Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tomato Patch: How to Save More Tomatoes

Should I pick this partially ripe Brandywine Red?
Do your heirloom tomatoes crack and get moldy before you think they’re ripe enough to pick? Do your cherry tomatoes all but split before your eyes the day after it rains? Do brown marmorated stink bugs and birds start eating your ripening tomatoes before you do?

Then read on to learn what I’ve just learned—and maybe your heirlooms will split and mold less, you’ll harvest your cherries before they split, and you’ll eat more of your tomatoes before the stink bugs do.
Here’s the story of what I learned last week that is changing the way I think about picking my tomatoes:

When I picked tomatoes for 10¢ a basket as a teenager in southern New Jersey, farmer Joe Uhland set the picking rules: the red fruit must be fully ripe and without major blemish or piece of stem—or the canning company would downgrade the load and Joe would be paid less. For nearly 60 years since Joe set the standard, I’ve been picking tomatoes when they’re fully ripe.

This bit of ancient wisdom, however, got a jolt last Thursday when I was researching on the Internet about the effect of extreme heat on tomatoes. I discovered a posting that directly challenged my belief that I should pick only fully ripe tomatoes. I laughed out loud when I read it. I was astounded—but it made sense.

This eureka moment came when I read a Kansas State University Research & Extension posting titled “Hot Weather Threatens Tomato Plants” and a sidebar caught my attention: “Harvested Tomatoes Can ‘Vine-Ripen.’” I’ll post a link below so you can read the posting if you wish, but here are the main points made by Chuck Marr, a Kansas State University horticulturist, now retired (with my additional comments in parentheses):

1. Tomatoes at full red-ripe stage have optimum nutrition, color, and flavor, but they don’t have to be on the vine to reach that point. (Let’s assume this applies to tomatoes of all colors.)

2. Tomatoes start producing ethylene gas internally when they reach full size and turn pale green from their earlier dark green. The ethylene regulates the ripening process. (Tomato growers in Florida, for example, gas their dark-green fruit with ethylene to turn them red in winter, so we can have beautiful red tomatoes that taste like green ones.)

3. When the tomatoes reach the “breaker stage”—about half green and half pink—“a layer of cells forms across their stem, sealing them off from the main vine. At this state, tomatoes can ripen on or off the vine with no loss of quality or flavor,” Marr explained. (If the variety produces a color of fruit other than red, determining “breaker stage” may be more challenging.)

4. Pick tomatoes at “breaker stage” and you can let them ripen slowly in a cool place—minimum of 50°F—or more quickly at higher temperatures—up to 85°F—( such as on your kitchen counter.) They will not ripen in your refrigerator (where the temperature is below 40°F).

Wow! After I got over the initial shock, I thought of several problems that “picking early” might solve:

1. In extreme hot weather, some red-tomato varieties stop making red pigments at about 95°F, so the fruit can be fully mature when it’s yellow-red. If you wait for the fruit to turn deep red, the fruit may begin to spoil before you decide to pick.

2. Some large-red varieties, including many heirlooms, tend to split when near ripe and often begin to mold or have other problems. If you pick them before they reach this problem stage, you will harvest better quality fruit. This has happened already this season in the Tomato Patch. A gnarled Brandywine Red split at its blossom end before it was fully ripe and began to mold. I tried to salvage some of the ripe fruit but had to discard most of it. Picking early may avoid the splits and the mold.

3. Many cherry tomato varieties are known to split—and begin a quick decline in quality—after it rains. One of my favorites, Sungold, does that regularly. It rained here Monday afternoon, and by Tuesday morning many of the ripening Sungolds already had split. Picking early may avoid such splits.

4. I admit I sometimes don’t know when the fruit of a particular variety is fully ripe. I grow Brandywine (Sudduth’s Strain) and often wonder how “pink” the fruit must be to be ripe. And how do I know when a Virginia Sweets is ripe? It’s described on its seed packet as a gold-red bicolor and a “golden yellow beefsteak … colored with red stripes that turn into a ruby blush.” Picking early may help me monitor the fruit as it ripens on our kitchen counter.

