When To Pick Tomatoes (3 Ways To Harvest At The Right Time)


Tomatoes will have the best flavor and texture when they are perfectly ripe.  Harvesting late will give you mushy tomatoes, while harvesting early will give you hard tomatoes that lack flavor.

So, how do you know when to pick tomatoes?  Pick a tomato when it is a little bit soft (not hard or mushy).  Most tomatoes have a deep red color when ripe.  Some tomatoes are not red when ripe, so you will have to rely on touch or days to maturity to harvest them at their peak.  The best time of day to pick tomatoes is in the morning.

Of course, partially ripe tomatoes will still ripen after you pick them.  In fact, you may want to pick unripe tomatoes if the weather forecast calls for extreme temperatures (which can hurt the plant, damage the fruit, or prevent ripening).

In this article, we’ll talk about when to pick tomatoes and how they ripen.  We’ll also answer some common questions about picking and ripening tomatoes.

Let’s get started.

When To Pick Tomatoes

The best time of day to pick tomatoes is in the morning.  According to Clemson University:

“Overnight, vegetables regain moisture that they lost during the day, and starches formed during the day may be converted to sugars during the evening. These traits make morning-harvested produce crisper, juicier, and sweeter.”

https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/harvesting-vegetables/
ripe tomatoes on vine
The best time to pick tomatoes is in the morning – they will be juicy and sweet.

Just don’t put your tomatoes in the refrigerator after picking, or they will get mealy and lose their flavor!

Ok, so you should pick tomatoes in the morning – but on what day?

There are 3 basic methods for determining when to pick tomatoes:

  • Color (most tomatoes will be deep red when ripe, but there are exceptions!)
  • Firmness (ripe tomatoes will be just a little bit soft when you press them gently.)
  • Days To Maturity (keep track of when you transplant to get an idea of when to expect ripe tomatoes).
purple tomatoes
Some tomatoes turn colors other than red when ripe, so you might have to feel them to see how soft they are!

None of these methods are perfect.  For example, color is tricky for tomato varieties that are purple, yellow, white, or even black when ripe!

Pressing on your tomatoes can bruise or cut them if you aren’t careful.  The days to maturity is just a guideline, not an exact number in all cases.

Still, let’s take a look at each of these 3 methods to get a better idea of when to pick tomatoes.

Pick Tomatoes By Color

The best time to pick tomatoes is when they are fully ripe.  For most tomatoes, this means that their skin will have a deep red color (on the top, sides, and bottom).

heirloom tomato
Fully ripe tomatoes are deep red, and they are a little bit soft when you press them.

The shoulders (on top of the tomato) are often the slowest to ripen fully.  If there are spots that are green, yellow, orange, or even light red, the tomato is not fully ripe yet.

There are exceptions to this “rule of red”, and some tomato varieties have different colors when mature.  For example:

Cherokee Purple tomato
Cherokee Purple tomatoes have a dusky pink or purple color when ripe.
Image courtesy of user:
Kazvorpal via:
Wikimedia Commons:
https://commons.
wikimedia.org/wiki/File:
Cherokee.purple.jpg

Pick Tomatoes By Firmness

For the colorful tomato varieties listed above, picking by firmness may be the way to go (especially if it is your first year growing them!)

A ripe tomato should feel a little bit soft to the touch.  When you press it gently with your finger, the tomato should give a little bit.

split and rotten tomato
Tomatoes will be a little soft when ripe. If you leave them on the vine too long, they get overripe and mushy.

Here are some categories of tomato hardness to look for to give you an idea of the stage of ripening:

  • Hard – this tomato probably has not even reached full size yet.  There is no give when you press on it.  It is almost certainly not ready to pick.  Most likely, it would not ripen off the vine if you did pick it.
  • Firm – this tomato has probably reached full size, and it may have just barely started to change color.  There is almost no give when you press on it.  It is most likely not ready to pick.  However, it may ripen off the vine in a couple of weeks if you absolutely must pick it (for example, before a frost that will destroy the tomato plant and fruit anyway).
  • Soft – this tomato has reached full size and has started to change color.  It has some give when you press on it with your finger.  It may be ready to pick, but if not fully ripe, you can still let it ripen off the vine (perhaps within a week).
  • Ripe – this tomato has reached full size and is past soft.  You might be able to leave a slight indent in the skin and flesh when you press on it with your finger.  It is probably at the ripest color you will see, and you should harvest it and eat it soon afterwards.
  • Mushy – this tomato is way too soft, and the skin might break when you press on it.  It may be starting to rot.  Even if it is not rotten, most food preservation guides recommend against using tomatoes that are this ripe for canning.

