If you grow tomatoes, you know that half the battle is establishing and protecting the plants, and the other half is figuring out when to harvest those wonderful red fruits!
Tomatoes seem awfully fickle compared to other plants, and this is complicated by all the advice floating around about them. A little too early or a little too late and, oh no, your tomatoes are rotting!
On the surface, it seems so simple: When the fruit is ready, you can gently pull the fruit off the vine by twisting.
Alternatively, you can take a pair of scissors and snip just above the blossom end on the vine. Then simply place them on the counter or in a sunny windowsill and they will continue to ripen.
You can pick green tomatoes for a delicious fried green tomato recipe. Or you can allow your tomatoes to continue to ripen to a deep red, orange, or yellow, depending on variety.
Simply place them on the counter, or in a sunny windowsill and they will continue to ripen.
If you have a lot of tomatoes to ripen, you can also place them in a tightly closed paper bag for 2-3 days. Ah, if only it were as easy to do as it is to type! Too often your tomatoes will seem to spoil too quickly or never ripen in the first place.
It is enough to make a person crazy. But never fear, we are here to help you with all the tips and tricks you need to know about harvesting tomatoes.
Read on for the best time to pick your tomatoes, how to tell if they are ripe, and what to do with them once you have picked them.
We’ll also give you some expert wisdom on ripening tomatoes you have already picked and how to make the right call when you are forced to harvest at an inopportune time. Grab your gloves and let’s get started.
When Should You Harvest Your Tomatoes?
This is probably the most frequently asked question about tomatoes. When is the best time to pick them?
The answer, unfortunately, is not a simple one. It depends on several factors, including the type of tomato plant, the weather, any challenges in the area (like pests) and even your personal preferences.
When to harvest your tomatoes plants and seeds will depend on the variety of tomato you are growing.
For example, determinate varieties will ripen all their fruit at around the same time, whereas indeterminate varieties will continue to produce fruit throughout the season.
This can be a big help in deciding when to start harvesting, as you can base it on when the first fruits ripen rather than looking at the plant as a whole.
The weather is another important factor. If it is extremely hot, then your tomatoes will probably mature faster but a long stretch of hot weather will likely halt the ripening of your tomatoes.
If you live in an area with a long growing season and cooler temperatures, then they could take longer.
Accordingly, you can wait and see when it is cooler but you might have to harvest a bit early to beat a heatwave. It is always best to stay diligent and check your plants regularly so that you can harvest them at the peak of ripeness no matter the conditions.
Should You Wait Until Your Tomatoes are Completely Red?
This is probably the best piece of common sense advice you’ll get… but one that will probably lead to the loss of your harvest!
If you wait until your tomatoes are completely red, then there is a very good chance that they will overripen and rot on the vine. This can happen in as little as 24 hours, so you need to be vigilant about checking your plants.
Ripe and overripe tomatoes still on the plant are also more vulnerable to damaging or ruinous conditions and diseases like blossom end rot, so it is best to err on the side of caution and harvest them a little early.
How About Harvesting Green Tomatoes?
Various species of red tomato are one thing, but what about green tomatoes? Should you wait for them to ripen or harvest them early?
This is actually a personal preference in some cases. Some people love the tart taste of green tomatoes and others prefer the sweeter taste of a riper fruit. It is really up to you and what you plan to do with your tomatoes.
If you want to fry them, then green tomatoes are the way to go. But if you are looking to make a sweet tomato jam, then you will need fully ripe fruit.
Of course, there are other options for using unripe tomatoes. You could pick them early and let them ripen on the counter or make green tomato chutney.
There are even some recipes that call for partially ripe tomatoes, so don’t feel like you have to wait for just the right moment.
Waiting Too Long Increases the Chances of Problems
Another factor, and one that features into your other calculations, is the presence of pests. Birds and insects alike will quickly notice a plump, red tomato and make short work of it. You might not even get the chance to harvest it!
If you notice that your ripe, red tomatoes are being eaten or pecked at, then you will need to harvest them early to prevent further loss or else face the consequences.
