When to Pick Tomatoes: Should They Be Red, Yellow…Green?

by Chenell | Last Updated: July 15, 2021
when to pick tomatoes

If you’re like me, the tomatoes I grow in my garden rarely make it back into the house — especially those sweet cherry tomatoes!

But, some larger tomatoes generally do make it back inside because they need a little more ripening. I don’t pick them when they are red, because, with all of the chipmunks, birds, and squirrels around, I’d never have any tomatoes!

So when should you pick your tomatoes?

Honestly, the debate is real ya’ll. When I tell people my method for picking tomatoes some of them get all up in arms and give me the side-eye. But my tomatoes turn out delicious, and their method is for the birds….literally ๐Ÿ™‚

When to Pick Tomatoes off the Vine

So when should you pick tomatoes off the vine?

As soon as the fruit begins turning color from a green color to a yellowish-pink, I pick tomatoes off the vine. If you want your plant to produce more fruit, and avoid the birds and squirrels from eating them, then don’t wait for them all to turn red in color before picking them.

Many gardeners say that you should pick them once they start turning red on the vine because that is when their natural sugars are at their peak. And that’s a fine option, but if you have pests and animals roaming around, they’re going to much more attracted to these tomatoes so you might be decreasing the number of tomatoes that you get from your harvest.

The Benefits of Picking Tomatoes Early or “Half-Ripe”

Here are my favorite reasons for picking tomatoes before they’re ready to go.

If you’re going to pick your tomatoes before they’re super red, or whatever color they’re supposed to be, you’ll want to make sure they are actually ripe.

How to Tell if a Tomato is Ripe

There are quite a few ways you can use to determine if your tomatoes are ripe or not.

Color

Color is the first method you can use to decide if it’s time to pick your tomato. As I mentioned above, it’s okay to pick tomatoes when they’re just starting to turn.

The Tomato Ripening Process

Tomatoes ripen in a few stages and have multiple colors. Most ripening tomatoes will follow this:

tomato stages

Pressure Test

To determine if you have a ripe tomato you can also use the pressure or “squeeze” test. While I wouldn’t squeeze them really hard, you want to gently squeeze the tomato to see how much “give” it has.

Remember, it’s okay to pick a tomato that is slightly pink and still firm, tomatoes will ripen after you pick them.

Check the Seed Packet

Your seed packet should give you a “days to maturity” number, which will help you determine if your tomatoes are getting close to ripe.

While I wouldn’t use that date as a magic number that’s always right, it will give you an idea of when to start expecting tomatoes.

Picking Green Tomatoes

When you have an unripe tomato, you can squeeze it and it’s very firm.

Tips for ripening tomatoes indoors:

Time of the Day

It’s a great idea to pick your tomatoes in the morning before it gets too hot. Tomato plants go through a lot of stages throughout the day, and your tomatoes might taste a little different if you pick them at the height of the afternoon sun.

I also wouldn’t pick tomatoes in the rain, unless it just started and you want to avoid cracking.

Weather

You also want to be mindful of tomatoes cracking. Cracking usually happens after a dry period followed by a really heavy rainstorm. The tomato plant was doing just fine with the dry weather, and then it gets bombarded with a ton of rain and tries to push that excess water into the fruit, and then you get cracking.

I’d rather have a green tomato to use than a ripe, cracked one a few days later.

If you’ve had a decent dry spell and then get a lot of rain, your tomatoes are potentially in trouble. So if you notice a heavy thunderstorm in the forecast, see if you can get some of your almost ripe tomatoes off the vine before that happens.

How to Pick Tomatoes

Once you’ve gone through the tricky part of determining when you should harvest tomatoes, getting them off the vine is pretty straightforward.

The Twist or Pull

For cherry tomatoes, I usually just gently tug on them and they will almost always come right off. If not, you can twist them a bit to get them off.

