Garden & Landscape Tips

Tomatoes ripening on the vine.
Multiple factors need to be evaluated to determine when to pick tomatoes. Look at their color, firmness, and how easily they are removed from the vine when picking.
asadykov / iStock / Getty Images Plus

August is prime time throughout most of the country for harvesting tomatoes. Home-grown tomatoes picked at or near the peak of ripeness can’t be beaten for flavor, but it’s not always obvious when the best picking time is.

You can’t go strictly by color when deciding when to pick. For one thing, not all tomatoes ripen red. Some are pink when fully ripe, while others are yellow, burgundy-black, striped, and even still green when ripe.

You can’t judge strictly based on time, either. The longer you wait to pick, the more chance that your fruits will split, develop soft spots, or end up overripe, mushy and quick to rot. They also run the risk of getting pecked by birds or stinkbugs, or get eaten by deer, groundhogs, and other tomato-loving wildlife.

So how do you know when it’s time to make your move?

Ripening tomato.
This tomato is beginning its blushing stage, where the green tomato is beginning to show signs of pink color change.
iStock / Getty Images Plus

Tomato-picking clues

Your earliest indicator for most varieties is a slight change of color, or “blushing.” In red tomatoes, the fruits often turn to a lighter green and then show blushes of pink.

Once you notice that slight change in color, that’s your cue to test the next indicator, which is the squeeze test. Tomatoes ripen from the bottom up and from the inside out, so to tell when the fruit is going from a mature green stage to ripe, give a slight press to the bottom of the fruit. If the bottom is still hard, let it alone. If it’s starting to soften, you’re at the beginning of your picking time frame. As an example, heirloom tomatoes are best picked soon after the bottom softens as opposed to letting them on the vine until they’re fully colored and completely soft.

Another way to tell it’s time to pick is that ripe fruits will release easier from the vine. Under-ripe ones will stay firmly attached when you give the fruit a slightly angled tug.

Off-the-vine ripening

One of the uncommon features of tomatoes is that they’re able to continue ripening and sweetening even after being picked. The taste of a mostly-green-but-softening fruit might not be quite as sweet as a fruit left on the vine longer, but it’ll still continue to color and ripen off the vine.

Picked tomatoes ripen best when stored inside between 60 and 70 degrees, especially when wrapped in newspaper or paper towels or stored in a paper bag. This traps the ethylene gas that tomatoes emit to cause ripening. When stored, don’t be concerned about the fruits absorbing light. This isn’t necessary for the ripening process, as much as it’s necessary to have the correct temperature.

Experiment with picking times to see at what point between green and fully colored your tomatoes suit your taste. Better for you to enjoy almost-peak fruits than for deer to enjoy the whole harvest.

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