Such losses might have been avoided if you picked them early and let them ripen on the counter instead of on the vine.
How to Tell if Your Tomatoes are Ripe
This is the tricky part, as tomatoes do not all ripen at the same time or even at the same rate.
You will need to understand your plants as a species and as individuals for lack of a better word; the subtle indicators of ripeness are surprisingly variable from place to place and plant to plant, and the only way to really learn them is to get out there with your plants.
That being said, there are always some consistent indicators of ripeness or near ripeness you should know. Here are several that will help you tell:
Squeeze ’em. The first is to simply give them a gentle squeeze. If they yield to the pressure but are still firm, then they are probably ready to be picked. Too soft and juicy means they might be too ripe as is; remember for next time!
Color change. Another way is to look at the color. As we said, you don’t want to wait until they are completely red but you also don’t want to pick them too early.
A good rule of thumb is to wait until they have reached their full color potential for that variety. This color varies depending on the species of plant and the color of the tomato.
For example, if you are growing a yellow tomato, then wait until it is a turning a deep yellow color before harvesting.
Check stem end. Another method is to look at the stem end of the tomato. If it has started to wrinkle or crack, then the fruit is probably ripe and ready to harvest.
As you can see, there is no clean and tidy answer to the question of when your tomatoes will be ripe.
It is a bit of an art and one that takes some practice to perfect. But by using the tips and methods outlined above, you should be able to get pretty close!
Timing is Everything when Harvesting Tomatoes!
There is one factor that can drive even the most seasoned green thumb positively mad. There is no getting around the fact that timing counts when it comes to tomatoes.
That is just the way it is. You might have every, single sign pointing to the fact that your tomatoes will be perfectly ready for a timely harvest tomorrow or the next day, tops.
That day comes and, horror of horrors, your fruits are eaten up, scalded, withering, rotting and generally just ruined.
How? How is it possible! This happens because tomatoes are surprisingly delicate and also highly variable in their ripening.
Sometimes you need to know when “good enough is good enough” and make the call to harvest them even if they aren’t picture perfect.
Consider the following when deciding whether or not to harvest or hold off:
End of Season
As the season draws to a close, the risk of cold nights and early frosts increases.
If you have even a hint that frost might be coming, then it is time to harvest your tomatoes immediately. Even if they aren’t quite ripe yet, it is better to pick them and let them finish ripening off the vine than to lose them entirely.
Also, as the season draws to a close your plants won’t be producing anymore tomatoes anyway. Don’t wait with the vain hope that more will be on the way.
A bad turn of weather can ruin any crop, but your tomatoes are highly vulnerable and even more vulnerable when nearing ripeness.
If the forecast it calling for intense heat with no relief in sight, go ahead and pick your tomatoes. Then they can finish ripening indoors.
Same thing goes for cold snaps; your tomatoes have a much better chance in your home than out in the cold.
Pests and Disease- You might find one, single tomato in bad shape one day and the next day there are dozens of mauled or rotting fruit hanging forlornly on your vines.
This is because pests always hang around and disease can spread quickly through a crop of tomatoes.
If you see any sign of these problems, it might be best to pick the entire crop if they are close enough rather than risk they be infected or infested.
Above all things, use your brain. If your tomatoes look, feel and are presenting as ready to harvest, then go ahead and pick them. It is always better to be a little early than too late when it comes to harvesting tomatoes.
Will you be around when your tomatoes hit the projected day of readiness? If you will be travelling or just busy with work, family or school your precious haul is just going to be hanging there, vulnerable. It may be wise to get them while your itinerary is clear!
Ripening Harvested Tomatoes
All hope is not lost if you aren’t able to perfectly time your tomato harvest. If you find yourself with partially green or unripe fruits, there are still ways to bring them to ruby red perfection.
Try placing them in a sunny spot indoors and on your counter away from any drafts. Tomatoes will ripen faster in warm temperatures so if you can put them somewhere warm, all the better.
Here’s another old-timer trick that actually works: put the tomatoes in a paper bag with a fruit that produces ethylene gas as it ripens. Apples and bananas work great. Ethylene gas helps the tomatoes to ripen quicker, too!