Pruning Shears

For larger tomato varieties, you can usually twist them off, but using pruning shears is a great idea. This helps make sure you aren’t pulling the stem off too hard and causing a hole in the top of the tomato. They definitely won’t last very long if you do that.

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You want to get sharp enough shears that they cut the tomato off on the first try. If you’re using old, rusty ones, that’s not exactly ideal and you can slip and injure surrounding tomatoes.

Cut the tomato off about an inch or two about the fruit to get enough of the stem off so that it doesn’t get in the way of other tomatoes you might not have picked yet.

Don’t: Try to Pull the Stem Off

Trying to pull the stem off, or use a fingernail to cut it is just a bad idea. I know, I know. It’s annoying to get all the way to the garden and realize you forgot your shears, but just go get them. Don’t try and rip the tomato off and end up doing more harm than good.

You spent so much time starting the plants, watering them properly, and waiting for months to get a tomato, just to have your lazy side go and ruin it.

Cherry & Grape Tomatoes

Smaller tomato varieties are a little easier to pick, but they can be hard to keep up with because the plants produce so many!

Generally, you can gently pull them and they will come right off the plant.

yellow globe tomatoes

When picking cherry tomatoes, they need to be picked at their peak flavor and firmness. If left on the vine too long, they will lose flavor and become mealy.

For those that want to make tomato sauce, pick the tomatoes when theyโ€™re red. Most varieties have a range of colors in which they are considered ripe, so wait until you see the majority of fruit turning from green to red before harvesting.

There are even purple tomato varieties, so it’s important to know which variety you’re growing.

Beefsteak or Heirloom Tomatoes

Larger tomatoes varieties like Beefsteak and Heirlooms can be a little tricky. For slicing tomatoes or beefsteak types, wait until tomatoes start ripening and changing color before harvesting them for fresh eating purposes. They can stay on the vine longer if you plan to store them for future use or plan on canning or cooking with them.

Roma Tomatoes

Roma tomatoes are probably my only exception to the “picking them half-ripe” rule. I like letting them get pretty close to done on the vine before snagging them off.

For some reason, Roma tomatoes don’t ripen as well on the counter, so wait until they’re closer to being fully ripe before harvesting them.

Can You Pick Tomatoes When They are Green?

Absolutely! Especially if you are looking to make some fried green tomatoes out of those bad boys. Yum!

You can pick other tomatoes when they are mostly green but just starting to turn pink/red. If they’re fully green, wait another day or two before harvesting.

Do Tomatoes Ripen Faster On or Off the Vine?

Once a tomato starts the ripening process, it stops bringing in chlorophyll and begins to focus on ripening instead of growing.

“Tomatoes start out green due to their high chlorophyll content. Once the tomatoes have fully matured in their green stage, they produce ethylene gas which triggers the ripening process. The chlorophyll in the fruits begins to dissolve replaced by lycopene (a naturally occurring chemical compound).” – Tomato Bible (https://www.tomatobible.com/tomatoes-not-ripening/)

How Long Does it Take Tomatoes to Ripen?

Well, that’s a doozy. It’s going to depend on which variety you’re going, the temperatures outside, your soil and nutrient density, if they’re properly watered, and on and on.

You should check your seed packet or seedling card to get a good idea of when you can start to expect tomatoes. While that date can be way off in some cases, you’ll usually see at least some activity around then.

Can you Eat Cracked Tomatoes?

Yes, and no. If it’s just cracked and hasn’t attracted bugs or disease yet, then of course, go ahead and dive in. But if the crack has attracted pests and other issues, I’d stay away from it and just add it to the compost bin.

Chenell lived in a big city for 9 years and loved it. But ever since she was a little kid watching her grandfather raise cattle and pigs, she's always wanted to live on a farm. Once the pandemic hit, she bought a house with her partner on an acre and half of land and started planning a 50 foot by 50 foot garden....with no experience. This site is the place where you can follow along as this millennial tries to learn to grow her own food (and eventually make her own avocado toast).