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How to Know When to Pick Tomatoes – The Best Time To Pick A Tomato

How do you know when it’s the right time to pick the tomatoes growing on your tomato plants?

Believe it or not, there is a bit of an art to knowing when to pluck tomatoes from your plants. And doing so correctly can pay big dividends for both you and your tomato harvest. Not only can it have a major impact on the quality and flavor of your tomatoes, it can also play a huge role in your plant’s overall productivity and health.

Although the thought of picking a perfectly ripe red tomato straight from the vine might sound like the ideal answer to the question above, as it turns out, it’s not. In fact, allowing your tomatoes to fully ripen on your plants is actually the last thing you want to do!

ripening tomatoes - when to pick
While it may seem best to allow your tomatoes to ripen and turn red and juicy on the vine, it can actually have bad consequences for both the tomato and your tomato plants.

How to Know When to Pick Tomatoes – Tomato Harvesting 101

How Picking Early Helps Tomatoes – And Your Harvest!

So when is the best time to pick your tomatoes? Surprisingly, the optimum time for harvesting tomatoes from a plant is when they have turned to one-third to one-half of their full ripening color. Not only will picking early will help your tomatoes ripen faster and better, it also helps the actual plant in a myriad of additional ways too.

Let’s first cover the subject of ripening. Once a tomato’s coloring begins to change from green to slightly pink, it naturally stops taking nutrients from the plant. This is what is known as the breaking stage for a tomato.

Once a tomato reaches this stage, it will continue to ripen and flavor off the vine without any issues. At this stage, it’s also important to note that the plant is not helping the tomato ripen in the least. In fact, allowing it to remain past the breaking stage can actually be detrimental to the plant – and the tomato.

Split tomato
Letting your tomatoes to spend too much time on the vine can lead to over ripening and splitting. And once they begin to split and over ripen, they begin to attract more insects that can ruin the crop.
More Advantages To Picking Early…

Once picked and placed in a proper area (we will cover that later in the article), tomatoes will actually ripen faster and more evenly off the vine than on it. And with far less chance of having the tomato be ruined by other factors.

Another big reason to pick early is that the longer a tomato stays on the vine, the more risk it has of incurring damage from insects, animals and disease. Simply put, the more ripe a tomato becomes, the more inviting it is to everything and everyone. But by picking it early and ripening in a safe area you eliminate the risk of damage.

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

There are a lot of advantages for your tomato plant when you pick early. For starters, picking your tomatoes when they first start to ripen helps keep the weight of your tomato vines manageable.

By mid-summer, a fully loaded tomato plant can become quite heavy. Heavy, overloaded vines are easily damaged by small wind and rain storms. Quite often, even without a storm, overloaded branches will easily split and tear from the plant. And when they do, it not only ruins the tomatoes growing on the limbs that tear off, but it can injure the rest of the plant in the process.

Listen In To Our Podcast On How To Fertilize Your Tomatoes For A Bigger Harvest!

In addition to keeping vines safe, picking early and often keeps your plants from suffering from fruit overload. When too many tomatoes are present and ripening, the over abundance of fruit sends a signal to the plant to slow down production of blossoms. And once that occurs, it will diminish your future harvest greatly.

Finally, picking early stops helps the plant conserve valuable energy. As long as a tomato remains on the plant, the plant will continue sending it energy – even though it doesn’t help it in the least. But by picking early those resources can instead go towards producing new blooms and developing more tomatoes.

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

Equally important to the art of picking your tomatoes early is knowing the best way 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.

Once the tomato has begun the ripening process, it does not need sunlight to ripen. In fact, too much sun can potentially blister or even injure the fruit. Coincidentally, it is exactly what happens when over-ripe tomatoes start to split open when on the vine – and why you want to get them off early!

One thing is for sure, the best place to ripen fresh-picked tomatoes is not on a sunny windowsill. Putting tomatoes on a sunny windowsill can cause the exact same issue. It can make the tomato ripen unevenly with the bottom turning soft as it comes in contact with the warm window sill.

ripening tomatoes
A window sill is not the best place to ripen tomatoes. It can cause them to ripen unevenly and develop soft spots underneath.

The Best Places For Ripening Tomatoes – When To Pick Tomatoes

When it comes to the ideal placement, tomatoes ripen best when stored in a cool, shady location. It’s best to have the temperature between 60 to 70 degrees for ripening. Anything cooler and they will stop turning. Anything hotter and they can turn mushy fast.

One thing that will help tomatoes ripen off the vine faster is to make sure they get plenty of circulation. When oxygen circulates around the fruit, it allows for fast and even ripening. Placing tomatoes on a baking rack or bread rack works great for this. It keeps the tomatoes off the ground and air above and below.

You can also create a homemade drying rack with a few 2 x 4’s and hardware cloth stapled on top. The mesh hardware cloth allows the tomatoes to ripen on all sides and have optimal air flow from above and below. See : How To Build A Homemade Drying Rack

If you can’t store your tomatoes indoors, a cool, shady porch, garage or barn is the next best location. As long as the outside temperatures are not too high, your tomatoes will ripen evenly. The important thing is to keep them out of hot, direct sunlight.

harvest drying rack
This tomato drying rack allows tomatoes to ripen off the vine and in the shade – and with great circulation!

Can I Store Tomatoes In the Refrigerator? 

Much like when trying to ripen tomatoes in a windowsill, ripening and even storing tomatoes in a refrigerator is a big no-no.

Unfortunately, a refrigerator will cause the process of a tomato ripening to stop almost entirely. Storing tomatoes in the refrigerator not only halts the ripening process, it also causes tomatoes to lose flavor and nutrients over time as well. 

If you want to chill your tomatoes for a few minutes, by all means give them a little time in the refrigerator, but storing them long term will only lead to less and less flavor and nutrients. Here is to picking early and often – and to enjoying a great tomato harvest this year!

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