When is the best time to pick a tomato? It’s one of the most often asked questions as we get closer to that time and the temptation to harvest gets greater by the day.
When a tomato reaches a full size, and the fruit becomes a pale green, it begins the ripening process, regulated by an internal gas produced within the fruit called ethylene.
While tomatoes develop their optimum flavor, nutrition, and color when the tomato is in the full red ripe stage, this doesn’t have to occur on the plant.
Once the tomato reaches a stage when it’s about ½ green and ½ pink (called the ‘breaker stage’), the tomato can be harvested and ripened off the vine with no loss of flavor, quality or nutrition.
You can also speed up or slow down the ripening process once picked by raising the temperature (to an optimum of 85°F) or lowering the temperature to slow it down (to a minimum of 50°F).
Although it may sound tempting to leave fruit on the plant to enjoy that ripe vine tomato, you might want to consider the risks of doing so. We’ve all experienced that moment when we waited a day, or even a few hours too long and regretted doing so.
A sudden shower can cause that perfect tomato to split or crack as the roots take up a bit more water than the fruit can bear. The internal pressure of the expanding fruit on the skin is just too much. Splitting is the result. Or a bird, squirrel, raccoon or any other of many critters might try and sample that tomato before you do.
It’s a common occurrence and just not worth the risk in my book. Instead, harvest at or shortly after the breaker stage, with the confidence of knowing your tomatoes will be every bit as good as if you left them on the vine, but without the risk of any number of things you can’t control.
If you want to hear my discussion with Craig LeHoullier (author of Epic Tomatoes) where we talk about this “breaker stage” and other issues around tomato growing, check out my podcast episode: What’s Wrong With My Tomato – Mid-Season Care.
(Photo Credit: Nancy Suttles – top featured image)