Are you one of the people who thinks tomatoes taste best when they’re still warm from growing in the sun? I am.
Homegrown tomatoes are a summer garden classic. There’s nothing quite like the taste of a tomato you grew yourself that only travels a short distance from your garden to your kitchen.
Of course, to enjoy that fantastic, just-picked flavor, you need to harvest your tomatoes at the right time. Pick them too early, and they’ll be hard and flavorless (like the ones you often find in the grocery store). Picked too late, they will be overripe and squishy.
To help you get the perfect flavor and texture, here’s a guide to knowing when to harvest tomatoes.
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When to Harvest Tomatoes: The Great Debate
Harvesting tomatoes is not as straightforward as you might think. There are two schools of thought that each have a different opinion about what stage tomatoes should be picked at.
Before getting into this debate, it’s important to realize that tomatoes will ripen at different times depending on what variety they are and weather conditions.
For example, cherry tomatoes often reach maturity and ripen more quickly than large tomato varieties. Cold weather will slow the ripening process, and temperatures consistently over 90°F can also cause ripening to stall.
A good place to start is to check the days to maturity for the specific tomato varieties you’re growing. This will give you a general idea of when to start checking your plants for ripe fruit. Tomato varieties vary widely from 45 days (for the variety Sub Arctic Plenty) to 85+ days. Many of the short season variety tomatoes are smaller, while large, heirloom tomatoes tend to take (a lot) longer to ripen.
If you’re curious about the many, many wonderful varieties of tomato available, take a look at the book Epic Tomatoes. It covers gardening tips for more than 200 (!) varieties of tomato. It’s an inspiringly beautiful book and packed full of information. If you’re one of the many people who has trouble getting ripe, beautiful tomatoes like you always see on the internet, you need this book ASAP.
- LeHoullier, Craig (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 256 Pages - 12/30/2014 (Publication Date) - Storey Publishing, LLC (Publisher)
Letting tomatoes ripen fully on the vine
When you hear the phrase “vine-ripened tomatoes,” an image of bright red tomatoes hanging from a tomato plant may come to mind.
This is when gardeners on one side of the debate think tomatoes should be harvested: when they are fully ripe.
The argument is that this leads to the most flavorful fruit. By allowing the tomatoes to stay connected to the vine for as long as possible, they go through the full natural ripening process and develop the proper amount of sugars.
To harvest at this stage, you should wait for fruits to fully turn the color they are supposed to be (red, orange, yellow, etc.) and pick them immediately when this happens.
Some tomatoes, especially larger heirlooms, may be a bit green on the “shoulders” (on the top around the stem), even when the tomato is fully ripe.
You can also check for firmness as an extra indicator of when a tomato is fully ripe. It should be firm (not rock hard) with a little give. Very soft tomatoes are overripe.
Picking tomatoes “half ripe”
If you were to ask another set of gardeners when to harvest tomatoes, you’d get a completely different answer.
The other school of thought is that tomatoes should be picked at what’s called the “breaker stage.” This is basically when the fruit is half ripe and has turned from green to light orange or pink (for red tomatoes).
Those in favor of this method argue that once tomatoes reach this stage, they can ripen off the vine with no loss of flavor or quality. (Of course, other gardeners argue the opposite.)
Flavor aside, the main benefit of this method is that you are less likely to lose tomatoes to overripeness, cracking, birds (or chipmunks), rain, etc.
You can let the fruits ripen out of the elements, and an added bonus is that picking from your plants often encourages more fruit production.
At the end of the day, the preference is a very individual one. You may want to try both methods to see which one you think is better.
When to harvest all of your tomatoes
While it would be great to always harvest your vegetables at the perfect stage of ripeness, there are exceptions to the general guidelines.
The main exception is that you should harvest all remaining tomatoes, ripe or not, before temperatures drop below 45°F. You will start losing the fruit to cold weather, so your best option is to try to ripen your remaining crop off of the vine.
Even though tomatoes are a heat-loving plant, they aren’t thrilled with sustained temperatures above 90°F. If you notice that the fruit has slowed or stopped ripening in extreme heat, it’s probably a good idea to just pick it and bring it into a cooler location.
Fruit picked completely green will not ripen indoors. Tomatoes go from a matte green to a glossy green before they start to turn their final color (red, pink, blue, etc.). Glossy green tomatoes will eventually ripen indoors, especially if stored near an ethylene producing fruit like bananas. The tomatoes in the photo show this glossy stage. If picked, they would eventually ripen indoors (but I wouldn’t pick them at this stage unless I had a compelling reason to do so).
Something else to keep in mind is that if you are growing heirloom tomatoes, it may be a little more difficult to tell when they are ripe.
