I grew up around tomatoes, so most of our harvesting methods come from instincts led by smell and
touch. Even now, when our tomato plants are nearing harvest time I get excited every time I get
near the greenhouse. But, it’s important to step back and listen to your tomatoes to avoid
impatiently harvesting them before they’re ready.
Tomatoes will tell you when they’re ready to harvest. Different varieties have different clues, but you can always count on touch, smell and color. Tomato plants have a powerful aroma that can fill a greenhouse, but when the sun begins to darken their skins, and the flesh inside ripens in the afternoon heat, the perfume is intoxicating.
I’ll try to restrain my enthusiasm here and stick to the facts, but there is nothing like the joy of a vine-ripened tomato, plucked fresh from the plant and sliced onto the barbeque in late July. Follow our guide to pick your tomatoes at the best possible time.
When to pick tomatoes
Tomatoes should be picked when ripe, not before, not after. Tomatoes picked too soon are watery, and filled with seeds and moisture that hasn’t yet developed into firm, juicy flesh. Tomatoes picked too late run the risk of being eaten by wildlife and splitting their skins.
The biggest difference between tomatoes picked at home, and tomatoes from the grocery store is water content. This is because commercial tomato farms pick tomatoes up to a week before they ripen, and ripen them in storage and transit. Those fruits are filled with water and taste OK, but don’t have the punch of sun-ripened tomatoes that continue to draw nutrients from the plant until just before they are cooked.
When are tomatoes ripe?
There are two sets of clues to picking tomatoes; the first is all about timing, and helps you schedule watering, feeding, and ventilation for your plants. The second is about understanding physical signs. Below, we’ll talk through both.
Days to maturity
All tomatoes are different. Some ripen in 7-8 weeks while others can take up to 15 weeks to start cropping. Below, we’ve got a table sharing the proven cropping times, from seed to fruit, for some of the most popular varieties you can grow at home.
We’ve chosen these popular varieties because they are reasonably reflective of their group. For example, a standard red plum tomato will ripen slower than a black plum tomato. A typical red salad tomato will ripen much quicker than a pale or green-skinned salad tomato. But in both cases, salad tomatoes are ready to pick sooner than plums.
|Type||Days to maturity (planting out* > harvest)|
|Roma (standard plum)||80 days|
|Pink Ponderosa (pale beefsteak)||90 days|
|Zlatava (mid-coloured salad)||70 days|
|Money Maker (standard salad)||65 days|
|Green Zebra (pale salad)||80 days|
|Black Cherry (dark skinned cherry)||50 days|
|Red Cherry (standard cherry)||60 days|
*add 2-3 weeks for tomatoes grown from seed rather than seedlings.
How to tell when a tomato is ready for harvest
Physical signs that tomatoes are ready to harvest include: color, texture, ease of picking, and smell. The physical signs of ripe fruit on tomato plants are very intuitive but, when they are at their best, they will look darker, and feel softer than tomato fruit from the store.
Store-bought tomatoes are slightly paler than they should be as they ripen off the plant. If we take Money Maker as an example, the red skins of this reliable tomato variety are a bright, ruby red, in their retail punnets. Home-grown Money Maker tomatoes should be a deep crimson when they are ripe.
Red tomatoes are simple to check based on color, but others like Black Cherry, or Zlatava are black and orange respectively. They should be picked when the majority of the fruit is the same deep tone, but before the entire fruit is one color. Allowing some color fade towards the base of the black or yellow fruits reduces the risk of overripening and chalky texture.
Ripe tomatoes are firm but give slightly under pressure. If you press gently on the skin of a tomato, it should leave a slight indent with minimal effort. If the fruit doesn’t indent at all, it’s not ripe. If the indentation is deep and has no bounce-back, your fruit is slightly overripe but fine to eat.
For green tomatoes, like Green Zebra, touch is the most important sign of ripening. Green tomatoes have less fragrance and do not change color as they ripen, so checking the firmness of fruits regularly after 70 days is important.
Ease of picking
Ripe tomatoes will easily pull off the plant with their sepals and pedicels intact. Sepals are the green star-shaped structure that remains at the top of a fruit after the flower has been pollinated. Pedicels are the tips of stems that hold tomatoes to their vine. They usually have a small knuckle about 5mm above the fruit.
