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How to Harvest Tomatoes in 4 Easy Steps

In the late summer, you may find yourself staring at the tempting little orbs on your tomato plant, wondering if they are ready to pluck or if you need to wait a little longer. Waiting for small green tomatoes to ripen into your first harvest can feel like an eternity. Still, it is essential to harvest tomatoes at the right time to get the best flavor and mouthfeel.

How to Harvest Tomatoes

Read on to learn more about how to harvest tomatoes and what to do with the fresh fruit you’ll collect.

How to Harvest Tomatoes

Ripe tomatoes

Tomatoes are one of the most popular crops in backyard gardens across America. It’s no wonder since tomato plants are easy to care for, and homegrown tomatoes are exponentially more delicious than store-bought. Harvesting tomatoes at their peak time is vital if you want delicious results.

Homegrown tomatoes emit a wonderful aroma when they are ripe that is sometimes missing in supermarket varieties. This ripe tomato smell is one of the best ways to determine when the fruit is mature. The scent and texture of mature green tomatoes set them apart from unripe tomatoes.

When munching on fresh tomatoes from the garden, you can wait until they are fully vine-ripened. Still, you will likely end up with more tomatoes than you can eat in a week come harvest time. Due to the shelf life of fresh tomatoes and how abundant some harvests are, you’ll probably end up harvesting tomatoes that are mature but still green to ripen gradually.

Should You Be Harvesting Tomatoes That Are Mature Green or Vine-Ripened?

Tomatoes on the vine

A fully ripe tomato doesn’t need to be falling off the vine to be ready to pluck. Mature green is a stage when the tomato is almost ripe and can be harvested and allowed to ripen slowly.

Over time the dark green color will darken to a uniform red (or pink, yellow, orange, or purple, depending on the tomato variety.) Unripe tomatoes will continue to ripen due to the production of ethylene gas. The concentration of this gas determines how long it takes for tomatoes to ripen.

Ethylene is a gas that all ripe fruits produce, which in turn causes them to ripen further. This gas converts the chlorophyll in the tomato’s flesh into compounds that give tomatoes their distinctive taste and variety of colors.

Your sense of smell is your best friend when detecting ripe fruit. Unripe fruit lacks any pungent smell, which makes it a good indicator of ripeness when you are growing a green tomato variety. You’ll notice a huge difference if you smell a store-bought fruit compared to one purchased at the farmers’ market.

Mass-produced tomatoes get harvested before they reach the mature green stage. They are then treated with gas to speed up ripening, even though they aren’t quite ready. When you can detect a rich tomato aroma, you know it’s time for harvesting tomatoes, regardless of color.

There is also a discernible difference in how an unripe fruit feels compared to a mature green or fully ripened tomato. The tomato flesh of a fully-ripened fruit will depress by applying light pressure, such as a gentle squeeze. Meanwhile, a mature green tomato will be firm but not hard. If you squeeze it, the flesh should give very slightly.

If you want delicious tomatoes, you’ll need to let them mature before harvesting. Regardless of whether you desire vine-ripened tomatoes or green ones for later, you need to determine whether they are ready to harvest.

How to Harvest Tomatoes That Have Been Vine-Ripened

Tomatoes

It’s easy to harvest a fully ripe tomato. When tomatoes reach that “ready to eat” ripeness, they fall right off the vine. Of course, you’ll want to beat them to it, so check your fruits for ripeness every morning before it gets too warm out.

A simple way to see if the fruit is vine-ripe is to grasp it in one hand and the vine in the other and give it the slightest tug. Vine-ripened tomatoes will fall off the vine with light downward pressure.

The vine-ripe color should be bright and vibrant, and the tomato fruit fragrant. If the tomato doesn’t come away too easily but feels and looks ready, give it a sniff to see if it is aromatic. If so, go ahead and snip or break the stem of the fruit just like a mature green tomato.

Step 1: Color

Color can be tricky when judging whether it’s time to be harvesting tomatoes. Tomatoes come in a wide variety of colors, so ensure you know what the ripe color should be. Once the fruit’s shade is uniform and vibrant, it is likely ready to harvest.