Tomatoes in the “breaker stage” are full size and have just started to ripen.  These will often ship better than ripe tomatoes, since they are firmer and less likely to get bruised during transport.

You can learn more about breaker stage tomatoes from the University of Georgia.

However, you don’t need to harvest your tomatoes this early to eat them fresh from the garden.

If you harvest your tomatoes too early, they will be hard and unripe.  They will lack that delicious tomato flavor and satisfying texture.

If you wait too long to harvest your tomatoes, they will be squishy.  They might even start to rot or go bad.

If in doubt, you can always pick one tomato as a sample and test it out.  Cut it open and taste it to see if it is ready!

Tomato
Firmness
Description
Harddark green, not
yet full size
Firmfull size, may
just start to
change color
Softfull size, is now
changing color,
can pick and
ripen off vine
Riperipe and ready
to harvest at
any time
Mushyoverripe and
too soft, left
on the vine
too long
This table summarizes the
stages of tomato firmness.

Pick Tomatoes By Days To Maturity

This method is really a general guideline, not an exact science.  However, it can help you to get an idea of when to expect ripe tomatoes.

You will need to keep track of two things when using this method:

  • Transplant Date – the date you transplanted the tomato plant out into the garden.  Put it on a calendar.
  • Days to Maturity – this is listed on the seed packet or in the catalog (in print or online).

If you plant multiple tomato varieties, use plant labels (markers) so that you know what you planted where.  It might also help to put the planting date and days to maturity on the label.

tomato rock plant label
Use plant labels to help you keep track of which tomato variety you planted, when you planted it, and the days to maturity.

To find your expected harvest date, add the days to maturity to the transplant date.  For example, let’s say you transplant tomatoes into the garden on May 16, and they need 75 days to maturity.

That means 15 days at the end of May, 30 days in June, and 30 days in July (15 + 30 + 30 = 75).  So, you would expect to start harvesting ripe tomatoes around July 30.

Indeterminate tomato varieties continue to grow and produce fruit until frost, so this method won’t help to determine ripeness later in the season.  It will only tell you when to expect the first ripe tomatoes of the season from your plants.

How Long Can Ripe Tomatoes Stay On The Vine?

Ripe tomatoes can stay on the vine for a few days.  However, you should pick them as soon as they are fully ripe.

There are several reasons to pick ripe tomatoes right away:

  • Ripe tomatoes attract pests – the longer ripe tomatoes stay on the vine out in the garden, the more likely an insect or animal pest will decide to give them a try before you get the chance!
  • Ripe tomatoes will eventually rot – this may attract unwelcome pests, due to the smell.
  • Overripe tomatoes will fall off the vine – they may split or bruise when they hit the ground, and they will rot faster when in contact with wet soil.  This also makes it easier for pests to get them.
cracked tomato
If you leave ripe tomatoes on the vine too long, they have more of a chance to split and rot.

If you think you might be away when your tomatoes ripen fully, ask a friend or neighbor to harvest them for you.

Do Tomatoes Need Sun To Ripen?

Tomatoes do not need sun to ripen.  However, tomato plants do need sunlight to grow and to form the fruit in the first place.

daylight
Tomatoes do not need sunlight to ripen. However, tomato plants need sunlight to grow and produce the fruit itself.

Past a certain point, sun exposure will not help tomatoes to ripen at all.  In fact, it may inhibit their ripening due to high temperatures!

This is because there is an ideal temperature range for tomatoes to ripen.

What Is The Best Temperature To Ripen Tomatoes?

According to the Kansas State University Extension, the optimal temperature for tomato ripening is 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29 degrees Celsius).  The minimum temperature is 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius).

At temperatures higher than 85 degrees Fahrenheit or lower than 50 degrees Fahrenheit, tomato ripening slows down or stops completely.

