In this post, we are going to learn when to pick tomatoes. It sounds like a silly thing to devote a whole post to but let me tell you, the quality and quantity of your tomato harvest depends on when you pick your tomatoes! I’ll explain why in this post. We’ll go over when should you pick your tomatoes and why. How picking time can change and why and how to prevent tomato health issues by picking at the right time. Let’s do this!
I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t love tomatoes. I’ve never met anyone who is a gardener, anyone that actually has a nice space for growing vegetables, who doesn’t grow tomatoes.
And the thing is… They are not easy plants to grow! You have to start seeds indoors which means you have to have some sort of set up like this one, you have to baby these plants for weeks, re-pot them, feed them, water them, and on and on…
Then you have to find the right time to transplant them into the garden and you have to know how to do it so you don’t kill the plants (learn more here). If they made it through the transplanting shock and all is well, you have to make sure you trellis your tomatoes, keep the caterpillars away, prune the plants…
Seriously! By the time that you get around to picking your tomatoes, you’ve already spent hours caring for them.
When to Pick Tomatoes…
Yet, everyone grows tomatoes! There is just something about this fruit that is worth all the hard work.
Is it the way it looks? It’s so beautiful!
Is it the way it tastes? Oh man, all you need in summer is the lake, a picnic blanket, delicious homemade bread, butter or mayo, and a freshly picked tomato from the garden. Nothing else, I tell you.
Maybe it’s the fact that there are so many varieties and you can get creative and try something new each time? They come in so many colors and shapes!
Maybe a good reason to grow them is that they are the healthiest and easiest snack! I grow a variety called Matt’s Wild. They are tiny; a marble size. When my kids need a snack during the busy months of the summer, they run to the garden and eat them warm right off the vine. You wouldn’t believe how much kitchen time one Matt’s Wild tomato vine saves me!
Another reason is that you can easily preserve them and whichever way you choose to do it, the result is sure to be delicious. You can can tomato sauce, freeze tomatoes, dry them, ferment them… And it’s all so good!
Whatever your reason for growing tomatoes is, I know that if you even have the tiniest garden there is a tomato vine there for sure!
If you have a little bit of experience with growing tomatoes you might have experienced the devastating event of picking a beautiful tomato only to realize that it’s completely rotten at the bottom!
After all the hard work you’ve put in, there is nothing to eat for it… (ha! Instead of “show for it”, “eat for it.” Got it? Got it?)
I explained in my post How and When to Plant Tomatoes Outdoors that there is a way to prevent it. Make sure to check that post, but in this post, I’ll show you how picking your tomatoes at the right time can also prevent this from happening.
Let’s start at the beginning…
Two Groups of Tomato Plants…
There are two kinds of tomato plants and the way that the tomatoes ripen on those two kinds is essentially the same but with a tiny difference…
Determinate tomatoes are lower and wider. The plants are bushier. A cluster of flowers will grow on the top of the plant and those flowers will turn into a cluster of tomatoes. All those tomatoes will ripen at approximately the same time.
The plant might produce a second round of flowers and tomatoes and then will be done.
Having all the tomatoes on the bush approximately at the same time makes determinate tomatoes great for canning. You pick all of them, let them ripen on the counter (more on this in a minute), and start a big batch of canned tomato sauce or pizza sauce or whatever.
Indeterminate tomatoes have more vines. They benefit from pruning and they grow really tall and need a good support system. Some use them for canning as well (I do that and they are great), but they are known more as slicing varieties or snacking varieties which is what I like to call them if they are the small cherry kind.
The tomatoes on those vines will grow and ripen gradually through the growing season. You can have a few tomatoes on the same stem and one will be completely ripe while the other is completely green.
You pick the tomatoes as they ripen and grow and the plant will keep producing.
Different Colors or Tomatoes…
As you probably know, there are so many different tomato varieties and so many shapes and colors.
There are orange tomatoes like those Sun Gold tomatoes…
There are Cherokee Purple tomatoes (one of my favorite varieties!)…
Or these Indigo Rose tomatoes (which are completely black!)…
I mean, there are so many varieties of tomatoes in so many different colors, just look at the selection on the Johnny’s Selected Seeds web site… Honestly, it’s overwhelming.
