Lots of people have asked “When is the best time to pick my tomatoes?” There are a couple of schools of thought on this question and together we will explore both.
Tomatoes are a unique fruit in that they can ripen after they are picked. For example, a green bell pepper will never turn red unless it is left on the bush. Tomatoes on the other hand ripen themselves using a plant hormone called ethylene. Ethylene is a gas that tomatoes need to ripen. Whether it is given off by the tomato plant or taken up by the receptors located on the skin of the tomatoes. Ethylene is essential to proper ripening. As a side note I will tell you that small amounts of ethylene will also make flowers turn brown and make some vegetables go bad quickly like lettuce and some root vegetables become bitter like carrots so DO NOT put tomatoes near a flower bouquet or your vegetable storage.
Many physiological changes occur when a tomato begins to ripen. The ethylene produced by the plant initiates changes in the skin and internal tissues of the tomato. Inside the tomato a gel begins to develop between the seeds (fig 1). A farmer will often cut the tomato to see how well the gel has developed inside the tomato which gives an idea how mature the fruit is. An old timer method is to count the seed that the knife actually cut through. A mature green tomato has so much gel between the seeds that little or none will be cut by the knife because the seeds are floating in the gel and move around the edge of the knife during the cut. The old timers say the number of seeds you cut is the number of days before the tomato will start to break color. Not that I recommend you cut all your tomatoes up, but in a big field you have to have an idea how mature a crop is.
Immature green tomato with tight seeds Mature tomato with gel around seeds
The skin will also go through changes changing from a green chlorophyll color to a red lycopene color (or other colors depending on the variety). The color almost always starts to break on the blossom end of the tomato first (the blossom end is the opposite side of the position of the stem).
I recommend picking your tomatoes as they are just beginning to ripen. We call this the breaker stage.
In the tomato business there are 6 stages of ripeness as defined by the USDA:
Picking at the breaker or turning stage (2 or 3) has several advantages:
- The tomato is firmer and will last longer on the shelf: As a tomato ripens on the vine it gets softer and more susceptible to bruising and physical damage which can shorten the shelf life dramatically
- Less chance of developing growth cracks or weather damage: As a tomato gets more mature it becomes more susceptible to moisture damage and growth cracks due to weather. Sometimes ripe tomatoes will develop small cracks just from morning dew, also heirloom varieties tend to develop growth cracks much easier when they are ripe.
- Less strain on the plant: It takes a lot of energy for the plant to maintain several red ripe tomatoes on the vine. This stress makes the plant tend to quit blooming and devote most of its energy to the fruit on the vine.
- Other tomatoes on the bush will gain size: When the extra stress of the riper fruit is removed the plant is able to devote more energy to the other small developing tomatoes on the vine. Thus producing larger fruit and setting more. Bigger tomatoes and more of them makes for a happy gardener
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