How and When to Harvest Tomatoes
Confused about the best time of season to harvest your garden tomatoes, or the best time to start harvesting? Harvesting at the right time can mean the difference between a low-yield and a productive one. In this article, gardening expert Jenna Rich examines when you should start harvesting your tomatoes, and the best process to do it.
Nothing screams summer like a crisp, colorful salad made with ingredients straight from the garden. Tomatoes are a key component of many summer dishes so you want to be sure they are perfectly ripe, offering the best flavor profile and highest levels of nutrition.
If you like to try growing different types of tomatoes each season, you’ve likely experimented with different harvest timing.
Weather conditions, soil health, and time of year are just a few things that will affect when and how often you will harvest tomatoes. Let’s jump in for some tips on when and how to harvest tomatoes this season.
Differences Among Varieties
When selecting your seeds for the season, pay close attention to features such as “days to maturity”, ideal conditions, and indeterminate versus determinate varieties. These play a big role in when your tomatoes will be ready to harvest.
The type of tomato will also tell you a lot about when and how to harvest the fruit, so next, I will break down tips on harvesting and storing tomatoes by category.
Heirloom tomatoes are known for their distinct colors, odd shapes, and exceptional flavor. However, they are also known for splitting on the vine, which is why many commercial growers steer away from them, opting instead for hybrid varieties.
For this reason, we harvest our heirloom tomatoes when they show the first bit of color. At our farm, we have not noticed any flavor or quality difference, and this technique allows us to stay on a consistent harvest schedule and have ripe tomatoes to offer every day of the week to our customers.
Cherry tomatoes will not ripen very much off the vine, so you want to be sure to wait to pick these until prime ripeness.
Whatever color they are meant to be should be about 90% visible on each fruit, and no green should be left on the shoulders. If you pick them when there is still green showing, you might be stuck with hard, tart cherry tomatoes instead of sweet, juicy ones.
These are generally going to be the first type of tomato of the season to ripen as they are small and don’t require as much time as larger varieties.
Color will be the biggest indicator of ripeness on these types of tomatoes. You should wait until Romas are completely red before harvesting for prime flavor. When tomatoes are fully red, they will be the highest in sugar content and in turn, the sweetest.
Most Roma tomato plants are determinate, meaning all the fruit comes on and ripens in a short amount of time. This makes sense for people who are growing this type of tomato with the intention of canning/freezing sauces or stewed tomatoes.
A few popular sauce varieties are Roma, San Marzano, Amish Paste, and the hybrid BHN 589, which is great for hoop house growing. These types of tomatoes should be used soon after harvesting to take full advantage of their flavor.
Beefsteak/Red Slicing/Hybrid Tomatoes
Most red slicing and beefsteak varieties are thought to be best when harvested at the “turning” or “pink” stage. This is when at least 50% ripened color is showing. This same technique should be used for hybrid varieties.
Beefsteak tomato varieties can take a bit longer to mature, but once they start, you’ll likely have to harvest at least every other day as they will come on fast and furious, especially if you have a large patch of them.
How Tomatoes Ripen
All tomatoes, no matter what variety, will begin to ripen from the bottom of the plant and the top of each “truss”. The truss is the cluster of smaller stems that come off the main stem and produce flowers. After a flower is pollinated, the fruit will form at the site.
The 6 ripening stages of tomatoes are as follows:
- Mature Green
- Breaker Stage
- Light Red
- Ripe Red
It is believed that a tomato needs no further nutrients from the plant at the breaker stage. Tomatoes start to release ethylene when ripening at the breaker stage, and they ripen from the “inside-out”. We know this because when you cut into a tomato at the breaker point, the innards will show pink.
Picking Tomatoes Early
If you are growing tomatoes commercially, you may be aware of this “trick.” Many home gardeners wait until tomatoes are fully colored on the vine before picking them.
This can be a little risky because if they are forgotten about or if too much time passes, they could split or be eaten by a pest, which is always disappointing.
If you harvest your tomatoes at the breaker stage, they can be stored in a crate or on your counter to ripen without any loss of flavor or nutrition. This will also allow you to stay on track with your harvest schedule and keep your tomato patch tidy.
How to Harvest Tomatoes
When it’s time to head to your tomato patch and harvest, you should grab the following items:
- Sharp harvest shears
- A crate, preferably lined with newspaper OR a belly bucket
- Snips, just in case you find a stray sucker
- Gloves to protect yourself from tomato plant tar
Step 1: Observe Your Tomato Patch
Walk through all of your tomatoes to take stock of what is going on. Understand how much you think you’ll be harvesting, how much time it will take, etc.
For instance, you may suspect that only a few tomatoes are ripe, but when you walk your patch, there is more than enough to fill a crate. If this is the case, you may want to get another crate before beginning your harvest.
This will also help you decide if the schedule you have set for yourself is going to work. Perhaps you planned on harvesting every 3 days. Once you walked your tomatoes, you may have noticed quite a few fallen or cracked tomatoes. If so, you might consider bumping up your harvest frequency to every other day.
