Harvesting tomatoes at the right time is important to enjoy the best flavor and quality from your homegrown produce. In this guide, we’ll explore the key factors to consider when deciding when to harvest tomatoes. Whether you’re a novice gardener or have been growing tomatoes for years, these tips will help you pick your tomatoes at the peak of perfection.
This post is all about when to harvest tomatoes.
Table of Contents
When to Harvest Tomatoes
To get the juiciest, sweetest, best tasting tomatoes, there’s a specific point to harvest them. Picking them too early can cause them to be hard, not as tasty, not as sweet, and not as juicy. Here’s what you need to be looking for.
Tomato Ripening Stages
There are several stages that tomatoes go through during the ripening process. Understanding how they ripen can help you know when the right time is to harvest them.
Once the plant becomes mature enough, flowers start to sprout randomly. When the flowers are pollinated, a little bulb-like looking object starts to form. (See the below picture for reference) This is what the tomato looks like before it becomes larger and later ripens. The tomato will start to become larger and really start to look more like an actual tomato.
Once the tomato has fully developed, it starts in the mature green stage. It’s green in color and completely unripe. The flavor of the tomato has not yet developed and it’s very hard to the touch. If it’s picked at this stage, it won’t start to turn red. I’ve actually tried this and the tomatoes never turned red. Tomatoes can stay a green color for quite some time. We’ll look at troubleshooting tomato ripening problems later in this blog post.
Next the tomato begins to blush and starts to show on the bottom. This color indicates the fruit is producing what’s called ethylene. It’s a naturally occurring ripening agent that the fruit produces. Once the tomato has entered this stage, if it were to be picked, it can continue to ripen without being on the vine. This is known as ‘vine ripe’. It does not receive any additional nutrients from the plant at this point.
After the initial blushing that’s observed, the tomato continues to ripen and its color first appears to be pink. During the ripening process, it’ll gradually turn to a shade of red (depending on the variety that you’re growing).
Once the tomato is almost entirely bright red in color, it’s time to harvest it. It’s important to remember as noted before, once it’s picked it’ll continue to ripen and turn red. So even if it has the slightest amount of green on it, it’s ok to pick. However, the flavor won’t be fully developed until it’s completely red.
Consider the Tomato Variety
Tomatoes come in various shapes, sizes, and colors, and the ideal time to harvest can vary depending on the variety you’re growing. Determinate tomatoes tend to mature all at once and are easier to predict when to pick. Indeterminate varieties, on the other hand, produce fruit continuously throughout the season, so you’ll need to monitor them closely.
Observe the Color
One of the most apparent signs that your tomatoes are ready to be picked is their color. Most tomatoes change from green to their ripe color when they are ready. However, the specific color can vary. For example, red tomatoes should be fully red, while yellow varieties will turn a deep yellow or gold.
Check for Firmness
Gently squeeze the tomato. It should yield slightly to pressure but still feel firm. Overripe tomatoes are often soft and mushy, while under ripe ones are very hard. Aim for a plump, slightly yielding feel when you touch the tomato.
Examine the Skin
Inspect the skin of the tomato. It should be smooth and free of cracks or blemishes. Cracked tomatoes are more prone to disease and may not store well. If you notice any imperfections, it’s best to harvest the tomato and use it promptly.
Smell the Tomato
Believe it or not, the aroma of a tomato can be a good indicator of ripeness. Ripe tomatoes often have a sweet, earthy scent. Give it a sniff to see if it has that delightful tomato aroma.
When you’re sure your tomato is ready, use a pair of sharp garden shears or a knife to cut the stem about 1/2 inch (1.3 cm) above the fruit. Be careful not to damage the plant when harvesting. It’s best to leave the green calyx (the small, leafy part) attached to the tomato; this can help prolong shelf life.
For ripe tomatoes only:
If you don’t have garden shears or a knive handy, a simple twist of the tomato should cause it to separate from the branch. Cherry and grape tomatoes practically fall off the branch with barely a touch.
If a larger tomato isn’t ripe enough, it won’t separate from the branch and you may damage the plant.
Keep an eye on the weather forecast. If frost is predicted and your tomatoes are not fully ripe, consider harvesting them slightly underripe and allowing them to ripen indoors. Place them in a cool, dark place and check them regularly.
Before there’s a heavy rain, I pick the tomatoes that are almost fully ripe. After a heavy rain, tomatoes that are close to being fully ripe tend to split.
Tomato Ripening Problems
There are times when it seems like your tomatoes are taking forever to ripen. This can happen as a result of a number of causes. By taking a look at these tomato ripening problems, you may be able to pinpoint why your tomatoes aren’t ripening yet.