The thing is… As far as I know, no matter what the end color of your tomato is, they all start green and ripen the same exact way… Here is how…
How Do Tomatoes ripen?
Here is how this happens… The tomato flower turns into a tiny green tomato fruit after pollination. Provided the right temperatures, the green tomato will keep growing bigger and bigger depending on the variety.
First, more cells are going to be created, then at some point, new cell creation will stop and the existing cells will start growing larger and larger.
Then the tomato reaches the Mature Green Stage (also called “The Breaker Stage”) and two growth hormones called lycopene and carotene change and cause the production of the gas Ethylene.
This gas is tasteless, colorless, and odorless, but it’s there and it’s what causes the softening process to begin and the loss of the green color and transition into red, yellow, orange, black, purple or whatever other colors by increasing carotenoids and decreasing chlorophyll. You can read more about this here.
Consider a few things…
It takes a small tomato a lot less time to reach the Mature Green Stage than it takes a large tomato simply because of its size…
Tomatoes will only produce lycopene and carotene, the two hormones that activate the gas Ethylene between the temperatures of 50F and 85F, so if your tomatoes are green forever and you wonder why, check the weather. Above 85F the production of those hormones will come to almost a complete halt.
In order for the tomato to turn red, the gas Ethylene has to stay around. If you live in an area that has a lot of strong winds that take the gas away, your tomatoes might have a harder time to ripen.
Annnnndddd… Most importantly, as long as the tomato reached the Mature Green Stage on the vine it no longer needs it in order to completely ripen!
When to Pick Tomatoes?
When they’ve reached the Mature Green Stage. Easier said than done. Actually, it’s not that hard to spot…
You are looking for the first blush of color when you notice that the green is starting to give way to a rosy or orange color, that’s when you CAN pick your tomatoes.
I say CAN because you can leave them a tiny bit longer if you’d like. You see in the picture above, these tomatoes are going to turn completely red but at this stage, they are still orange. Pick them now or even a few days ago when they had even less color.
If you pick your tomatoes at the Mature Green Stage you lower the chance of the tomato to develop blossom end rot, you make the plant a bit lighter so branches don’t break, and you allow more room for new tomatoes to form.
Once you pick your tomato, bring it inside and don’t wash it or refrigerate it. Just leave it in a paper bag or in a basket on the counter (away from direct sun) at room temperature and let it complete the ripening process.
It will be so flavorful and will ripen all the way just as if you left it on the vine.
Just be careful not to pick your tomatoes before the Mature Green Stage. Even though the tomato might still produce enough gas to help it ripen all the way it won’t be as tasty as if you left it just a bit longer. This is many times the reason why tomatoes at the grocery store taste like a red nothing.
Since they know that the tomatoes are going to be in transport for a long period of time, they pick them before the Mature Green Stage and allow them to ripen during transport. Even though they do ripen, we pay for this shortcut with taste.
Here is another example… See that tomato in the front? See how it has this faint orange color? You can go ahead and pick that one (and the others too, of course).
One last point here… At the end of the season, if you still have tomatoes on the vine you can pick them before you clean out the plants from the garden. Bring them indoors, store them in a paper bag and let them ripen. Most of them will and even if some don’t at least you saved a few.
When to Pick Tomatoes For Fried Green Tomatoes?
I LOVE fried green tomatoes! I hate frying but I will fry me a few green tomatoes during the growing season because they are so delicious!
You pick tomatoes for this dish in the exact same time: at the Mature Green Stage. The only difference is that you’ll use your tomatoes right away and fry them instead of leaving them on the counter to turn red.
That’s the only difference.
So, I hope that this post helped you understand a bit better how tomatoes grow and ripen. I hope that you realize that you can increase your yield and support a healthier, stronger, and more productive plant if you pick your tomatoes at the right time.
It’s not a huge chore, you are going to pick your tomatoes anyway, it’s just paying a little bit more attention to the right time.
I am always amazed at how things have been created in such a fitting and beneficial manner to human beings. Especially when it comes to nature. The ability to pick our tomatoes a bit early and let them complete the ripening process away from the vine allows us, farmers, to serve our families and our communities with this delicious fruit.
It’s a balance of timing, but once you learn how to use this to your advantage you’ll see a great improvement in your tomato harvest!