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 🙂
When to Pick Tomatoes off the Vine
So when should you harvest 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, avoid the birds and keep squirrels from eating your tomatoes, 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 great option unless you have pests and animals roaming around. They’re going to be 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.
- Avoid pests, animals that eat tomatoes, and trespassers (I see you eyeing my tomatoes, neighbor lady!)
- Helps avoid sunspots and cracking
- Gives you an extra day or two to decide how you’re going to use them!
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 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:
- Green – You can pick and make fried green tomatoes, or just wait a few more days
- Yellow – If you planted a yellow tomato variety, then it’s ready. If not, You can pick or wait.
- Yellow/Pink – Pick this one! She’s going to ripen up perfectly in the kitchen
- Pink All Over – This is rare, unless your tomato is a pink variety, and if so, go ahead and harvest this one
- Pink and Red – These are almost ripe, but not perfect just yet
- Red Tomatoes– These are fully ripe tomatoes and if you can get them to survive this long on your tomato plants, good on you! I’ll tell the squirrels in my garden that you said hello. 🙂
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.
- If your tomato is firm, it’s not quite ripe yet
- If your tomato is not quite firm, but not soft either, it’s ready to pick
- If your tomato starts bruising for your gentle squeeze, it’s probably past its prime. Womp womp.
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.
Determinate vs Indeterminate Varieties
It also helps to know which variety of tomato you’re growing. If you have a determinate tomato plant, it will only produce one large bounty of tomatoes and will stop producing after they are all ripe.
This is important to keep in mind because you’re going to have a lot of tomatoes on your hands, so picking one here and there isn’t really ideal. Many gardeners will can tomatoes or preserve them using other methods, so harvesting them all at once (if you can!) is a good idea.
If you’re growing indeterminate tomatoes, you can pick them as they hit that breaker stage, and not worry about the full harvest as much.
Picking Green Tomatoes
When you have an unripe tomato, you can squeeze it and it’s very firm.
Tips for ripening tomatoes indoors:
- Do not place them on a windowsill – the tomato has already begun ripening, so it does not need more sun. This can do more harm than good and leave your tomatoes with blisters, soft spots, or cause them to split
- Don’t put them in the fridge – putting tomatoes in the fridge almost always leads to a fruit that is more mealy and not as flavorful. You stop the process of ripening and it won’t get that delicious flavor you’re looking for. This is also why store-bought tomatoes have a much less exciting flavor than when you grow tomatoes on your own. They are refrigerated for transport before they can fully ripen
- Put them in a shady spot that gets a good amount of air circulation like a baking rack or wire basket
- 65-75 degrees is the best temperature for tomatoes ripening inside.
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.
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 Method
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.
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.
I have yet to find better pruning shears than these! They're lightweight, super sharp and cut through practically anything in the garden.
You want to get sharp enough pruning 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.
When to Pick 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.
When picking cherry tomatoes, they need to be picked at their peak flavor and firmness. If left on the cherry tomato plants too long, they will lose flavor and become soft and mealy.
It also depends on the variety of cherry tomatoes you’re growing. I like to grow yellow cherry tomatoes, so I definitely wouldn’t want to wait until they are red! 🙂
Once they reach the desired or expected color, you can harvest cherry tomatoes and enjoy a nice garden snack.
For those that want to make tomato sauce, pick the tomatoes when they’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 tomato varieties like Beefsteak and Heirloom tomatoes 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 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 tomatoes.
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. When you pick unripe tomatoes, you’re still going to get the benefits of the fruit if you let them ripen indoors.
“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
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.
There is nothing like homegrown tomatoes to have in the kitchen. Whether you want a juicy tomato sandwich or fried green tomatoes, vine-ripened tomatoes taste the best.