Bending a ripe tomato towards the vine should cause the pedicel to snap at its knuckle, leaving green parts attached to each fruit. Keep these green parts attached to prevent mold from growing into your fruits.
If you’re not confident with the touch test and don’t want to risk accidentally picking unripe tomatoes, smell is a great way to tell if tomatoes are ready to pick.
Tomato plants have a vibrant and spicy fragrance. The smell is created by oils at the end of fine hairs called trichomes along the stem of each plant. These oils help protect the plant from pests. As tomatoes ripen, the spicy fragrance is replaced by a sweeter tomato perfume that smells almost exactly how it tastes.
How to harvest tomatoes
There are four main types of tomatoes: cherry, beefsteak, salad, and plum. Each can be grown as vining or bush tomatoes depending on the specific variety, but it’s the fruit itself that determines how to pick it, rather than the growth habits of the plant.
Picking cherry tomatoes is about regularity and providing enough light for ripening fruits so that they ripen evenly. (Check this guide on pruning cherry tomatoes to allow for more sunlight and airflow). Some hybrid cherry tomatoes, like Romello, should be harvested individually as they ripen, while others grow on long vines, with up to twenty fruits on a single vine.
Pick beefsteak tomatoes individually when they ripen, allowing them to ripen fully on the plant before picking. Beefsteak tomatoes are all about texture, so picking unripe beefsteaks gives you watery centers and chalky flesh. Ripe beefsteaks should have solid flesh, with some juice around seed pockets.
Salad tomatoes might be full of water in the store, but on the vine, they should be allowed to flesh out inside. A perfectly ripe salad tomato should be 50% flesh and 50% juice inside. The best cue for picking salad tomatoes is texture. They should have deeply colored skins, and give way just slightly when squeezed between your finger and thumb.
Picking plum tomatoes is the easiest of all. Plum tomatoes are mainly grown for their even moisture content. They should be almost entirely flesh, with soft, juicy centers. Plum tomatoes are grown primarily for sauces, so rather than having to dice them into a pan, just wait until they are slightly overripe, and squeeze them into the pan. Plum tomatoes have thin skins that cook down well, so do not need to be removed.
How often to harvest tomatoes
One healthy plum tomato plant can easily produce over 20lbs of fruit in a good summer, so pick tomatoes regularly to avoid a glut of fruit sitting in your fruit bowl and going to waste.
Cherry tomatoes are particularly prone to gluts, as well-ventilated plants allow light through, ripening around twenty small fruits at a time.
Avoid leaving ripe tomatoes on the plant, as ripe tomatoes will not grow further, and will simply split if they keep being fed with water. Split tomatoes grow mold and become unusable.
How to care for ripening tomatoes
As your plants get close to harvest, you should change your tomato care routine slightly, focussing on watering, fertilizer, and ventilation:
Water: Tomatoes in a grow bag should be given about 1L of water, per plant, per day before fruit appears. When fruit starts to develop, water them with 1-2L per day, every day. The key is regularity though, so don’t water 1L one day, then none the next, then 2L, as this will cause blight and split fruits.
Fertilizer: It can be tempting to stop feeding plants when they start to ripen. The idea being that the plant has done its work. However, tomato fertilizers have calcium, magnesium, and phosphorous, which all help to protect fruits from problems like blossom end rot, and botrytis. Continue feeding tomato plants once per week as fruits ripen.
Ventilation: As fruits begin to ripen it’s important to keep pruning your plants. Allowing light in is key to perfectly ripe tomatoes, as well as ventilation to prevent late blight.
