You don’t have to wait for your tomatoes to ripen to harvest them. In fact, YOU SHOULDN’T.
The answer to when to pick tomatoes is easy: harvest before they turn red.
Reasons abound. We’re going over them below…
Before we start, just remember that tomatoes are among the pickiest fruits you can grow. And that typically includes how hard they are to harvest.
You pick them at the wrong time, and you’re set to NOT enjoy your tomatoes. That is, the harvest will be less than tasty.
And you don’t want that… right? So let’s learn how to avoid it!
When to Pick Tomatoes? – The Basics
To show when to pick those tomatoes, we have to give you a heads-up of everything that affects the harvest.
Let’s start with the basics then…
- Tomato Ripe Point
The general rule is to pick tomatoes when they are pink. They’re not green anymore, but they aren’t red yet.
This is known as the “breaking stage.” The whole logic behind picking them at this stage is that tomatoes will keep ripening no matter what. They won’t need the vine to keep reddening.
- Plant Nutrients
Tomato vines use a lot of nutrients to support the fruits. If you don’t pick them early enough (at the breaking stage), they will keep sucking nutrients off. And sure enough, the plant won’t produce more fruits as a consequence.
Most tomatoes will just slow down. But that’s obviously not what you want. You want the plant to keep producing tomatoes to the breaking stage. You harvest them, and the plant keeps producing.
Both will be happy that way.
- Breakage and Struggle
While tomatoes aren’t watermelons, they are still heavy. A single tomato can bring an entire vine branch down. Now imagine several overgrown tomatoes.
When vines struggle to carry the tomatoes, they may eventually break and stop producing. And when this happens, you will get a lot fewer tomatoes in the season (and sometimes even long-term).
Don’t let your tomatoes grow to the point of bringing the vine down – it’s not a pleasant experience.
- Different Tomato Varieties
Not all tomatoes turn pink or red when they’re ready to harvest. Some of them actually turn yellow or stay greenish. These can be harder to figure out when to harvest.
But it’s still worth checking other parts of the tomato to see signs of the breaking stage. This typically means touching them to see how soft they are. Soft tomatoes are juicier, so they’re likely ready to be harvested.
- Getting Them Ripe
Many people let their tomatoes ripe. This is for the sole purpose of eating them almost directly from the plant.
This is not wrong, but it may put extra pressure on the plant, as explained before. You’ll want to keep them off as soon as the tomato turns red – it will be ready for immediate consumption. Or if you’re going to wait, let them get juicier (but don’t let them get bruised).
- Temperatures Matter
Regardless of the variety or how big they are, you’ll want to pick the tomatoes as soon as temperatures reach 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything lower than that will cause damage to the tomatoes to the point of making them inedible.
The same will happen if you leave them hanging on the vine if temperatures rise above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Tomatoes will literally get scorched to the point of becoming inedible as well.
How to Know if a Tomato is Ready to be Picked?
There are a few obvious and other not-so-obvious ways to tell whether a tomato is harvest-ready. Here are some of these general points to consider:
Its Overall Appearance
Does the tomato look thoroughly pink/red? If yes – that’s a tomato ready to be picked.
But if a tomato still looks majorly green, that’s still a ripening tomato you shouldn’t take off. Let it get ripe further, and you should be ready to enjoy a riper tomato in no time.
By the way, consider that some tomatoes may also develop wrinkled skin, blemishes, bruises, or insect bite marks. You may want to avoid picking tomatoes that look like this (unless you want to salvage them).
Texture and Juiciness
Tomatoes you should pick will feel firm but also relatively soft. That is, they won’t be thoroughly firm, but they shouldn’t be mushy either. You’ll notice how they feel like you could eat them whole.
Also, check the weight of the tomatoes. Juicy ones (ripen) are often heavier than unripe ones.
Smell Tells It All
You may not really know about it, but humans can perceive when the fruit is still green. There’s a distinct smell to the ripe and green tomato that you’ll notice right away.