Step 2: Feel

It’s time to start harvesting tomatoes that are vine-ripened when they have taut skin concealing firm yet noticeably juicy flesh. If you squeeze a tomato gently and it depresses slightly, you can be sure it’s ready to pluck.

Step 3: Smell

You should harvest vine-ripened tomatoes when they produce a strong tomato fragrance. This aroma is a key indicator of maturity. It can be detected once the fruit reaches the mature green stage and grows stronger as the tomato ripens.

Step 4: Pick

When you harvest tomatoes left to ripen on the vine, they should come right off with little effort. You can twist or cut the fruit’s stem if a gentle tug doesn’t loosen a clearly ripe tomato.

How to Harvest Mature Green Tomatoes

Harvesting tomatoes

Vine-ripened tomatoes are excellent for eating right away, but there are many reasons you might want to harvest tomatoes while they are still green.

Some tomato varieties are especially prone to cracking once ripe. Other large varieties, like beefsteak tomatoes, will fall off the vine and splat on the ground if left to ripen too long.

To combat such issues, many gardeners prefer to harvest green stage tomatoes. You should also harvest late-season tomatoes when they are mature green to avoid cold weather and unexpected frost.

If you have more unripe tomatoes than you know what to do with come harvest time, you can ripen them slowly in ideal conditions. Ethylene gas produced by the fruit builds up and continues the ripening process.

As a rule, wait for the tomato to reach its mature size before harvesting. The tricky part is recognizing when full-size unripe tomatoes are mature enough to harvest.

Step 1: Color

You can tell when to harvest most tomato varieties by the blush of ripe color emanating from the fruit’s base. If the tomato is a green variety, you can look for a shift in the shade of green.

Step 2: Feel

You can easily identify mature green tomatoes by their firmness. When you grab an under-ripe tomato, it feels hard and solid. Mature green tomatoes are firm but still give slightly under pressure.

Step 3: Smell

Tomatoes start emitting their signature aroma at the mature green stage. For the experienced gardener, this is the key indicator of ripeness. Once your garden is overwhelmed with the mouthwatering smell of tomatoes, they are ready to harvest.

Step 4: Twist or Cut

To properly harvest a mature green tomato, you want to start by firmly grasping the vine in one hand and the fruit in the other. Twist the tomato around the stem until it breaks. Alternatively, use a clean pair of scissors and snip the stem right above the calyx–the crown of tiny leaves that adorns the tomato’s top.

Ripening Mature Green Tomatoes

Green tomatoes

Is this your first time harvesting tomatoes that are green? If so, don’t fret that you’ve picked them too soon. Once tomatoes reach the mature green stage, they continue to ripen when stored in ideal conditions.

Warm environments facilitate ethylene gas production. You’ll want to harness this gas to get your tomato harvest ready to enjoy

To hasten ripening, place tomatoes in a single layer on a tray, crowded together. You might add apples or bananas interspersed amongst the tomatoes, as these fruits are notoriously gassy. Cover the fruit with a clean towel, or place the whole lot in a paper bag.

Set the tray or bag of fruit on a warm sunny windowsill to keep it above average room temperature. Check the tomatoes for ripeness sparingly, as you don’t want too much gas to escape.

Storing Surplus Tomato Harvest

Tomatoes on counter

Once fully ripened, the shelf life of tomato fruits is a week at maximum. Refrigerated tomatoes keep a bit longer, but is that the best way to store tomatoes?

There is endless folk advice on the best way to keep tomatoes fresh, which generally boils down to keeping them in a dark, cool, dry location to slow ripening. This can maximize the quality of your ripe tomatoes and help them stay fresh.

You may want to cook batches of tomatoes down into tomato sauce or preserve the tomatoes another way. Frozen tomatoes have limited application but are much less labor intensive than canning. For more advice on tomato preservation, check out our article on how to freeze tomatoes.

Wrapping Up How to Harvest Tomatoes

Homegrown tomatoes are a wonderful treat, and knowing how to harvest tomatoes at the right time is crucial to quality. This article should have you on the right path to a successful tomato harvest. Read more of our comprehensive guides to learn everything there is to know about tomatoes—from planting to harvesting.