In the beginning stages of learning how to grow tomatoes, I was under the assumption that I should wait until they were bright red and fully ripe before I picked them from the vine.
And I lost a lot of tomatoes that way. Experience has taught me that that actually isn’t always the best idea. As a matter of fact, I now very seldom allow my tomatoes to reach their full maturity outdoors.
Waiting until your tomatoes are the perfect shade of red before you pick them would be ideal. However, there are times when you need to pick them before they’re ripe.
When tomatoes get ripe on the vine insects are more drawn to them and can do a lot of damage in a single day. It can be really frustrating to spot a gorgeous red tomato on your plant, only to find upon a closer examination that an entire side has been chewed all up by hungry bugs.
I’ve found that it’s better to pick them before they peak in flavor, reducing the chances of insect damage.
Another reason to pick before a tomato is ripe is to avoid splitting. If you’re having a particularly rainy week, and your tomatoes are pretty close to being ripe and/or are already starting to split a little, I recommend that you go ahead and pick them before any more rain comes in.
When tomatoes get too much rain in a short amount of time, they can’t hold all of the water they’ve absorbed and they begin splitting open. Once that skin has split, insects and mold creep in.
When To Harvest Tomatoes
When it comes to growing tomatoes, there’s no shortage of information out there to help you get the job done.
But when it comes to harvesting those tomatoes?
Everywhere you turn, you’ll receive contradictory information about when the best time to harvest your tomatoes is. Frankly, there’s no single right answer.
Tomatoes are finicky and are also quite sneaky, too. The problem with them is that they emit gas known as ethylene gas when they are fully mature and green.
When the tomato is green and mature, two growth hormones change and then produce this gas, which ages the cells of the tomato and causes it to soften and turn into a red color – thereby producing the ripe tomato that we know and love.
However, it’s not going to hurt you in order to pick the tomato before it’s ripe. The fruit will still be producing these gases after it leaves the vine, so you can easily ripen tomatoes off the vine. This can help prevent bruising, splitting, and other damages, which I’ll talk about later.
Tomatoes are usually ready to harvest when they are toward the end of the growing season – think late summer. This is when tomatoes are green and firm.
You’ll notice that tomatoes that are purchased at the supermarket are often picked before this stage and allowed to ripen during transport – this results in reduced overall flavor and texture.
You need to toe a very fine line when it comes to ripening your tomatoes at the mature green stage. Watch for the first blush of color to make sure there’s no loss of flavor and essence.
A good indicator that a fruit is ripe is that it will sink in water – but of course, that will be difficult to determine before you actually pick the fruit!
Instead, watch the bottom of the tomato. It will change color there first. Once the first tinge of red appears, harvest time isn’t far away. You can also lightly squeeze the fruit to test for firmness.
In general, most varieties of heirloom tomatoes can reach maturity before they fully turn the appropriate shade, so you will need to pick them when they look almost completely ripe, and when their flesh is between very firm and slightly soft.
If you harvest tomatoes before they’ve completely ripened on the vine (which, again, I can’t recommend enough) you will need to store them indoors to continue the ripening process.
Tomatoes will ripen more quickly if you wrap them in newspaper, because the paper will trap the ethylene gas and speed up the process. Store the tomatoes at temperatures of around 65 degrees or warmer if you wish to quick things.
How to Harvest Ripe Tomatoes
I already told you when tomatoes are ready for harvest. Luckily, harvesting ripe tomatoes involves a lot less guesswork, planning, and storage than harvesting green tomatoes!
To reiterate, tomatoes are considered ripe and ready to harvest when the growing season has ended (for determinate varieties, this will be in the late summer to mid fall) or when your fruits meet telltale signs of readiness (for indeterminate varieties, this method works best, since you’ll have a consistent harvest throughout the season).
Watch for these signs: the bottom of the fruit is bright red and the fruit is firm but not overly hard, like a green tomato. As long as the bottom of the tomato is red, it’s safe to harvest as the rest of the fruit will ripen off the vine. However, it’s best to wait to harvest as long as you don’t have any other reasons for harvesting a not-fully-ripe tomato.
To harvest, grasp the fruit firmly but gently. Pull it away from the plant, holding the stem with one hand and the fruit with the other. You will want to gently break the stalk away from the rest of the fruit.
After you’ve harvested your tomatoes, store them indoors. If they need to continue to ripen, consider some of the hacks I mentioned above.
If they’re ripe, store them at 55 to 70 degrees or cooler (like in the refrigerator) if you want to slow the time to spoilage. This will give you some time so you can freeze, can, or eat up your fresh new tomatoes.
In the refrigerator, ripe tomatoes will last up to five weeks. Remember, don’t store unripe tomatoes there because they will not continue to ripen!
How to Improve Ripening on the Vine
If you find that your tomatoes aren’t ripening, it is likely due to one of these common causes.
The first (and perhaps the most obvious) is that you haven’t given your tomatoes enough time to ripen. Each tomato variety has a specific time it takes to mature.
If you’re growing in a northern climate, it’s crucial that you pick a variety that is designed to ripen in a shorter period of time. Some good options include Early Girl, Stupice, and Glacier. Keep in mind that cherry tomatoes tend to ripen more quickly, too.
It could also be that the temperatures outside are simply too cold for your fruits to ripen. If your tomatoes are turning pink but not quite becoming a full red, then it might be that your weather is too cold. They might reach a full size but never fully develop their color or flavor.
