when to pick tomatoes

When to Pick Tomatoes for Super Fruit Quality & Flavor

Ian Mutuli
Updated on

Growing tomato plants indoors or in your garden is one of the easiest gardening tasks, but even the best cultivation practices won't matter if you don't know when to pick tomatoes from the vine. So, knowing when to pick tomatoes is necessary to get the best flavor and tomato quality from your backyard garden since color and size are non-reliable indicators of ripeness. Full-color development is often delayed until after the fruit is ready to pick.

Most gardeners are reluctant to harvest slightly green tomatoes, thinking that they will not produce a good flavor. However, in reality, harvesting tomatoes past the half-color stage gives the gardener more control over the ripening period without losing the homegrown tomato flavor. Luckily, several indicators let you know when to pick tomatoes. Dive in!

What are the Cues to Determine if the Tomato Fruits Have Reached Peak Maturity?

When you grow cherry or heirloom tomatoes, you need to know the signs that indicate that your tomato plants are ready to be picked. So, if you are in your garden and wondering if your homegrown tomatoes are fully ripe and ready to be picked, below are the main indicators to determine if the tomatoes have reached the peak ripening process.

a). Fruit color

This is a cue most people take as an indicator to harvest tomatoes, but it doesn't apply to all varieties. The skin of a fully ripe tomato is supposed to deepen to the mature color indicated in the seed catalog or on the tomato seed packet.

Tomatoes ripen in several stages and have multiple colors, and most ripening tomatoes will follow this:

  • Green Color- You can pick these tomatoes, make fried green tomatoes, or wait a few extra days.
  • Yellow- If you planted the yellow tomato varieties, then it's ready but if not, pick or wait. However, the tomatoes turning yellow could also be a problem.
  • Yellow/Slightly pink- Pick this tomato as it will ripen in the kitchen perfectly.
  • Fully Pink- This is rare unless your tomato is of the pink tomato variety. If so, go ahead to harvest.
  • Pink and Red- Almost a ripe tomato but not perfect just yet
  • Red Tomatoes- It is a fully ripe tomato

Nevertheless, it can be easy to tell when red tomatoes color up nicely. Still, it is tricky to tell when white, yellow, and purple tomatoes or striped varieties are fully ripe, making picking your tomatoes difficult. Luckily, don't give up the happy gardening thoughts since it gets easier with experience and if you are unsure, check the other indicators to judge whether to start picking tomatoes.

b). Days to Maturity

There are countless tomato varieties you can grow, and each type has specific days to maturity, which is the amount of time from the growing season to harvesting tomatoes. For tomatoes, the days to maturity is the time from transplanting and not the seeding.

Early maturing tomato varieties can start producing ripe fruits from as little as 55 days from transplanting, while late-maturing may need 85 or more days for the tomato plant to ripen fully. However, to learn the days to maturity of a specific tomato variety, you should refer to the seed packet or the company website.

c). Feel

While color is sometimes the biggest indicator of ripeness, feel is just as important where unripe tomatoes are firm to the touch and overly ripe tomatoes are very soft. A ripe and ready-to-pick tomato should be firm but should have a little give when it's carefully squeezed or pressed with a finger gently. The tenderness develops as the aroma and color mature, whether on the vine or the kitchen counter.

d). Fragrance

Vine-ripened tomatoes are a thing, and there are even candles made from the ripe tomato fragrance. Ripe tomatoes have a tomatoey fragrance, but it may not be attractive for everyone to want them as a candle! If you think your tomato is done with the ripening process, give it a sniff as tomatoes become more fragrant as they ripen.

e). Ease of Picking

A final indicator of when to pick or harvest tomatoes is how easily they will slip from the plant. However, this is not a test you should rely on as tugging your fully ripe fruit from its plant can damage both the plant and the fruit and other tomatoes still in the ripening process.

When tomatoes reach the picking or harvest time, you should use garden clippers or hand pruning shears to clip them from the plant. With that in mind, if you want to pull your tomato fruit to check if it comes off the stem easily as a sign of ripeness, do it gently. If it doesn't separate from the tomato plant with a light tug, avoid forcing it as it indicates that you are picking tomatoes early.

Special Picking Situations

a). Heirloom Varieties

Heirloom tomatoes ripen before they completely turn color, so you should pick the heirloom tomato plants before they look fully ripe. If you wait until these tomatoes start ripening and are fully colored, they will often over mature and may rot or split. Instead, try to harvest tomatoes when half to three-quarters ripe and let them finish the ripening process indoors.

b). Cherry Tomatoes

Cherry and other small fruit tomatoes can be challenging to stay on top of the harvesting process. Cherry tomato plants are produced in trusses and sometimes with dozen fruits per truss. So, they won't ripen simultaneously, so you shouldn't wait for the whole truss to color up before you harvest cherry tomatoes.

The cherry tomatoes will crack when left on the vine for too long, so you should pick them before they look like fully ripe tomatoes. Instead, choose to harvest cherry, currant and grape tomatoes when the individual fruit turns into mature colors.

Does Weather Impact When to Pick Tomatoes?

Yes, weather impacts when to pick tomatoes. Heavy rain, especially when followed by a dry weather period, is a major cause of cracked tomatoes and split fruits. Unripe fruits may also be affected, but mostly the ripe tomatoes and half-ripe tomatoes get damaged.

The cracked and split fruits usually spoil quickly and attract insects and larger critters. Therefore, it's important to harvest tomatoes when ripe or almost ripe before there is deep watering or heavy rain.

In addition, the fully green tomatoes used to make fried green tomatoes, or green tomato salsa won't ripen well either. Notably, the half-ripe tomatoes can be placed in one layer in boxes or baskets and brought to fully ripen indoors. Alternatively, place the green tomatoes in a paper bag with ethylene gas-producing fruits such as apples or bananas to help them ripen.

1. Cold Temperatures

Another way weather can affect when to pick tomatoes is towards the end of the growth stage when the days are shorter and cooler. The cool weather can slow the ripening of tomatoes, and frost can damage the fruits and plants.

If the cold weather is threatening your crop, you can salvage the half-ripe green tomatoes by picking tomatoes early since any tomatoes that have reached the mature size and turned light green are considered green ripe tomatoes.

2. Hot Temperatures

On the other hand, temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit are not ideal for most tomato varieties as the high temperatures can make tomatoes more prone to heat-related problems. Also, carotene and lycopene, the orange and red pigments responsible for giving tomatoes their color, cannot develop well in hot weather.

So, if your tomatoes have reached their size and won't develop their color, pick tomatoes and let them finish ripening on an air-conditioned kitchen counter.

Ian Mutuli

About the author

Ian Mutuli

Founder and Managing Editor of Archute. He is also a graduate architect from The University of Nairobi, Kenya.