Step 2: Picking Your Tomatoes
Using your sharp shears, snip tomatoes off as close to the fruit as possible. If you leave too much stem on, they may damage other tomatoes nearby during storage.
After some experience, you may learn that some fruits can simply be twisted gently off the stem when harvesting. I don’t prefer this method because you run the risk of breaking the stem too close to the fruit. This may cause the plant to split or become unmarketable.
You want to touch tomatoes as little as possible, especially once harvested. The flesh is very delicate and can become bruised easily.
Pro tip: To avoid dragging a tomato-filled crate around your garden, you can harvest tomatoes and gently place them beneath the plants. Just be sure to go back through to collect them at the end of your harvest session.
Pro tip #2: Many kids love harvesting (and munching on) cherry tomatoes. When fruit is still low hanging, make this a fun activity to share together by making a game out of it. Grab a recycled plastic container or a washed out milk jug, head to the gardens and see who can pick the most tomatoes in 10 minutes!
Step 3a: Harvesting by Touch
While most often, growers harvest by looking at tomato color, another very key indicator of ripeness is the feel. Fully unripe tomatoes are hard to the touch. Fully or overripe tomatoes are soft, almost mushy when you squeeze them.
Tomatoes should have a little bounce back when gently squeezing them; this is the “Goldilocks” ripeness for tomatoes.
Knowing how to harvest by touch is important when growing green or yellow varieties such as Green Zebra or Great White.
These tomatoes are green or pale yellow, respectively, when fully ripened. If you are new to growing tomatoes that are not bright red when ripe, giving them a quick squeeze before harvesting will be informative. Understanding how they feel when ripe will help you know when to harvest.
Step 3b: Harvesting by Color
When tomatoes are at the “pink” or “light red” stage, they are just about half ripe and half unripe. Many growers believe that when tomatoes are harvested at this stage, they do not lose any nutritional value, flavor, or quality.
Pro Tip: When picking cherry tomatoes by color, only walk them once. If you walk back through after a harvest, your brain may trick you into thinking you’ve missed some when in fact, it’s just the almost ripe ones!
Step 4: Harvest First, Then Water
This is sometimes an afterthought. But try to make it a habit to create a watering schedule that coincides with your harvest schedule. We water and harvest our tomatoes every other day. Depending on how those days land, we always ensure we harvest, THEN water.
If you wait to harvest a day or more after watering, you may be disappointed to see cracks and/or splitting.
Pro Tip: Keep an eye on the weather report in your area. If you are expecting a good amount of rainfall, you should adjust your harvest day so it is done before the rain comes.
Frequently Asked Questions
Should I harvest my tomatoes everyday?
While it is not necessary to harvest your tomatoes everyday, you should create a schedule for yourself. It should be manageable and fit into your lifestyle but be structured enough to make all your hard work worth it in the end.
Are fried green tomatoes made with unripe fruit?
Yes! Traditionally, slices of pale green tomatoes, usually of a beefsteak or red slicing variety, are breaded, lightly fried and served with a dipping sauce such as a remoulade. Fried green tomatoes originally came to the United States by way of Jewish immigrants in the 19th century, eventually making their way into midwestern and northeastern cookbooks.
In northern regions, green tomatoes are often picked before frost arrives, which will kill the plants. It’s thought that perhaps frying green tomatoes in the fall was an idea that farmers spread, allowing them to continue gaining revenue in the late season.
Fried green tomatoes are commonly known as a southern dish. However, this dish did not become popular down south until the Oscar nominated movie, “Fried Green Tomatoes” was released in 1991!
Can I wait to harvest until my tomatoes are fully ripened?
Of course! Just remember to have a schedule and be aware that if you forget or miss a day, your beautiful ripened tomatoes might have become a snack for a bird, split or dropped off the plant during that time. The longer a tomato spends on the vine, the higher the risk becomes for blemishes, splits or being eaten by a pest so use your best discretion.
The sugars will be their highest when tomatoes are fully ripened which means they will be the sweetest. However, keep in mind, these fruits should also be consumed very soon after harvest because they will not last long.
What should I do with extra ripened tomatoes?
If you have the time and lots of ripe tomatoes, making a simple tomato sauce is a great way to preserve the season. Limiting the spices you add before you freeze or can the sauce will broaden the ways you can use it later, seasoning it depending on the dish.
You can also freeze whole tomatoes! Just give them a quick rinse and put them in an airtight container or a freezer safe bag. Then, sometime in the winter, thaw them out and make a “fresh” sauce using your homegrown tomatoes.
As long as they are stored properly to prevent freezer burn, there should be no difference in flavor at all.
Growing tomatoes is a lot of work. Congratulations on making it to the harvest stage, where you get to reap the rewards!
Experimentation is important in so many aspects of growing food, and harvesting tomatoes is no exception. However, no one knows your garden better than you do. Try new varieties and techniques until you find what works best for you.