.
Early types of tomato can produce mature fruit in as little as 55 days. Larger fruiting varieties take longer, often 85 to 90 days.
Different varieties mature at different rates.
Growers in climates with short seasons should grow early and mid season or quick maturing types. This ensures that you have a good crop of ripe fruit before the weather turns. Another way to extend the growing season is to grow undercover in a greenhouse.
As you approach the days to maturity figure you should start to notice signs that the fruit is starting to ripen. These include changes in texture and the skin turning color.
2 Fruit Color
The color of the fruit provides the most visible clue for gardeners trying to decide when to pick tomatoes. As the fruits mature the skin tends to deepen, gradually achieving the mature color indicated in the seed catalog or on the seed packet.
It is easy to see when red varieties are turning color. It can be a little more difficult if you are growing a white, purple, yellow or striped variety. The more that you grow the plants, the easier you will find it. There are also some other clues, such as the feel or smell of the fruit.
The color and texture of the fruit changes as it ripens.
How the fruit feels is just as important as the color when it comes to deciding when to pick tomatoes.
Unripe fruit is firm to the touch. Overly ripe fruit is very soft.
Ripe, ready to pick fruit should feel firm to the touch but, when gently squeezed or pressed, has a little give.
A ripe tomato emits a lovely, tomatoey smell. The fruits become more fragrant as they ripen.
5 Ease of picking
Ripe fruit comes away easily in the hand. All it needs is a gentle pull. If the fruit doesn’t easily separate from the plant, it is not fully ripe.
How The Weather Affects When to Pick Tomatoes
During hot summers you will notice your fruit ripening more quickly than during cooler summers. This is because the amount of sunlight and heat that the plants are exposed to affects how quickly they grow and ripen. It also affects how much you need to water and fertilize your plants.
Exposure to temperatures over 90 ℉ can harm the fruit. It may also cause them to turn white. A prolonged heatwave may cause all your fruit to ripen at once.
While a glut of fruit is a problem if you want to enjoy fresh fruit, there are a number of preservation methods such as canning that can help to prevent the fruit from going to waste.
Fruit developing in warm, sunny conditions ripens quickly.
During hot spells, watering your plants regularly and mulching the soil to keep the roots cool can help to slow down ripening.
Too much wet weather, particularly after a dry spell, can cause the fruit to crack or split. This spoils the fruit. Issues such as blossom end rot can also develop. Mainly affecting ripe fruit, these issues can also affect unripe fruit.
If heavy rain is forecast, ripen as many fruits as possible and finish ripening them indoors.
Deeply watering the plants can also cause the fruit to split.
Towards the end of the growing seasons, as the days become cooler and shorter, the change in temperatures can slow down the ripening process. Frost can also damage the plants and fruit.
If frost or cold weather is forecast, harvest the unripe fruit. Fully green plants won’t ripen and can be used to make a range of dishes such as fried green tomatoes.
Partially ripe fruit can be placed flat, in a single layer in a box or basket and ripened indoors. If you are growing the tomato plants in containers or VIVOSUN Heavy Duty Fabric Pots, simply move undercover when cold weather is forecast.
Partially ripe fruit can be ripened indoors.
When to Pick Tomatoes
There are 6 stages to the ripening process. Being able to recognise each of these stages helps you to determine when to pick tomatoes. The 6 stages are:
- Green, this is when the fruit is completely green and shows no signs of maturity. Do not pick tomatoes at this stage. They are underdeveloped and wont mature.
- Breaker, at this stage the green color of the fruit breaks, hints of the mature color become visible. Depending on the variety this may be hues of red, pink or yellow. At this stage the fruit is fully formed and can be harvested to ripen indoors.
- Turning Stage, at this point 10 to 30% of fruit has its mature color.
Pink, at this point 30 to 60% of fruit is its mature color.
- Light Red, at this point the fruit is almost fully ripe. Up to 90% of the fruit may be displaying its mature color. This is a good stage to harvest large heirloom types.
- Ripe or red. The fruit is considered fully ripe when over 90% of it displays its mature color.
Harvest when the fruit starts to show some color.
Like many fruits and vegetables, timing is crucial to the perfect harvest. Being able to identify these different stages helps you to decide when to pick tomatoes.
If you decide not to wait until your fruit is fully ripe, for many the sweet spot of harvesting green fruits is the breaker stage. Harvesting at this point enables you to get a head start on the ripening process by finishing off the fruit indoors. Consequently, you are able to enjoy the fruits a few days earlier than if you harvest completely on the vine.
