Like most gardeners, I’m always eager to pick my tomatoes once they start appearing. While I do my best to wait until they’re ready, many of those fruits don’t make it. Ripening tomatoes always attract pests that can ruin your harvest. So, can you pick tomatoes while they are still green? I did some research and created this post to answer that very question.
You can pick tomatoes when they’re green because they will continue to ripen in storage. The tomatoes will produce ethylene gas which helps in the process of ripening the fruit. It’s best to harvest green tomatoes in late fall before frost hits the garden.
I’ve written a lot more information on how you can pick tomatoes when green and speed up the ripening process. You’ll also find information about why your tomatoes are not ripening and what you can do about it.
Why You Can Pick Tomatoes When They Are Green
Believe it or not, tomatoes will continue to ripen after you pick them off the vine. There’s no problem at all with picking them when the fruit still has a green color to them. Store them properly, and the tomato will turn red.
When you pluck these fruits off the tree or vine, they go through the climacteric phase. The fruit continues to produce ethylene, which is a natural ripening hormone. After harvesting, the hormone releases in the form of gas. The fruits also experience heightened cellular respiration.
The climacteric phase is the final stage of fruit maturation. After that, the fruit will start to decline in quality and decompose.
Interestingly enough, most of the tomatoes you buy at the grocery store were not red when picked. The agricultural industry uses the climacteric phase to its advantage. Farmers harvest the fruits when they’re still green and store them in an ethylene-rich environment. That way, they can continue ripening in-transit to your grocery store.
Even so-called “vine-ripened” tomatoes aren’t at peak ripeness when harvested. Some premium suppliers may offer tomatoes that ripened directly on the vine. But that reduces shelf life significantly. So, those true vine-ripened tomatoes typically go to local buyers.
Those vine-ripened products you see on store shelves? Farmers harvest those during the breaker stage. More on that soon.
How to Ripen Green Tomatoes
Getting your green tomatoes to ripen up isn’t hard. Nature takes care of the process.
That said, you need to give your tomatoes the right conditions to flourish.
Finding the Right Storage Spot
The first thing to do is choose a nice spot to store your tomatoes. For most people, the first thought is the refrigerator or a sunny windowsill. Those are the two worst places you can keep your green tomatoes.
Too much heat and sun exposure could lead to blistering. Sunscalding and blistering can lead to discoloration, thin skin, and sunken pits. All of those issues can affect the taste of your fruit as well. Not only that, but the red pigment that gives the fruit its iconic look won’t develop in temperatures above 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
So how about the refrigerator?
Excessive exposure to cold temperatures will stop the ripening process in its tracks. Fruits cannot below 50 degrees. At 55 degrees, they will take one to two weeks longer to ripen. You can use that to your advantage if you want to keep your fruits longer. But, it’s not conducive if you want to enjoy the harvest now.
The ideal ripening temperatures for green tomatoes are between 68 and 77 degrees. Keep your tomatoes in a cool spot away from direct sunlight. Your kitchen countertops should work just fine. Just cover them to prevent fruit flies and other pests from snacking on the fruits of your labor. In the right conditions, the tomato should ripen up in about two weeks.
Will Post-Harvest Ripening Affect Taste?
Tomatoes that ripen off the vine are generally less flavorful than those that get to develop on the plant. But, the flavor differences are minor when ripened properly.
It’s a worthy tradeoff in most cases. Harvesting early allows you to keep your plant in good shape. Plus, it reduces the chances of your fruit from experiencing damage as they ripen.
If you store the tomatoes in lower temperatures, flavor impacts are going to be more noticeable. So, make sure you keep those tomatoes in a good spot while they develop.
Speeding Up The Ripening Process?
Want to enjoy your tomatoes even sooner? You can use the climacteric phase of other fruits to make that happen.
Storing similar ethylene-producing fruits together may cause them to ripen faster. Tomatoes are moderate ethylene producers. With other climacteric fruits, you may be able to create an ethylene-rich environment for quicker ripening.
