Knowing when to harvest tomatoes is vital to ensure that you have the very best crop for your summer salads. Pick tomatoes too early and they will be hard and bitter, leave them too long and they're likely to split, rot or be eaten by birds.
So, if you are growing tomatoes, and are watching them ripen now, be sure to know when picking season is. Hint: to get the best-flavored tomatoes, it's best not to generalize since tomato harvesting varies by tomato variety and, to a degree, your local climate and how well you've cared for them. Sometimes the best way to judge when to harvest tomatoes is by touch and experimentation.
With tomato plants making the perfect versatile addition to your vegetable garden ideas, though, along with the large variety of tomato companion plants, there is really no excuse to not grow and pick your own.
Here, we explain when to harvest tomatoes for the perfect summer pickings.
When to harvest tomatoes
Once you have gotten through the trials of knowing when to plant tomatoes and the difficulty of figuring out how much water tomatoes need, it's not so tricky to work out when to harvest tomatoes, if you have kept track on how well they are growing.
‘Tomatoes will ripen at different times depending on the weather conditions that year and what variety they are,’ reminds Rachel Crow, Garden Editor for Homes & Gardens.
‘Cherry tomatoes will ripen more quickly than larger tomato varieties, for example, and cold weather can affect how soon in the season tomatoes will begin to ripen.’
However, there are some obvious signs that tomatoes are ready to be picked, and when they are, this is also when you can harvest tomato seeds for new plants next year.
How do you know when tomatoes are ready to pick?
There are some obvious signs that it's the right time to harvest your tomatoes and they are:
1. They are a deep red color
A deep red tomato is ready to be picked. Why wait until then? The deeper the color, the higher the tomato's sugar content, and the sweeter it will taste.
However, do bear in mind that a deep red tomato is ripe and will need to be eaten quickly. If you are growing an abundance of tomato plants, you may want to snip off a few, not-quite-ready tomatoes on one stalk in one go. Leaving them in the kitchen (not in the fridge) on the vine will allow them to keep ripening, and you can easily harvest as you go. Doing so will mean they're less likely to be snapped up by birds or invaded by pests, too.
What if your tomatoes aren't red but yellow, purple or green? You'll need to rely on touch, fragrance and taste.
2. They 'give' a little when you squeeze them
Squeeze a tomato and it will give a little if it's ripe and will feel firm if it isn't ready to be harvested.
3. They smell fantastic
If your tomato smells wonderful it's likely time to harvest it.
4. They come away easily from the plant
Like when picking other fruit and veg, the ease with which a tomato comes away from the main plant is a good indicator of whether they are ready to pick. Take a ripe-looking tomato in between three fingers and tug gently. If it comes away (or shows signs of wanting to), it's ready. However, we'd caution against harvesting like this as you get more confident with a tomato's readiness; using scissors is a way to harvest without damaging the plant.
5. The tomato variety you planted
Different tomato varieties require different growing periods, so if you just want a vague idea of when to harvest tomatoes, you can do some counting forwards from when you transplanted them into the garden.
Early maturing tomato varieties can be ready to be harvested just eight weeks after transplanting; late maturing tomato varieties take up to a month longer, so 12 weeks from transplanting. Let's hope you kept those seed packets so you can go back and check. Otherwise, you will have to rely on the other, more obvious physical signs of tomatoes being ready to be picked.
6. Cold weather is forecast
If your tomatoes are looking fabulous but frost is forecast, it's certainly time to harvest them before they become damaged – or move them indoors to a more sheltered spot.
Should you pick tomatoes before they turn red?
Whether you should pick tomatoes before they turn red is largely down to personal choice. You can harvest tomatoes as soon as they start turning red (or yellow or purple) and then allow them to ripen on the vine in the kitchen; however it is perfectly okay to leave your tomatoes on the plant to ripen until you are ready to harvest them. If, though, bad weather is forecast or tomatoes are splitting, it's a good idea to get them picked before they become inedible or damaged.
Is it okay to harvest tomatoes when they are green?
No, it is not okay to harvest tomatoes when they are entirely green because it is extremely unlikely they will continue to ripen. However, if they are just beginning to show their color (red, yellow, or purple), they should happily ripen on the vine if you snip off a length and bring it indoors, or they can be picked and ripen off the vine in the kitchen, too. To ensure they ripen well if they're just past the green stage when you pick them, put them in a bright part of the room, but not in direct sunlight. Don't let their skins touch and don't put them in the fridge for best results.
What is the 'breaker stage' when harvesting tomatoes?
Another school of gardeners believe in picking tomatoes when they are at what is called the ‘breaker stage’.
The breaker stage is the midpoint between the tomato being ripe and unripe – typically they are transitioning from green to a light orange or pink color. It is argued that harvesting tomatoes at this stage results in no less of flavor or quality and you are less likely to lose tomatoes to over-ripening as you can keep a closer eye on them indoors. What’s more, for indeterminate tomato varieties, picking more frequently increases the chances of a larger harvest.
If harvesting tomatoes using this method, make sure to not pick tomatoes that are still completely, or largely green (if they are not a green tomato variety, that is). Green, completely unripe tomatoes will not ripen indoors.
Do tomatoes taste better when left on the vine?
Vine-ripened tomatoes are a common fruit and vegetable aisle find, with bright red tomatoes still on part of the vine they grew on.
'Some gardeners argue that this leads to far more flavorful fruit as they are allowed to go through a natural maturing process and develop a good amount of natural sugars,' says Rachel Crow. 'However tomatoes will ripen just as well off the vine.'
How long does it take for green tomatoes to turn red?
If you are waiting for green tomatoes to turn red and are impatiently wondering when you can harvest your tomato crop, the answer is around three to four weeks, though this really depends on the tomato variety, just how 'green' they are, and the weather. Some will be quicker, others may take a little longer.
Chiana is a junior writer for Homes & Gardens having joined Future plc as a new graduate in 2022 after achieving a 1st class degree in Literature at university. She first became interested in design as a child after spending her summers helping her parents redecorate her childhood home. As a long-time reader of Future’s homes titles, Chiana is constantly finding new inspiration at work as she focuses on emerging trends, how-to’s, and news pieces.
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