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When To Pick Tomatoes – And The Best Way To Ripen Them!

When is the best time to pick tomatoes from my plants and how can I best let them ripen off the vine? Those are two questions that fill our inbox each and every summer. Especially as tomato plants begin turning and ripening their fruit for the first time!

In “Hollywood Movie” terms, the ideal harvest is heading out to your garden and plucking the most perfectly shaped and ripe deep-red tomato – straight from the vine. But as it turns out, letting that tomato fully ripen on the plant isn’t the best idea at all.

Believe it or not, there is a bit of an art to knowing when to pick tomatoes from your tomato plants. And it really can have a big impact on the flavor and nutritional value of your tomatoes. Even more, when and how you pick your tomatoes can have a serious impact on the production level of your plants too!

when to pick tomatoes
Although this photo may look like the ideal way to let your tomatoes ripen on the vine, picking your tomatoes a bit earlier is actually the best method for harvesting.

A Few Tomato Ripening Facts – When To Pick Tomatoes

Knowing when to best harvest your tomatoes begins with knowing how a tomato matures and ripens when it is still attached to the plant.

Once a tomato begins to turn from green to slightly pink, it stops taking nutrients from the plant. This is what is known as the breaking stage for the tomato. And once a tomato reaches this stage, it will continue to ripen off the vine without any issue.

Not only will it continue to ripen off of the vine, it is actually better for the tomato and the plant to harvest it early. And for a long list of reasons!

First and foremost, harvesting early helps keep your tomatoes looking fantastic and blemish free. The longer a tomato stays on the vine, the more risk it has of incurring damage from insects and animals. Simply put, the more ripe a tomato becomes, the more inviting it is to pests.

when to pick tomatoes - and how to ripen them
The ideal time to pick your tomatoes is when the tomato has turned to near one-half of its final color.

In addition, allowing it to stay on the vine longer gives it more of a chance to develop sun spots and blemishes. The dew left on a ripe tomato is an easy target for the sun’s rays to burn the flesh. And finally, the longer the tomato remains, the more likely it is to fall from its perch to the ground during a storm or wind, causing even larger bruising.

When To Pick Tomatoes

How Picking Early Helps Your Tomato Plants – When To Pick Tomatoes

Not only does picking early help your tomatoes, it also helps your tomato plant. And in a big way! Although the tomato stops absorbing nutrients from the plant when it begins to turn, when it is allowed to remain, it does slow the production and ripening process for the other tomatoes.

How so? Indeterminate tomato varieties that produce tomatoes all season will slow down production of new blossoms if too many tomatoes are present and ripening. It is known as “fruit load” or “fruit overload”, and it can greatly impact your overall harvest.

In addition, picking your tomatoes as they begin to ripen also keeps the weight of your tomato vines manageable. By mid-summer, a fully loaded tomato plant can become quite heavy. Unfortunately, that can lead to branches splitting and breaking off. Not only can it injure tomatoes, but it can also keep your harvest totals down too.

So what is the absolute ideal time to harvest your tomatoes? For maximum results, the best time to pluck the tomatoes from your plant is when they have turned to about one-third to one-half of their full ripening color.

splitting tomato
Allowing a tomato to spend too much time on the vine can lead to splitting. The longer a tomato hangs, the more issues it can develop.

As you will see below, not only will that allow them to ripen more evenly and more efficiently, they will also be perfect for fresh eating, canning or freezing! See: How To Can Diced Tomatoes – A Great Way To Preserve Tomatoes

How To Best Ripen Tomatoes Off The Vine – When To Pick Tomatoes

Equally important to the art of picking your tomatoes early is knowing the best ways and methods to allow them to ripen off of the vine. Here again, the answer may surprise you for where and how to best ripen the fruit.

One thing is for sure, the best place to ripen just-picked tomatoes is not on a sunny windowsill. Nor is it in a refrigerator.

Once the tomato has begun the ripening process, it does not need sunlight to ripen. In fact, too much sun will blister and even injure the fruit. That is exactly what happens when over-ripe tomatoes split open on the vine.

Putting tomatoes on a sunny windowsill can cause the exact same issue. It can also cause the tomato to ripen unevenly, turning soft where it comes in contact with the hot sill.

The Best Locations For Ripening Tomatoes – When To Pick Tomatoes

As it turns out, tomatoes ripen best when stored in a cool, shady location. The ideal temperature for ripening is actually around 65 to 70 degrees. The tomatoes also need plenty of circulation or air to hasten the ripening process.

2x4 harvest - drying rack
Our DIY harvest rack in use. The mesh hardware cloth allows the tomatoes to ripen evenly and receive good air flow all around the tomatoes.

In our house, we use a homemade drying rack made from a few 2 x 4’s and hardware cloth to store the just picked tomatoes inside. The rack with the mesh hardware cloth allows the tomatoes to ripen on all sides and have air flow to all sides. See : How To Build A Homemade Drying Rack

In lieu of a harvest rack, a baking rack or bread rack will work well too. All of these allow air to get all around the tomato, and helps it ripen both faster and more evenly. Avoid placing them on plywood or baking sheets as the undersides get no air at all.

If you can’t store your tomatoes indoors, a cool, shady porch, garage or barn is the second best option. That is, as long as outside temperatures are not too high. The real key is to keep the tomatoes out of the direct sun and heat. It will allow them to ripen without injury.

Why Not The Refrigerator?

There is one place that should never be used for ripening tomatoes – and that is the refrigerator. Unfortunately, when refrigerated, the process of ripening is halted almost entirely.

Storing tomatoes in the refrigerator not only stops the ripening process, but also causes tomatoes to lose flavor and nutrients over time as well.

With that said, if you are like us and enjoy the taste of a chilled tomato, there is nothing wrong with putting the tomato in the refrigerator a few hours before eating fresh! Refrigerators can also come in handy to store completely ripe tomatoes while you are waiting to have enough on hand to can. Again – try to keep it to just a few days to not have them lose too much nutritional value.

Here is to knowing the right time to pick your tomatoes and ripening them to perfection! Happy Gardening – Jim and Mary.