Once your tomatoes are ripe, enjoy them as is or use them in any number of delicious recipes or even can them; they don’t have to completely ripen on the plant to taste great.
How Should You Preserve Tomato Seeds for Future Planting?
Harvesting tomatoes is one thing, but how about getting at the seeds themselves? Since the seeds are the key to future plantings, knowing how and when to obtain them is paramount.
You’ll also need to know how to store them. ..
First, know this: The best tomato seeds come from the ripest and healthiest fruits. Plant reproduction is very much the survival of the fittest.
You should avoid taking seeds from any tomatoes with blemishes, cracks or other signs of disease.
Once you have picked out the best tomatoes possible, it’s time to remove and process the seeds themselves.
To remove the seeds, just follow the easy steps below…
Step 1. First, cut the tomato in half (preferably crosswise).
Step 2. Scoop the flesh into a bowl.
Step 3. You can then add water to the bowl and swirl the seeds around; the good ones will sink to the bottom while the bad ones will float.
Step 4. Start the fermentation process. This should last about 3-4 days.
Simply put the jar in a warm place where you won’t run into it – because of the bad odor it will start to give off.
You’ll notice the seeds separating: some will float towards the top of the jar, the rest will settle on the bottom. The good ones are at the bottom; the ones floating at the top should be discarded.
Step 5. Remove the mold at the top (including the seeds inside it), then strain the remaining (good) seeds.
Step 6. Rinse the remaining seeds.
Step 7. After sorting and rinsing the good tomato seeds, it is time to dry them. Spread them out on a plate or coffee filter, and put them in a warm, dry place.
Give them a few days to completely dry out before storing inside a paper envelope in a cool, dark place until ready for planting.
You may store them in airtight plastic containers suck as zipper bags or Tupperware boxes, but if the seeds have any moisture whatsoever, they’re likely to grow mold according to the USDA…
With these tips, you’ll be able to save the seeds for next year’s crop.
Frequently Asked Questions
The following are some of the most common questions I get asked about picking tomatoes:
The best way to pick tomatoes so they will regrow is to wait until the plant has produced fruit and then carefully remove the ripe fruit without damaging the plant.
Once most of the fruit has been picked, the plant will start to produce new fruit as long as they are still in season.
If you pick a tomato too early, it will not be as ripe as it could be and may not taste as good even if it does ripen up.
The tomato will also not store as well and may start to rot quickly. This varies between different cultivars.
Yes, you can pick tomatoes at night, but they will not be as nice as they would if you had picked them during the early dawn hours.
That being said, there is much folklore associated with nighttime tomato picking that is just not true! Nighttime picking is viable, but only really recommended if that is the best time for you to pick them.
No, you do not need to pick all the tomatoes at once. You can pick them as they ripen or wait until the plant has produced all the fruit it is going to produce and then pick them all.
That’s why you need to be checking on your plants and the fruit regularly; your tomatoes will let you know when the time has come.
It is really a personal preference as to whether you should cut or pluck your tomatoes. I prefer to pluck them as it seems to be less damaging to the plant, but some people prefer to cut them so they do not risk bruising the fruit.
Not necessarily. Tomato plants do not arbitrarily die after harvest. Once all the fruit has been picked, the plant will start to produce new fruit as long as they are still in season.
However, the plant will gradually decline and eventually die at the end of the season or when frost sets in. However, greenhousing tomato plants means they can live and even produce year-round.
Harvest Your Tomatoes Like a Seasoned Pro
Harvesting tomatoes is a rewarding experience, and it does not have to be one that is maddeningly frustrating.
With a little know-how, keen observation and experience, you can ensure that your tomatoes are ripe and tasty and that your seeds are viable for replanting. With these tips, you’ll be sure to have a bountiful tomato harvest.
Heather’s homesteading journey started in 2006, with baby steps: first, she got a few raised beds, some chickens, and rabbits. Over the years, she amassed a wealth of homesteading knowledge, knowledge that you can find in the articles of this blog.
Learn more about Heather and the rest of the writers on this page.