Green tomatoes have a milder smell, sometimes resembling more of a leaf than a tomato itself. In contrast, red and ripe tomatoes have a penetrating smell, almost like ketchup.
Don’t forget that tomatoes may also be completely spoiled. If the smell is not pleasant at all (too acid or foul), that’s a rotten tomato you shouldn’t harvest.
How to Pick Tomatoes the Right Way?
So, do you already know when to pick tomatoes? GREAT! Let’s now teach you HOW to do so…
This is the easiest part, as tomatoes don’t really take much time to get off. But there’s still the BEST WAY to do so. Here are some tips to make that happen:
- Always use sharp pruners or clippers. You’ll want to make the cleanest cuts possible so the plant can always start growing right away. If you leave badly cut portions, it will consume nutrients and not grow as it should.
- If you don’t have pruners or clippers, you can pull the tomato off. But for this, don’t pull it right off and damage the plant. Instead, try to find the breakage point (where the branch connects to the tomato). Twist that portion a bit and pull off.
- Don’t cut or handle the fruit too harshly. You’ll want to treat the tomato as gently as possible and avoid any type of damage. Punctures and pressure may develop into damaged tomatoes that aren’t fit to consume.
- Bend tiny branches from the main vine. Remove the tomatoes with the branch by just breaking the branch that carries it. But don’t pull the branch off or break too large of a portion. The branch you snap shouldn’t be a significant part of the plant.
- Always use both your hands as you harvest tomatoes. One hand could be used to handle the fruit while the other handles the branch or plant. Using two hands for the job becomes a lot easier to remove without making much of a mess.
- Avoid letting your tomatoes fall as you get them off. Try to place them directly on a container or basket after taking them off. Otherwise, they may either fall and break or get damaged by being placed in the wrong area.
In general, picking tomatoes is a super-easy thing to do, and you shouldn’t fret about it. Having said that, take our tips into account if you want to make it easier.
What to Do with Tomato Harvest?
You may not know what to do after you’ve picked the tomatoes, especially if they aren’t red yet (completely ripe).
Many people think they should put their tomatoes out to receive some sun exposure. That’s a lie. Tomatoes don’t need any sun to ripen.
They actually need a shady and cool place to do so. In that case, we have two big pieces of advice to consider:
- Store Them in a Dark Place
A place with temperatures between 60- and 75-degrees Fahrenheit is ideal for the ripening process. That’s not hot but is also not cold either, perfect for the tomatoes to keep reddening over a few days.
An excellent dark place for the tomatoes would be your kitchen, given it doesn’t receive direct sun contact. You can also consider a garage or porch as long as the place stays shady for most of the day.
- A Refrigerator
Many gardeners frown upon the thought of leaving their recently harvested tomatoes in the refrigerator. And well, it’s not exactly an unfounded thing to do, but it’s still not precisely correct.
The idea is that refrigerators stop the ripening process. But that’s not true. They SLOW it down. If you prefer the tomatoes to last longer, then a fridge is actually the perfect place for that.
Other people may say a refrigerator takes nutrients and flavor away from the tomato. But that’s not true. The tomato will taste the same and provide the same nutrients regardless of how you eat it.
How to Improve the Ripening Process?
You will find the following tips helpful whether you’ve harvested the tomatoes already or they’re still hanging from the vine:
- Maintain in a Dry Place
Both the plant and the tomatoes themselves prefer dry areas over humid ones. The logic comes from the idea that tomato plants are not a fan of water in significant quantities. When the environment is too moist, the plant struggles to absorb nutrients or may even get ill.
Similarly, tomatoes themselves are susceptible to diseases that come from pathogens in the water. You’ll want to keep them as dry as possible.
Dry tomatoes struggle less, so they ripen faster.
- Keep the Plant Tidy
Tomato vines have a relatively quick metabolism. That is, their leaves get diseased fast and often need to be cut off. At the same time, many of the plant’s leaves are tiny and do not grow into vines themselves, so you can also cut them off.