Hybrid tomatoes typically turn completely red, yellow, etc. Heirloom varieties, on the other hand, usually have a green band around the top, even when fully ripe. So when you are checking heirlooms for ripeness, ignore the green at the top and go by the color on the bottom and up the sides. The photo below shows a tomato with a little green on top. This green can be even more pronounced in some varieties.
How to Harvest Tomatoes
Knowing when to harvest tomatoes is the hard part. Actually picking them is easy.
Harvesting cherry tomatoes that grow on long trusses can be a little more tricky to work with since there are so many fruits packed in close together. If you want a more detailed look at cherry tomatoes, please visit this post specifically on how to pick and preserve cherry tomatoes.
The best way to harvest tomatoes is with a sharp, clean pair of hand pruners or garden clippers. This allows you to make clean cuts that will heal quickly. You can also pick fruits off by hand, although this sometimes will tear the plant stem.
To harvest, clip each tomato off close to the top but without cutting into the fruit. Try to cut off as much of the stem as possible, since leaving a stub may puncture other fruits as they grow.
It’s important to always pick the right pair of clippers for the job. Ones that are too large can accidentally damage nearby fruits. Ones that are too small may damage the vine as you try to beaver your way through. For smaller tomato varieties, I prefer my Fiskar’s Micro Tip snips. For larger tomato varieties and larger scale pruning, you’ll want something more substantial. Be sure to check out this post on the best garden shears for more information on picking a tool that works well and is the correct size for your hands.
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If you don’t have any clippers, look for the natural breakpoint on the tomato stem, which is usually just an inch or two above the top of the fruit. Use your thumb to put pressure on this point and snap the tomato off. This method is more time-consuming and more likely to result in damaged plants or fruit, but it gets easier with practice.
In the photo below, you can see the result of incorrectly trying to break a vine to harvest the fruit. There is a dangling piece of vine hanging from the fruit. This damages your tomato plant. Instead of trying to break away the whole vine by hand, press into that bend you see between the person’s hand and the top of the tomato in order to snap it at a natural breaking point. (The fruit is also cracked, but it’s okay to eat cracked tomatoes if they’re cooked.)
Many people think of harvesting tomatoes as a one-handed operation. It’s best to use two hands. This helps prevent damage to both the plant and the fruit. This is particularly important for large heirloom tomatoes. You spent months watching them grow – don’t let the tomato become damaged at the last moment!
Ripening and Storing Tomatoes
If you do harvest tomatoes before they are fully ripe, place them in a warm yet dark area (not a sunny windowsill like you may be tempted to).
Placing tomatoes in a windowsill to ripen is a myth that won’t go away. Sunlight is not necessary. Placing your tomatoes in the window may cause the skin to toughen and/or the fruit to rot.
Tomatoes will continue to ripen at a temperature range of 65-75°F. Once they are at a good ripeness, you can store them somewhere cooler (55-60°F) to extend their shelf life.
Storing tomatoes stem side down may delay rotting and create juicier fruit. Serious Eats reports that storing tomatoes stem side down results in juicer tomatoes. This is because moisture can escape from the top where the fruit was attached to the vine. Flipping the tomato to store it stem side down prevents this moisture loss.
Common wisdom holds that you should never store tomatoes in the refrigerator. This halts the ripening process.
However, more recent data suggests that fully ripe tomatoes can (and perhaps even should) be stored in the fridge. The folks at Cook’s Illustrated conducted taste tests and found that, if tomatoes were stored in air tight containers, refrigerated tomatoes tasted fine after cooking (source). Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats also says it’s fine to store fully ripe tomatoes in the fridge, but to let them come to room temperatures before eating them.
As long as you eat your ripe tomatoes within a few days, it doesn’t matter whether they’re in the fridge or not. Since you’ll probably have more tomatoes soon while they’re in season, there’s no reason to prolong their storage by sticking them in the fridge unless you really want to.
Once ripe, tomatoes won’t last very long, so eat them quickly! For longer storage, you can either freeze them or can them. Not sure what to do with your bounty? A simple salad of ripe tomatoes, homegrown basil, and balsamic vinegar is always delicious. This post on how to pick and preserve cherry tomatoes has advice on tomato preservation methods. Make sure to stop by and check it out if you have a harvest to put up!
Enjoying Your Homegrown Tomatoes
Knowing when to harvest tomatoes is key to picking them at the peak of their flavor and freshness. Whichever method you choose, there’s not much that says summer like a juicy tomato from your garden.
Experiment picking tomatoes at different stages of ripeness to find out for yourself when you think they have the best flavor and texture!
Be sure to discover these additional growing and harvesting tips for your best summer garden ever:
Natasha Garcia-Lopez is an avoid home-gardener and proud owner of 88 acres of land in rural West Virginia. She was a member of the Association for Living History Farms and Agricultural Museums for many years and is currently enrolled in the Oregon State University Master Gardner Short Course program so she can better assist you with your gardening questions.She holds a certificate in natural skincare from the School of Natural Skincare.