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 would 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.
Heirloom tomatoes can reach maturity before they fully turn the appropriate shade, so pick them when they look almost completely ripe, and when their flesh is between very firm and slightly soft.
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.
A few 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?