Why Are Your Tomatoes Not Ripening?
Tomatoes can experience some issues that prevent ripening. This is true both on and off the vine.
The ripening process for tomatoes is unique. Once they hit a certain point, they will no longer take nutrients from the plant. Instead, they rely on external conditions to continue developing.
Here are some common reasons why tomatoes will stop ripening.
This is the most common ripening issue. As I mentioned earlier, tomatoes need moderate temperatures to continue ripening with ethylene. Outside the ideal temperature range of 68 to 77 degrees, you will experience problems.
Cool temperatures can slow down the process significantly. But, extremes in either direction can put it to a halt completely.
Direct sunlight will inhibit pigment synthesis. Don’t expose the fruits to a ton of sun. If they’re already off the vine, keep the tomatoes away from a window. If they’re still on the plant, consider creating some shade.
Most tomatoes are perfectly ripe between six and eight weeks after blossom pollination. Generally, smaller cherry tomatoes will ripen faster than plump varieties.
Do some research to figure out the exact timeline for your tomato cultivars. You may have to wait a little bit longer to start noticing a color change.
This issue only affects tomatoes that are still on the vine. Tomatoes will hit a point where they stop using nutrients from the plant. But, this happens right when it’s ready for harvesting. Before that, the plant’s health will affect the fruit’s development.
Many varieties continue to grow foliage even late into the season. Consider pruning the plant to focus its energy on fruit production. This can help get your tomatoes to the harvesting point so that they can ripen on their own.
How to Harvest Tomato Fruit
Knowing how and when to harvest your tomatoes is just as important as understanding how to ripen them. Thanks to their ability to ripen after harvesting, timing is crucial.
The Breaker Stage
The “breaker” or “breaking” stage is when the fruits are fully mature. They might not be ripe yet, but they don’t rely on the plant anymore for nutrients. This is the best time to harvest your tomatoes.
You’ll know when the tomato is at the breaker stage when it starts to shift from green to pink. The pink coloration will be slightly more noticeable. This indicates that the independent ripening process is starting. The red pigment starts to develop as the ethylene gas is ripening the fruit.
Give the tomato a gentle squeeze. A perfectly ripe tomato will be slightly firm. Meanwhile, over-ripened tomatoes feel downright mushy.
Because you want to harvest before ripening, go with firm tomatoes. As long as it has some of that pink color, it will soften up off the vine.
To harvest the fruit, grasp it with one hand. With your free hand, hold onto the stem just above the calyx. This is the flower-like green part that protects the top of the fruit. Give the tomato a gentle pull to break the stem.
Why Harvest at the Breaker Stage?
Harvesting early has a couple of advantages. The first is reducing exposure to pests and diseases. The longer your fruits are out in the open, the more they’re going to attract pests that can ruin your harvest.
But beyond that, early harvests can promote more fruit production.
You see, tomato plants can experience fruit overload. This is a biological phenomenon that the plant uses to conserve energy. The plant will stop producing new blossoms if there are too many fruits to support.
By removing the fruit, you can ensure that your indeterminate tomatoes continue to produce throughout the season.
How to Store Harvested Tomatoes
The best place to store your tomatoes is in a cool dry place. This will promote continued ripening until your fruits are perfect for eating. Keep the fruits stem-side up and position them in a single layer. Make sure that none are touching
Once they reach the ripened stage, you can leave them out on your counters to over-ripen them. This will soften them up and turn the flesh vibrant red. Over-ripe tomatoes work well for sauces and stews.
If you want to keep them firm, you can pop your ripened tomatoes in the fridge. But, they could experience damage. Standard refrigerator temperatures are too cold. Temperatures around 55 degrees are ideal for tomatoes. Luckily, tomatoes bounce back very well.
You can store your ripened tomatoes in the refrigerator. But before you eat them, let the tomatoes sit on your counter for a day or two. This will restore the tomato’s flavor.