- Not enough time to ripen.
There’s a lot of patience involved in growing your own food. It may simply be that the tomato hasn’t had enough time to ripen. I have a post that reviews just how long it takes to grow tomatoes that’s applicable to all growers, including those that buy seedlings from a local nursery. If you’ve grown from seed, I have you covered as well!
[RELATED POST: How Long Does It Take to Grow Tomatoes?]
[RELATED POST: How Long Does It Take to Grow Tomatoes from Seeds?]
- Not the correct temperature.
In order to ripen, tomatoes require a certain temperature. The plant itself also requires a certain temperature as well in order to survive. Tomatoes prefer temperatures between 60 to 80. If it’s too cold, the tomatoes won’t ripen. The cold is particularly troublesome as it can prevent nutrients from being taken up by the plant. If it’s too hot they can also fail to ripen.
- Too Much Fertilizer
In spite of tomato plants being heavy feeders, it is possible to over fertilize them. If there is too much nitrogen, it will prevent the tomatoes from ripening. Additionally, it can lead to some other physiological issues such as:
- Blossom end rot
- Delayed flowering
- Malformed fruit
- Yellowing leaves
There is no need to continually fertilize tomato plants. Only fertilize them up to the point they are mature enough to start fruiting. So stop before the plant begins flowering.
[RELATED POST: Blossom End Rot: What Is It and How to Prevent It]
- Overwatering and Underwatering
Inconsistent watering can wreak havoc on many plants and that includes tomato plants. Tomato plants don’t like to sit in wet soil at all times, and it can lead to root rot. Not only can it cause harm to the plant, but too much watering can affect the flavor as well. Wait until the soil has completely dried out before watering again. If they receive too much water, you can also see the fruit start to split.
Underwatering tomato plants can cause quite a bit of stress on the plant. Not enough water can also cause splitting of the fruit. Generally tomato plants need about 1 to 2 inches of water, unless it’s extremely hot. If it’s very hot, they may require more water. There are physiological signs that signal there’s an issue such as:
- Blossom end rot
- Stunted plants
- Drooping or wilting
- Browning leaves
Note: It’s important to know that both underwatering and overwatering can show the same signs. Additionally, overwatering because of rain which may be unavoidable.
- Too Much Sun or Not Enough Sun
Although tomatoes love the sun, it’s possible for them to receive too much sun. They can develop what’s called sunscald. Sunscald is essentially a sunburn on plants. This can especially happen if a plant has been exposed to too much sun too quickly. For example, if the plant has not been hardened off before transplanting. Avoid removing leaves from the plants as the leaves protect the fruit from the sun.
Tomatoes are plants that love to be in the sun and require at least 8 hours of it. Therefore they don’t like to be in shady areas. It also becomes harder for them to continue to produce and provide enough nutrients to the fruit when the days get shorter. Shorter days lead to less sunlight.
- Low in Nutrients
Tomato plants that are deficient in nutrients can have all sorts of health problems. Too much magnesium can impact the amount of calcium the plant uptakes. An insufficient amount of calcium can cause physiological issues in the plant. Too much magnesium can also cause stunted growth, are at higher risk of blossom rot, and cause fruit not to ripen. Low potassium causes strange shading on the fruit and yellow coloring on the edges of the leaves.
Hopefully this gives you a better understanding of what can affect the ripening of tomatoes and even affect the plant as a whole.
When Is the Best Time of Day to Pick Tomatoes?
Early morning is often the best time to harvest tomatoes. They tend to be cool and firm at this time, which helps with quality. However, if this isn’t possible, any time during the day when the fruit is ripe can work.
What Month to Harvest Tomatoes?
The ideal month for harvesting tomatoes can vary depending on your location, the tomato variety you’re growing, and the local climate. Here are some general guidelines that can help determine the best month to harvest tomatoes:
- Summer Months: In most regions with a typical growing season, you can expect to start harvesting tomatoes mid to late summer. Tomatoes can even continue producing into October, depending on where you reside.
- Local Climate: Pay close attention to your local climate and growing zone. Warmer regions with longer growing seasons may start harvesting earlier, sometimes as early as May. In cooler climates, tomato harvests may extend into late summer and early fall.
- Variety Matters: Different tomato varieties have varying maturation times. Some are known as early-season varieties and can be ready to harvest as early as 50-70 days after transplanting, while others are late-season varieties that may take 90 days or more. Check the seed packet or plant tag for specific information about the variety you’re growing.