On the flip side, tomatoes sometimes do not ripen because the temperatures are too hot. Tomatoes generally love heat, but the ideal temperature is between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
If they rise higher than that – particularly if it’s also dry – you are going to notice that your fruits stay a mature green instead of a mature red.
The final reason – and the one that might have you slapping your forehead and saying, “Duh! Obvious!” is that your tomatoes might not be turning red because they aren’t actually red tomatoes!
If you’re growing a variety of tomato that is not supposed to turn red when ripe, like a yellow, orange, purple, or even green heirloom fruit, you can wait for years and those tomatoes aren’t going to turn red!
Tomatoes that fail to ripen or turn an odd color can be caused by various diseases, too. Sun scald cause light colored, leathery patches on the top of the fruit and is the result of too much sun exposure. This can happen to ripened or unripe tomatoes and it often leads to rot.
If your soil is infertile or is lacking in potassium (while having high levels of magnesium) you may notice uneven ripening. Blossom end rot can cause discoloration, too, although it’s usually in the form of large black lesions.
Reasons to Harvest Unripe Tomatoes
Sometimes it’s necessary to harvest unripe tomatoes. Maybe you know it’s time to till the garden under so you can plant a cover crop (ie, a frost is coming) or perhaps your gardening window has simply closed for the year.
Often, you may find it necessary to harvest tomatoes before they are ripe because you need to control some kind of pest or disease outbreak in your garden.
Another reason you may need to pick unripe, and even green tomatoes is when you know you won’t be able to harvest them when they reach their peak. Maybe you’ll be away from home during their ripening, or maybe a frost is expected to hit your area.
Yes, you can pick completely green tomatoes and leave them out on the counter and they’ll continue ripening over the course of a few weeks.
Also, tomatoes will stop ripening when you have several really hot days in a row. Instead of continuing to ripen on the vine, they’ll begin to rot.
So if the weather man is forecasting several days of scorching sun, this would be another good time to pick your tomatoes before they look 100% ready.
The cool thing about picking tomatoes before they’re ripe is that they’ll continue to ripen indoors. Just lay them out in a single layer and leave them somewhere warm for a few days (never in the fridge). They’ll turn a beautiful blush in no time.
Indeterminate vs. Determinate Varieties of Tomatoes
Another important think to keep in mind when you are ordering tomato seeds for the year and trying to figure out when your fruits will be ready is whether you have chosen determinate or indeterminate tomatoes.
This can have a major impact on figuring out when your tomatoes are ready to go and whether your fruits are ripe or need a bit more time still.
Determinate tomatoes, also known as bush tomatoes, are those that grow to a compact height – usually no taller than four feet. They stop growing when fruit sets on the very top bud. All of the tomatoes ripen at the same time, usually over a week or two. They require minimal staking and are commonly selected for container growing. They’re also perfect for people who like to can and want to do all of their canning at once.
Indeterminate tomatoes, on the other hand, will produce tomatoes until they are killed off by the frost. They can reach up to 12 feet in height, although those statuesque heights aren’t typical. These plants will bloom, set new fruit, and ripen fruit all at the same time, and they require staking for support.
Uses for Unripe Tomatoes
Don’t despair if you need to harvest your tomatoes before they are totally red. There are plenty of uses for green tomatoes, too, and they’re perfectly safe to eat.
Harvesting green tomatoes won’t hurt the plant, nor will it hurt the fruits. A common misconception is that if you harvest the tomato fruits before they are ripe, it will encourage the plant to make more fruits.
Unlike some vegetables – like zucchini – where this is true, with tomatoes that is unfortunately not the case. Harvesting green tomatoes won’t stimulate more fruit production because fruit production is related to air temperature and nutrient availability.
If you have a ton of green tomatoes that you know are not going to ripen on the vine, go ahead and pick them. Just make sure they aren’t rock-hard when you squeeze them.
Once you get them inside, you can allow them to finish ripening or use them. If you want them to finish ripening, don’t store them in the refrigerator. The refrigeration will destroy the flavor and halt any ripening. Instead, let them sit on a countertop or windowsill at room temperature. You can also wrap them in newspaper.
Another common trick is to place your unripe tomatoes in a bag with another fruit that emits ethylene gas, such as an apple or a banana. This will help speed up the ripening process.
Alternatively, you can use up your green tomatoes in your cooking – in fact, you can even preserve them for longterm storage if you wish. Instead of tossing them into the trash, you might consider making one of the following recipes:
- Green Tomato Relish
- Fried Green Tomatoes
- Fried Green Tomato Parmesan
- Mexican Salsa Verde (you can also use green little tomatillos for this one!)
- Green Tomato Pie
- Green Tomato and Bacon Soup
- Green Tomato Bread
A Few More Tips for Harvesting Tomatoes
If you’re still not sure where to turn when you’re getting ready to harvest tomatoes – whether they’re red or green or somewhere in between – here are some extra tips for best results:
- Keep damaged tomatoes away from good ones while ripening, in case they start to rot before they fully ripen.
- Cut the tomatoes from the plant instead of pulling them off. They store best with the stem attached.
- Storing tomatoes in cooler temperatures (50-60*F) will slow their ripening and allow you to stretch the season.
- If the tomato’s stem has been removed, some experts recommend that you store the tomato stem-side down to reduce the chances of it rotting.
What have you found to work best? Do you let your tomatoes fully ripen on the vine, or do you bring them indoors to finish ripening?
updated 12/04/2019 by Rebekah White