When to Pick Different Varieties of Tomato
When to pick your tomatoes depends on a number of factors including the weather and growing conditions. Additionally, different varieties of tomato ripen at different times.
The best time to pick heirloom tomatoes is when the fruit is slightly unripe. Most heirloom varieties produce large fruit. It can take 60 to 85 days for the fruit to develop and mature. Waiting for them to fully turn red on the vine can cause the fruits to overmature, spoil or start to rot.
Pick heirloom fruit when they are almost fully ripe and finish indoors.
Like many small types, cherry tomatoes are prolific plants. Maturing in as little as 60 days, it can be hard to stay on top of the harvest. Check the plants every day during the summer and harvest any ripe or nearly ripe fruit. Pay particular attention to the color and texture of the fruit.
Cherry types produce fruit in trusses. Up to a dozen fruits can sit on one truss. However, not all the fruits ripen at the same time.
Do not wait for the entire truss to harvest before ripening. While a fully ripe truss can look good, waiting for the bottom fruits to ripen can cause the already ripe top fruits to split. Instead harvest the fruits individually.
Fruit on trusses ripen at different times.
Romas are one of the few tomato varieties that are best ripened on the vine. Taking around 75 days to mature, harvest the fruit when the skin is smooth and deep red in color.
One of the largest types of tomato, beefsteaks have a long growing season. It can take up to 85 days for the fruit to ripen. As the fruits achieve their mature size, check them every day paying attention to the color. Harvest when the fruits are showing signs of ripening such as turning deep red or pink and the skin is smooth.
Harvest larger types when they show signs of ripening.
Harvesting Fruit at the Breaker Stage
As we have already noted, for most varieties you can start to pick tomatoes at the breaker stage, this is when they start to show a bit of color. At this stage the fruit is fully formed and can be harvested and taken inside to fully ripen.
You can start to harvest as soon as the fruit shows some color.
The best place to ripen your green tomato fruit is in a bright location away from direct sunlight. Many people mistakenly believe that the best place to ripen their tomates is on a sunny windowsill. But this can do more harm than good. Exposure to too much sun can toughen the skins.
In a tray on the corner of the kitchen counter or close to a window is a far better spot to ripen your toms.
There is also no need to place your fruit in a warm place for them to ripen. A spot that enjoys average room temperature or slightly cooler is fine. Try to place somewhere where the temperature averages between 65 and 75 ℉. A ThermoPro Digital Thermometer can help you to find the perfect spot for your ripening fruit.
Space out the ripening fruit. Do not allow them to touch each other.
Check the fruit a few times a week, remove and use any ripe fruit. Dispose of any fruits that show signs of rot.
You can also place the fruits in a paper bag. Turn the top over to trap the ethylene gas that the fruits emit inside the bag. Ethylene gas encourages fruit to ripen. Adding a banana, which emits lots of ethylene, can speed up the process. However, it can also make the fruit taste like a banana.
If you decide not to pick tomatoes until they are fully red, be aware of a condition known as green shoulders.
This can affect a wide variety of different tomato types.
Green shoulders is used to describe fruit that is mature and almost entirely red with the top or shoulders of the fruit remaining green.
Fruit displaying green shoulders can be treated and harvested like fully red fruit.
How to Pick Tomatoes
Regardless of when you decide to pick your tomatoes, the harvesting process is the same.
Use a garden scissors or snips to cut the fruit from the vine. Pulling the fruit from the plant can harm or damage both the fruit and the plant. Pulling from the vine can also cause unripe fruit to fall from the plant.
If you are harvesting a large amount use a wire harvest basket or hod to store the fruit in as you pick it. Using a Gardeners Supply Company Garden Hod to hold your fruit as you pick helps to prevent accidental damage and bruising.
Place fruit in a basket as you harvest.
How to Store Vine Ripened Fruit
If you decide to ripen your fruit on the vine before picking, knowing how to properly store the fruit is vital. Being able to store the fruit correctly means that it keeps for longer.
Store vine ripened fruit upside down so that it rests on its shoulders. The blossom end, which is softer, should face upwards. Storing fruit blossom-end down can bruise the fruit and speed up deterioration.
Keep your fruit at room temperature. Do not place it in the refrigerator. Storing a ripe tomato harvests at temperatures under 50 ℉ changes both the color and texture of the fruit. It also causes a deterioration of flavor.
Do not store your harvested fruit in direct light. Exposure to too much heat or light can damage the fruit and ruin the flavor.
Knowing when to pick tomatoes is a key part of successfully growing the fruit. Once you are able to identify the signs of ripening fruit you can decide when to harvest, enabling you to get the most out of your tomato plants.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.