Picking unripe tomatoes (pros and cons)
As I mentioned above, picking unripe tomatoes is commonplace in commercial production. By regularly picking tomatoes before they are fully ripe, you encourage repeat cropping varieties to produce more fruit and help develop larger fruits later on. However, you also reduce the quality of your crop.
|Pests||Removing tomatoes before they are fully ripe reduces the chances of pests, and wildlife getting to your crop before you do.||N/A|
|Quality||N/A||Tomatoes ripened off the plant have significantly less flavor than vine-ripened tomatoes, and contain excess water.|
|Disease||Removing nearly ripe tomatoes reduces the chance of those tomatoes developing blossom end rot as they ripen.||Removing tomatoes before they ripen encourages more growth of other fruit and further foliage. This can encourage bacteria and humidity.|
|Yield||Repeat cropping varieties will produce more fruit as a result of removing unripe tomatoes and ripening them in the kitchen. Your yield will last longer.||Any late crops will be smaller, and the earlier crops will not have fully developed. Your yield will be lighter.|
|Damage control||If late blight or southern blight is affecting tomato plants, it’s best to remove any unripe fruit and attempt to ripen it indoors. Remove any growth above the affected area and burn it.||N/A|
How to harvest unripe tomatoes
If you are harvesting unripe tomatoes by choice, make sure to keep them on the vine, and leave as much stem as possible. Leaving excess stem attached to each fruit allows any remaining nutrients to pass into the fruit. This also reduces the risk of bacteria entering the fruit as the stem acts as a barrier.
There are some cases where you have to harvest unripe tomatoes as they are developing above an area of blight or botrytis, which needs to be removed. In this case, keep as much stem attached as possible, but remove any diseased or damaged stems so they do not affect the ripening fruit.
How to ripen tomatoes indoors
Unripe tomatoes need light and heat to ripen away from the plant. The best way to do this is to set up a well-ventilated spot on a windowsill, in full sun. The light and heat help to darken tomato skins, and airflow reduces standing moisture that could spoil the crop.
Bananas are a great hack for ripening tomatoes. Ripe bananas release a gas called ethene, which breaks down cell walls and helps to soften the flesh of fruit that has been harvested too early.
Common tomato harvesting problems
Different tomato varieties suffer from different problems as a result of how you harvest them, but there are a few simple rules to follow (and avoid) to ensure the best possible results:
As tomato plants develop, missing a day or two of watering isn’t going to do much damage. Once fruits form though, regularity is everything. Tomato plants regulate their growth based on how much water they receive, and it takes a few days for their hormones to shift signals.
If you water loads one day, then none the next, they will grow rapidly, but fail to deliver moisture to the new cells, which develop a chalky texture. If you forget to water for a few days, then water loads, the roots will send all that water to underdeveloped cells. This causes skins to split on fruits, and mould quickly sets in.
Blossom end rot
Blossom end rot is a sign of calcium deficiency. There’s nothing wrong with tomatoes with blossom end rot, and you can eat the entire fruit but the crispy base of each fruit should be discarded. Blossom end rot is most common on beefsteak tomatoes.
If you notice dry, brown patches on the bottom of tomatoes, add calcium to your water, or bone meal to the soil. Tomato roots respond quickly to calcium so you should see an improvement within a week.
Botrytis (grey mold) on fruit
Botrytis is frustrating, and often mistaken for blight. The grey mold develops primarily on stems and leaves but can spread to fruit. If you spot any mold on tomato plants, cut it off and burn it.
This is usually the result of poor ventilation and high humidity. Avoid watering leaves, and maintain pruning right through the season.
Removing sepals & stems
If you accidentally pull a tomato off the plant or remove the sepals and pedicels, it creates a small hole on the crown of the fruit. This hole is exposed to funguses and can rot quickly. Use these tomatoes first as they won’t keep for more than a week.
Ripe tomatoes being eaten by pests
The most common problem we have on the allotment is wildlife. It’s a nice problem to have, and we’re usually happy for squirrels to steal a few tomatoes. If you have to go away for a few days while tomatoes are ripening, get someone to pick them for you, or throw netting over your plants.
Birds, rabbits, deer, squirrels, and pretty much anything else will try to eat ripe tomatoes if they can access them.
I took a quick break from writing to check on our tomatoes, as we’ve got some early cherry tomatoes beginning to ripen outside. Just as I walked into the greenhouse a squirrel ran out with the first red cherry of the year. While it’s frustrating, it does help my point – the most important part of harvesting tomatoes is checking them regularly.
That’s everything you need to know. Tomatoes are ready for harvest as soon as they look it. If they smell sweet, and they give way with just a gentle touch, you’ve got perfectly ripe tomatoes, ready to pick. And don’t wait until the local wildlife beats you to it.