- Indeterminate vs. Determinate: If you are growing indeterminate tomato plants, they will produce fruit continuously throughout the growing season, so you can harvest from midsummer into the fall. Determinate varieties tend to have a concentrated harvest period, so plan accordingly.
- Local Weather Patterns: Keep an eye on the local weather conditions and forecasts. Unseasonably hot or cold weather can affect your harvest time. In case of unexpected frost in the fall, you may need to harvest all remaining green tomatoes and ripen them indoors.
- Observation: The most reliable way to determine the best time to harvest tomatoes is through observation. Watch for the signs of ripeness mentioned in the previous responses, including color, firmness, skin condition, and aroma.
- Regular Check-ins: As you approach the typical harvest period for your area, check your tomato plants regularly. Harvest ripe tomatoes promptly to prevent them from overripening on the vine.
Does Picking Tomatoes Make More Grow?
Picking tomatoes does not directly make more tomatoes grow on the same plant. However, the act of harvesting tomatoes correctly and in a timely manner can indirectly encourage more tomato production and healthier plants in several ways.
What’s the Tomato Harvest Time from Seed?
The time it takes to harvest tomatoes from seed can vary widely depending on several factors, including the tomato variety, growing conditions, and location. However, here is a general timeline to give you an idea of when you can expect to harvest tomatoes from seed:
- Seed Germination (5-10 days) – it usually takes 5 to 10 days for the seeds to germinate, depending on growing conditions.
- Transplanting (5-7 weeks after germination): Once the seedlings have grown large enough and have a few sets of true leaves, they are ready to be transplanted into larger pots or the garden. This usually occurs around 5 to 7 weeks after germination.
- Outdoor Planting (2-4 weeks after last frost): Tomatoes are typically transplanted outdoors after the last frost date in your area. This can vary greatly depending on your location. In many regions, it falls between late April and early June.
- Flowering (6-8 weeks after transplanting): After transplanting, it can take approximately 6 to 8 weeks for tomato plants to start flowering. The timing may vary depending on growing conditions and the specific variety you’re growing.
- Fruit Development (2-3 weeks after flowering): After flowers are pollinated, it usually takes about 2 to 3 weeks for small green tomatoes to form.
- Ripening (variable): The time it takes for tomatoes to ripen after they start developing can vary widely based on factors such as temperature, sunlight, and tomato variety. On average, it can take 20 to 45 days for tomatoes to ripen from the time they are small green fruits.
In total, you can expect to harvest tomatoes from seed in approximately 3 to 5 months, depending on these variables. Some early-maturing tomato varieties may produce ripe fruit in as little as 70 days, while others, especially larger, heirloom varieties, may take closer to 100 days or more.
Should You Pick Tomatoes Before They Turn Red?
Yes, you can pick tomatoes before they turn red. Some varieties are best harvested when they reach full size but are still green or partly colored. These tomatoes can ripen indoors and maintain good flavor.
How Early is Too Early to Pick Tomatoes?
Picking tomatoes too early can result in underripe and less flavorful fruit. Wait until they reach a mature size and show the characteristic color for their variety before harvesting.
Can You Leave Tomatoes on the Vine Too Long?
Yes, leaving tomatoes on the vine for too long can lead to overripening, which may result in reduced flavor, texture, and increased risk of spoilage.
What do I do if my tomato plants are still producing fruit but it’s getting cold?
If frost is looming, you can harvest all remaining green or semi-ripe tomatoes and ripen them indoors. To protect your plants from cold, consider using row covers or cloths, or even bringing potted plants indoors temporarily to extend the growing season.
How should I store freshly harvested tomatoes?
Store tomatoes at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, with the stem side up. If you have to stack them, use a single layer to avoid bruising. Only refrigerate tomatoes if they are fully ripe and you want to slow down the ripening process.
Do I need to prune tomato plants before harvesting?
While it’s not necessary to prune tomato plants before harvesting, pruning can help improve airflow and reduce disease risk. Pruning can also redirect energy to the fruit, potentially increasing the yield of larger, tastier tomatoes.
How do I prevent my tomatoes from overripening or rotting on the vine?
To prevent overripening or rot, harvest tomatoes promptly when they are ripe. Check your plants regularly to remove ripe fruit. Good air circulation, proper spacing, and pruning can also help prevent diseases that lead to rot.
Knowing when to harvest tomatoes is a skill that can greatly enhance your gardening experience. By paying attention to the color, firmness, skin condition, aroma, and the specific variety you’re growing, you can ensure that your tomatoes are picked at the peak of their flavor and freshness. Happy harvesting!
This post was all about ‘when to harvest tomatoes’.