Survival Gardening

The Perfect Time to Pick Tomatoes Isn’t When You’d Expect

Woman picking a ripe tomato off the vine

Here’s a quick tip: did you know that picking tomatoes at just the right time will give you tomatoes that don’t spoil as fast and encourage your plant to put out more blossoms, leading to more fruit?

Ah, but Tracey, when is the right time to pick them?

Read on to find out. The answer lies within, the tomato, that is.

Ripened on the Vine

What if I told you you’re probably picking your tomatoes wrong? Believe it or not, most gardeners pick tomatoes too late. This leads to fruits that spoil quicker and a lower overall yield.

Most of us have gotten it into our heads that tomatoes ripened on the vine are the way to go. After all, it’s what’s on every food label for tomato products. Ketchup made with “vine-ripened tomatoes.” Cans of “sun-ripened” tomatoes. In reality, it’s all just good marketing.

The best time to pick tomatoes is when they reach the breaker stage.

Okay, what the heck is the breaker stage?

The Breaker Stage

From the time your tomato plant sets blooms, it takes about six to eight weeks for the fruit to ripen and be ready to eat. A lot happens in that time, but for the first half of that period mostly the fruit is growing larger. It’s forming seeds and the jelly-like substance that surrounds the seeds. All the sugars and acids that will give the tomato its final flavor are being formed.

Once the tomato has reached full size, it’s called “green mature.”

Then, some interesting things start happening within. If the weather is warm enough, it will trigger the tomato to begin producing a plant hormone – ethylene. You’re probably familiar with the effects of ethylene if you’ve ever watched a banana go spotty on your kitchen counter.

This hormone is essential for the synthesis of lycopene. Lycopene is what gives tomatoes their characteristic red color.

Heat, ethylene and lycopene all come together to ripen your tomatoes.

But the cool part is that tomatoes can produce ethylene and lycopene even if it’s not on the plant, as long as it’s someplace warm.

Technically, tomatoes ripening on the vine aren’t a part of the plant anymore.

Once the fruit begins to produce ethylene, it also seals itself off from the rest of the plant by the hardening of cells where the stem attaches to the plant. The fruit is no longer receiving nutrients and water from the plant, and this hardening of the cells makes it easier for the ripened tomato to break away from the plant – breaker stage.

Cherry tomatoes ripening on the vine
Yup, even that orangey-green tomato toward the bottom is at the breaker stage.

So, when does the breaker stage occur? Surprisingly, it’s well before the tomato is completely ripe. Tomatoes ripen from the inside out, meaning that unripe tomato is far more ripe than it appears. In general, once the plant looks to be about 50% ripe (when it starts to get an overall pinkish hue), it’s hit the breaker stage.

Of course, determining the breaker stage in tomatoes that aren’t red can be a bit tricky. But once you’ve got a few ripe ones on the plant, you should be able to tell.

Purple tomatoes

If you leave the tomatoes on the plant at this point, it will slow down the production of more tomatoes. After all, to a plant, its job is done – it has produced fruit, which will continue the species after that plant dies. However, if you keep picking your tomatoes as they hit the breaker stage, it signals to the plant to put out more blooms and start the process over.

What to Do with Your Tomatoes Once You Pick Them

Once you’ve picked your breaker stage tomatoes, all you need to do is keep them warm. Heat is the necessary ingredient for a tasty, well-ripened fruit. Place your tomatoes on a warm, sunny windowsill, a table on your back porch, or even a cardboard box in your garage. Light doesn’t really play a role in the ripening process.  

Tomatoes ripening on a windowsill

Set up your tomatoes so they aren’t touching each other and the warm air can circulate around them. You can even layer them, placing a few sheets of newspaper between each layer. Check them often and rotate tomatoes as needed. Eat or cook tomatoes with soft spots or bruises first.

By the way, this is also a great way to encourage stuck tomatoes to ripen when it’s too hot outside. If temperatures climb much higher than 90 degrees F, the production of lycopene slows or stops. If you have tomatoes on the vine that are at the breaker stage, and you’re experiencing a heatwave, go ahead and pick them and bring them into your house where it’s cooler.

Tomatoes picked at breaker stage

And that’s that, now you know the perfect time to pick tomatoes.

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Tracey Besemer

Hey there, my name is Tracey. I’m the editor-in-chief here at Rural Sprout.

Many of our readers already know me from our popular Sunday newsletters. (You are signed up for our newsletters, right?) Each Sunday, I send a friendly missive from my neck of the woods in Pennsylvania. It’s a bit like sitting on the front porch with a friend, discussing our gardens over a cup of tea.

Originally from upstate NY, I’m now an honorary Pennsylvanian, having lived here for the past 18 years.

I grew up spending weekends on my dad’s off-the-grid homestead, where I spent much of my childhood roaming the woods and getting my hands dirty.

I learned how to do things most little kids haven’t done in over a century.

Whether it was pressing apples in the fall for homemade cider, trudging through the early spring snows of upstate NY to tap trees for maple syrup, or canning everything that grew in the garden in the summer – there were always new adventures with each season.

As an adult, I continue to draw on the skills I learned as a kid. I love my Wi-Fi and knowing pizza is only a phone call away. And I’m okay with never revisiting the adventure that is using an outhouse in the middle of January.

These days, I tend to be almost a homesteader.

I take an eclectic approach to homesteading, utilizing modern convenience where I want and choosing the rustic ways of my childhood as they suit me.

I’m a firm believer in self-sufficiency, no matter where you live, and the power and pride that comes from doing something for yourself.

I’ve always had a garden, even when the only space available was the roof of my apartment building. I’ve been knitting since age seven, and I spin and dye my own wool as well. If you can ferment it, it’s probably in my pantry or on my kitchen counter. And I can’t go more than a few days without a trip into the woods looking for mushrooms, edible plants, or the sound of the wind in the trees.

You can follow my personal (crazy) homesteading adventures on Almost a Homesteader and Instagram as @aahomesteader.

Peace, love, and dirt under your nails,

Tracey



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