Normally, when a tomato ripens, the chlorophyll (which makes it green) breaks down.  The chlorophyll is then replaced by the pigments lycopene and carotene (which make it red).

High or low temperatures prevent the ripening process.  In effect, the tomato stays green, or gets “stuck” at yellow, orange, or even light red.

When the weather is hot, sunlight can increase the temperature of tomato fruit, especially on the top.  This increased temperature can prevent ripening.

In fact, this is what causes green or yellow “shoulders” on top of tomatoes.  The sun heats up the top of the fruit more than the bottom, and so the top ripens slowly or not at all.

green shoulders on tomato
Green or yellow “shoulders” on top of tomatoes are often caused by heat from intense sunlight.

You have some options to prevent this:

  • Leave tomato plants unpruned – this leaves more leaves to protect the fruit from the hot sun.  It may also prevent sunscald, which causes tough white or tan spots on tomato fruit due to sun exposure.
  • Use a shade cloth – this will prevent sunscald and allow tomato fruit to stay cooler so they can ripen properly during the hottest, sunniest days of summer.

When the weather is cold, perfectly healthy tomato fruit on the vine may fail to ripen.  If a frost is on the way, it might make sense to just harvest the unripe tomatoes and let them ripen on the countertop.

You can learn more about why tomatoes ripen slowly here and why they fail to ripen here.

Should I Pick Tomatoes Before They Are Ripe?

There are certain cases when you should pick tomatoes before they are ripe:

  • When a frost or freeze is coming – this will kill tomato plants and damage the fruit.  Better to salvage what you can and let the tomatoes ripen off the vine!
  • When a heat wave is coming – temperatures above 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29 degrees Celsius) with strong sunlight can prevent ripening.  So, it might be best to harvest tomatoes early and let ripen off the vine in this case.
  • For canning – many food preservation guides suggest that you should avoid using tomatoes that are too ripe for canning.  Picking the fruit when it is “almost” ripe (light red instead of deep, dark red) is ok in this case.
frosted leaf
Tomato plants cannot survive frost, and cold will damage the fruit, so you might want to harvest unripe tomatoes early in that case.

If you wish, you can pick tomatoes before they are fully ripe (pink, orange, or yellow) and let them ripen on the counter.  This might take a week or so.

Can You Pick Tomatoes When They Are Still Green?

You can pick tomatoes when they are still green.  As long as they are light green, they will still ripen on the countertop.  However, it can take a couple of weeks for light green tomatoes to ripen on the counter.

tomato on vine
Tomatoes picked green may still ripen, but it is not ideal to harvest at this early stage.

If your tomatoes are dark green, you should not pick them.  Dark green tomatoes have not even finished growing, meaning that they still have some size to gain (this can only happen while they are still on the vine!)

Dark green tomatoes have not reached the “breaker stage” yet, and so they haven’t even begun the ripening process.

One alternative to picking dark green tomatoes is to leave the fruit on the vine and pull up the entire tomato plant – roots, dirt, and all!  You can then leave it in a greenhouse or garage to protect the fruit from cold weather.

According to the Iowa State University Extension, the dark green fruit will continue to grow on the vine until it reaches the light green stage.

If you decide to pick light green tomatoes, you have some options other than waiting for them to ripen off the vine.  According to the Michigan State University Extension, you can also use green tomatoes for:

  • Canning
  • Pickling
  • Relish
  • Salsa

Do Tomatoes Ripen Faster On Or Off The Vine?

As mentioned earlier, tomato ripening depends largely on temperature.  If it is too hot outside with strong sunlight, a tomato on the vine could ripen slower than a tomato that you harvested and brought indoors to ripen on the countertop.

green tomatoes
Tomatoes can still ripen off the vine, and this may be faster if temperatures soar to over 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

On the other hand, if you harvest a tomato too early, before it reaches the breaker stage, it may not ripen properly indoors.  Even if it does ripen, you might get a mushy tomato with poor texture and flavor.

Conclusion

Now you know when to pick tomatoes so that they have the best flavor and texture possible.  You also know what to look out for if you need to harvest early.

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, please share it with someone who can use the information.

If you want to read some of my most popular posts, check out the “Best of GreenUpSide” page here.  Enjoy!

~Jonathon

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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