When to Pick Tomatoes

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Learn when to pick tomatoes for better fruit quality and to benefit your tomato plant. Picking tomatoes at the right time can prevent disease, increase production, and result in tastier tomatoes!

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!

But, I am guessing that if you are here, reading about when to pick tomatoes, you’ve already gone through most of the hard work and it’s now time to figure out when you should harvest the delicious fruit of your labor!

When to Pick Tomatoes…

picking cherry tomatoes

Experienced gardeners know that picking tomatoes is a serious business. A lot is going into growing tomato plants and if you are growing them to sell at the market or to feed your family, they are an important crop in the garden. They are also a fruit that can be damaged very easily and very quickly, so picking tomatoes at the right time is very important.

How to Grow Tomatoes…

Before we jump into how tomatoes ripen and when to pick tomatoes, here is some tomato growing information for you in case you feel that you want to brush up on your tomato growing skills or simply learn how I do it…

ripe red tomatoes

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 tomato plants are lower and wider (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 below), and start a big batch of canned tomato sauce or pizza sauce or whatever.
  • Indeterminate tomato plants are viny. 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.
variety of tomatoes in a basket

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 Sun Gold tomatoes, there are Cherokee Purple tomatoes, there are Indigo Rose tomatoes (which are completely black!)…

I mean, there are so many varieties of tomatoes in so many different colors! 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…

green tomatoes on the vine

How Do Tomatoes Ripen?

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.

Consider a few things…

  1. It takes a small tomato (like a cherry tomato) a lot less time to reach the Mature Green Stage than it takes a large tomato simply because of its size…
  2. 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.
  3. 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 ripening.
  4. Annnnndddd… Most importantly, as long as the tomato reaches the Mature Green Stage on the vine it no longer needs the vine in order to completely ripen!
tomatoes on the vine starting to turn

When to Pick Tomatoes?

When they’ve reached the Mature Green Stage… 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.

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.

stages of tomato ripening

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).

Advantages of Picking Tomatoes Early…

  • The longer the tomato stays on the vine the more inviting it is to pests who want to try the delicious fruit.
  • The longer the tomato is on the vine the higher the risk of splitting, blemishing, or any other cosmetic issues.
  • The longer the tomato stays on the vine the higher the chance of it falling off the vine and onto the ground.
  • Harvesting your tomatoes at the mature green stage lowers the risk of your tomato developing blossom end rot.
  • Harvesting early also makes the plant lighter therefore the risk of branches breaking is smaller.
  • And, harvesting early allows for more room for new tomatoes to form.

How to Ripen Tomatoes Off the Vine

  • Away from direct sunlight – make sure that you place the tomatoes that you want to ripen away from direct sunlight. Do not place them on a windowsill, for example. Too much sun will blister and damage the fruit (this is actually what happens on the vine if you leave the tomato there too long).
  • One layer – make sure to place your tomatoes in one layer, don’t pile them up in a bag or in a container. This will allow good air circulation around the tomatoes.
  • Cool shady location – The best temperature for ripening tomatoes is 65-70 degrees F, and again, away from direct sun. A cool garage, barn, or shady porch can work. And indoors, of course.
  • Do not ripen in the fridge – placing your tomatoes in the fridge will completely stop the ripening process. Not only that, but your tomatoes will also lose flavor and nutrients.
ripe red large tomatoes in a basket

How to Preserve Ripen Tomatoes…

You worked hard on starting your tomato plants, planting them in the garden, caring for them, and harvesting in time. I won’t be surprised if the plants return the love with a whole lot of fruit! If you happen to find yourself with a ton of tomatoes, here are a few ways to preserve them…

Frequently Asked Questions…

When should I pick tomatoes for fried green tomatoes?

Pick tomatoes for this dish during 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. Or, another option is to grow a variety of green tomatoes.

Can I pick all of the green tomatoes at the end of the season?

Tomato plants are very sensitive to cold. At the end of the season, if you know that a freeze is coming go ahead and harvest all of your tomatoes. Ripen them the same way that we described above. If some of them stay green and have a hard time ripening, you can use them to make a tomato relish, you can ferment them, or you can fry some green tomatoes.

