No matter how you like your tomatoes, nothing tastes like a fresh ripe tomato straight out of the garden. However, knowing when it’s ready for harvest can be tricky.
If you pick them too early, flavor and color won’t develop fully, and if left for a longer time, they will be at risk of being damaged by a sudden change in the weather or by insects.
Timing is crucial for a perfect harvest but being resourceful and tactical when the weather throws you a curve ball is also important in knowing when to harvest tomatoes.
Keep reading to learn more about when to pick tomatoes to enjoy them at their best and how to prevent losing your crop when they won’t ripen on the vine.
When To Pick Tomatoes From The Vine
Tomatoes are ready for harvesting at the end of the season when their growth progress has stopped, and they are beginning to change color.
Pick them at the coolest part of the day when temperatures are lower, and never pick them if they are wet – either from morning dew or the rain. I find that early evening or early morning is best.
The problem with wet fruit is it promotes and encourages the spread of decay which can spread more easily once they have been picked off the vine. Similarly, fruit that is harvested when the pulp temperatures are high leaves them prone to bruising if squeezed too hard during the picking process.
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How To Tell If Tomatoes Are Ready
Using your senses is the best way to tell when your tomato plants are ready for harvesting. Looking, feeling, and smelling the fruit in the days leading up to your particular varieties’ growth habits are the best indicators of their readiness for picking. Here’s what to look out for in more detail.
Not all tomatoes are red in color. They come in many colors: yellow, pink, purple, white, and black. A fully ripe tomato will have transitioned to its mature color – as indicated on the seed pack or in the seed catalog – during the previous few weeks.
For example, if it’s a red tomato, its color should be deep red, and if it is a yellow tomato, it should be deep yellow, and so on. The color should be evenly distributed from top to bottom, with no hints of green left behind.
Tomatoes still growing have a firm feel. A fully ripe tomato has a slightly tender feel. The tenderness suggests that the tomato has begun to ripen inside out.
A fully ripe tomato also has no fuzzy hair covering its skin.
Fully ripe tomatoes have a strong, sweet, and earthly odor. When sniffing the fruit, you should place your nose on the fruit surface to avoid confusing its smell with the vine smell. This is because the vine also has a strong and distinctive smell.
Ease of picking
Take a ripe-looking tomato and pull it away from the vine. If it comes away with ease, your tomato will be ready for harvest. If it is still firmly attached to the vine after a gentle pull, it needs a few more days of ripening.
When purchasing tomato seeds or transplants, you’ll find out that each variety has ‘days to maturity ‘ branded on the package or plant label. Remember to take note as it will help you predict more accurately when to pick your tomatoes.
How To Harvest Tomatoes
When harvesting, I recommend wearing cotton gloves. This will not only protect the skin of your fingers but also minimize harvest damage and bruising. If gloves are not worn, nails should be kept short to avoid damaging the fruit’s skin.
Remember to remove pieces of jewelry worn on the hands, such as bracelets, rings, and even watches to avoid puncturing the fruit.
Harvesting tomatoes is easy, satisfying, and rewarding. Just bear in mind that there are different ways to pick them depending on whether you want to keep a little of the stem and the calyx (the green star shape that sits between the fruit and the stem) attached to the fruit once you’ve picked them.
For aesthetics, I like to keep a little greenery intact. For this reason, I use sanitized pruners or garden clippers to snip the inch or two of the stem that is attached to each ripened fruit. Just be careful here that you are using your other hand to cup the fruit to prevent it from falling as it becomes detached.
If I’m in a hurry or need the tomatoes as an ingredient in a cooked dish, I tend to hold the fruit between my thumb and 2 fingers and detach it from the stem using a gentle pull and twist motion.
After picking the fruits, handle them carefully by gently putting them into harvesting baskets or containers. They should have a smooth inner lining and be well-ventilated.
Do not put more than 10kg of fruits into one container to avoid bruising or squashed tomatoes.
Harvesting tomatoes with the calyx and stem attached is not always suitable for bunch-bearing varieties since some fruits may not have matured enough to be harvested.
Ripening Green Tomatoes Off The Plant
In the world of tomato growing, not every harvest is a great harvest. Thankfully, all is not lost. Tomatoes are one of a handful of fruits that will continue to ripen off the plant once they have been picked.
To ripen green tomatoes off the plant first remove any diseased tomatoes and throw them away. From those that remain, check out the ones that have a hint of color change. These have the best chance of ripening off the vine.
Keep your unripe tomatoes at room temperature. Avoid exposing them to too much heat and too low temperatures as this will result in a dramatic shutdown of the chemical reactions that are responsible for their ripening.
Here below is a list of ways to help you learn how to ripen your green tomatoes off the plant easily.
Use breathable containers
Put a few tomatoes into a breathable container- a paper bag with holes to allow for air circulation is ideal. Avoid using sealed plastic bags as this will make your tomatoes sweat. This increased moisture can cause mold growth and rot. Make sure you check your fruits regularly throughout the ripening period.
To quicken the ripening process, put a ripe banana, apple, or avocado in the bag along with your tomatoes. According to The University of Maryland, these fruits are known for producing a lot of ethylene gas. Fruits produce ethylene in the later stages of their growth to aid with ripening. This boost of ‘ripening gas’ helps to stimulate the production of ethylene in unripened tomatoes.
Use a cardboard box
Either wrap each tomato separately with newspaper and then put them all together in a cardboard box, or line your cardboard box with newspaper and then place your tomatoes inside to form a single layer.
Leave a little space between each tomato to limit contact. Check them daily and isolate any that show signs of mold or rot and remove any ripened fruit to prevent spoiling.
As with the technique above, you can also add a ripe apple, avocado, or banana to the box to further accelerate the ripening process.
Ripen On A Windowsill
My preferred method of ripening green tomatoes is on a windowsill. Provided you have the space and a ledge that receives direct sunlight, it is easy, and convenient and you can enjoy watching the color develop right before your eyes.
It works well with tomatoes that have started to transition from an unripe green hue but still need time to mature and develop their full color and flavor.
To avoid the hardening of the skins of your tomatoes, you will need to periodically rotate the fruit to ensure that all sides get exposed to the light from the windowsill.
Pests and diseases aside, there are years when the weather just isn’t on the side of us tomato growers and we are faced with an abundance of green tomatoes that adamantly won’t ripen. At least you can cook with green tomatoes, better than having your crop destroyed by deer or blight.
For those tomatoes with no hint of color, don’t let green tomatoes prevent you from reaping a full harvest. They can still be cooked and eaten when unripe. Who doesn’t love the nostalgia of fried green tomatoes?
FAQ When To Harvest Tomatoes
If you still have questions about harvesting tomatoes then here are a few of the most popular questions that I frequently get asked, along with the answers.