Lastly, consider trimming away flowers and small fruits that don’t grow too much.
Why’s keeping the plant tidy vital? Because all these things consume nutrients away from the tomatoes that are thriving. You cut them off, and the plant will direct those nutrients towards the tomatoes, ripening them faster.
- Pick Ripe Tomatoes Quickly
As soon as you see the tomatoes turning red, you can take them off the plant for the rest of the tomatoes to ripen. This is also a thing of nutrients, as already-ripen tomatoes will keep suctioning nutrients away from the growing ones.
- Protect the Plant
Almost any tomato plant that receives too much sun exposure or is exposed to harsh frosts will eventually struggle to ripen its fruits. That’s why protecting your plant against these things is such a helpful thing to do.
- Check Consistently
Don’t forget to keep an eye on your tomato plant and tomatoes as they ripen. You’ll want to harvest the tomatoes as soon as they reach your preferred ripening point. Similarly, you’ll want to keep the plants thriving, so unharvested tomatoes keep ripening non-stop.
Should You Let Tomatoes Fully Ripe?
There’s no good or wrong answer to this question. It really depends on what you prefer.
Having said that, there are some excellent truths to consider about tomatoes that may push you to let them ripen to the fullest. Check them up:
- Red and juicy tomatoes are tastier – when the tomato gets ripe enough for its flesh to be soft, that’s when the sugars are at their max. Your tomatoes will be a lot tastier at this stage.
- They are easier to pick – while the tomato ripens to the fullest, it also gets a bit heavier, and the branch that holds it is weaker (natural process). This allows you to pick it a lot more easily.
- Are you ready for consumption – why store your tomatoes when you can eat them right after harvesting them? This is probably the most appealing reason to get them off the plant when fully ripen.
- Cuter tomato plants – let’s be honest, the vibrant tomato colors are undoubtedly attractive (when they’re fully ripe). Vines equipped with this red are almost always more eye-catching.
In short, tomatoes are worth letting ripe. While they will suction away more nutrients from your plants and probably slow down the fruiting process, it is not the end of the world. As you’ll enjoy tastier tomatoes, it’s probably worth the wait anyway.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Gardeners recommend picking tomatoes in the late summer before fall. Tomatoes are typically reaching their breaking point at this moment, so they’re perfect for harvesting. You can leave them a bit longer if you want to harvest them when fully ripe.
We recommend a rack where each tomato receives pretty much the same amount of air. Try not to clump them together, as tomatoes tend to get worse when they don’t receive enough ventilation (and the ripening will happen a lot slowly).
Want your tomatoes to ripen a lot quicker than they would on a rack or hanging from the vines? Trapping them in a bag is almost always the best way to achieve that.
As the tomatoes are trapped, they produce ethene gas. This gas is what causes the ripening process so trapping the fruits together automatically speeds it up.
Similarly, you can add a ripen fruit to the bag, like a banana, apple, or mango. This fruit will produce more ethene that tomatoes can use to further develop.
BE AWARE: This process can be super-quick, so don’t let your tomatoes spend more than a couple of days this way. Preferably, check your tomatoes at least twice a day to watch for their ripening stage.
Cold temperatures, excess humidity, and sunlight are all enemies of the ripening process. You’ll want to keep your tomatoes away from each of these things as much as you can.
Temperatures should be above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, tomatoes should be in a shady place, and they shouldn’t receive direct water contact unless you’re cleaning them to consume.
You’re now familiar with how and when to pick tomatoes – it’s now time to wait or harvest those tomatoes.
If there’s something you should remember from this article, that would be that tomatoes can be taken off when they’re at their breaking point (still pinkish). But if you want to let them ripe entirely on the vine, that’s doable and often encouraged if you don’t care about further production.
Regardless of what path you take, follow our advice on how to harvest. Those recommendations will take you the whole way so you can enjoy healthy and juicy tomatoes in no time!