My tomatoes are having a hard time ripening, is there anything else that I can do?

Yes, if you followed all of the instructions in the post but still have a few tomatoes that have a hard time ripening you can try placing them in a paper bag with an apple or a banana. The gases produced off of those fruits will help the tomatoes ripen.

But, doesn’t the tomato need nutrients from the plant as it ripens?

No, it doesn’t. Once the tomato is at its “breaking point” it no longer needs anything from the plant in order to ripen. The level of nutrients in the plant is not going to suffer because the fruit is no longer on the vine.

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!

More Gardening Tutorials…

The Garden Workbook is Here!

In part one of this book, we’ll go over how to set up and grow your best garden yet.

Part two consists of 16 garden printables to help you plan, record, and manage your garden properly!

Please share this content if you like it. Thank You!

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  1. Ryan In Nevada says:

    Very informative. I always thought store bought tomatoes were bland because they were chilled after picking. So, it’s the fact they pick them too soon, got it.
    I have two indeterminate Better Boy plants that have produced big tomatoes and we plan to fry a few.
    Maybe I’m the only one who does this, but sometimes I eat tomatoes like I would an apple! It can be done if you’re careful with the juice 🙂 Try it sometime.
    Anyway, I enjoyed the read and enjoy your toms!

    1. We eat tomatoes like apples all the time! A wonderful snack. We also like the tiny cherry tomatoes as a snack.

  2. I’ll be picking the rest of mine in a few minutes since a frost warning has just been issued. Otherwise, we pick them at about the same stage that you do – almost but not quite ripe.

  3. Thank you for sharing this at the HomeAcre Hop; I hope you’ll join us again this week. I have several orange-y tomatoes on the vines and was wondering if I could pick them yet, but now I think they need a couple more days.

  4. We usually pick them before there fully ripe and still firm. I have quite a few that are green on the stocks and I think we might have to pick them soon and let them ripen on the counter top so that the frost don’t get them. Visiting from Home Acre Blog Hop.

  5. Here is another tip…if you have to pick the last of your green tomatoes before a frost, put them in a brown paper sack with an apple or banana and then place them in a warm spot. They will ripen with in a day or two.

    1. Ha! I was just about to research how to ripen green tomatoes. You have a wonderful timing! Thanks.

  6. We pick them when they are orange, too. We find that we don’t lose as many to pests when we do. Thanks for sharing at Simple Lives Thursday; hope to see you again this week.

  7. What if I don’t get enough to can? Is it ok to freeze them until I get enough? Mine have been really slow at ripening this year in Indiana.

    1. If they are already ripe and you don’t have time to can, you can definitely freeze them until you have enough. You can freeze them whole or peel, puree in a food processor and then freeze, depending on how you wan’t to can them later (as sauce or whole tomatoes). If you pick them when they are between orange and red, you can store them in the fridge. They will last few weeks (maybe 3 or 4), and maybe by this time you’ll have enough to can.

      1. Awesome! I was hoping that would be your answer!…lol I make the Seasoned Tomato Sauce that’s in the Ball Blue Book. It is AMAZING, and the sauce can be used for chili, spaghetti, lasagna or veggie soup. My family loves it.

    2. We can as many as we need for the next year then quarter and freeze the rest. We pull those out at our leisure and make ketchup or spaghetti sauce (this spaghetti sauce recipe is fantastic – I use cooking sherry or some other non-oil liquid when cooking everything at the start. When you thaw them, the skins slip right off. Be sure to dehydrate those and grind them into powder. They can be added to many things for flavor, bulk, etc.

      1. Great tips! Thanks. I hope to have enough to freeze next year.

  8. Excellent. I will pick mine in the morning. They are getting too red.

    1. This old girl has learned a few things reading your post. Thank you so much for all your help. God bless you.

  9. Yes, I do the same thing and the flavor remains just as incredible! Great post!

  10. I agree with picking tomatoes before they are fully ripe. If I didn’t then as mentioned pests will show up and I loose them.

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