5. Think of all the critters that like to dine on tomatoes, from insects, such as the tomato-sipping brown marmorated stink bug, to traditional harvesters such as birds, squirrels, and the occasional box turtle. Picking early may mean I will enjoy my tomatoes more than they will.

Should I put so many tomatoes in one basket, so to speak, just because one posting by one horticulturist says I should pick earlier?

I did a quick Internet search about when to pick tomatoes. Many postings followed the traditional rule to pick only fully ripe fruit, but several others pointed out that wasn’t necessary. One, the Aggie Horticulture site of AgriLife Extension (Texas A&M University), gave this reply to a question about leaving fruit on plants until fully ripe: “Generally, yields will be increased by harvesting the fruit at first blush or pink instead of leaving them on the plant to ripen fully. A tomato picked at first sign of color and ripened at room temperature will be just as tasty as one left to fully mature on the vine.”

I’m “three score and 10 plus” years and still learning new things about picking and growing tomatoes, but perhaps that challenges of gardening what makes it so attractive, even to ancient gardeners.

I’m going to start experimenting by picking “breaker stage” tomatoes, and I think you should too. If you do, be sure to come back and Comment about how it works for you.

If you want to read the Kansas State University posting, “Harvested Tomatoes Can ‘Vine-Ripen,’” CLICK HERE.


  1. Great article Bob, especially the fact that once they reach the breaker stage a cellular barrier forms in the stem.

  2. I discovered last year to harvest early to avoid stink bug damage. It worked for me without compromising taste. So I have continued to do the same this year and noticed that our yield is larger. Thanks for sharing the affirmation.

  3. I have been losing about a third of my tomatoes to the birds this year. I grow mine in containers on my deck so I am hesitant to do the nylon stocking trick because I enjoy watching the plants grow in their natural state. I started picking them early to save as many as I can and it has been working well. I could not tell any difference in taste between the ones I picked early and the ones left on the vine to ripen. This article put my mind at ease about it though.

    Thanks for the info!

  4. I accidently learned that home grown, counter ripened tomatoes taste as good as vine ripened ones several years ago when we had an early cold snap. I harvested the whole lot, breaker stage and green and they slowly ripened over several weeks and tasted great. I also harvested at "breaker stage" last year to beat out the stink bugs..

  5. It's true tomatoes will ripen off the vine, but that isn't to say they are just as good as tomatoes that ripen on the vine - that is, that ripen on the vine without problems. Those are the ones that make us gardeners grow tomatoes each year. I say, don't pick them early unless it rains too much, or frost threatens, or there are serious insect problems, etc.

  6. No doubt, a wonderful combination of science and art combined in a perfectly balanced manner leads to optimal tomatoes. Years of experience are certainly worth a lot, and this is where the art of growing beautiful (and tasty) tomatoes comes in to play. That being said, the reasoning above in the original segment makes good sense from a scientific standpoint, and beyond that, my personal experience reflects this. Of course when a tomato on the vine is found in a perfect ruby hue (or any appropriate hue depending on the variety) the taste is fantastic. But that tomato must be eaten right away to enjoy that perfection. Picking earlier than that (but not too early) yields not a limitation but instead an opportunity to experience an equally tasty fruit at a future time as long as the tomato is properly cared for/stored. I have had the great fortune of eating a very tasty, if not perfect, tomato in the latter part of November from a home garden in North Carolina. Remember that growing and eating perfect tomatoes, or anything for that matter, isn't a "right" that we should expect at anytime we deem convenient. Nature rules supreme and way too many people think they deserve anything they want at anytime of year, sadly because somewhere on earth at any given moment a particular foodstuff can be produced.....and then shipped for our convenience. It ain't all about us.....that's vanity. If you so choose, grow some food for yourself, make the investment, and enjoy the payoff. Learning how to get more out of your efforts in a responsible way makes sense to me. If you want to stand by your plants and wait for the perfect moment to pick your tomatoes that's great. I like knowing that when i happen upon that "perfect" tomato that I'll feel fortunate. But I'll also feel fortunate picking many of my tomatoes a bit earlier than that moment and letting nature/science do it's part to allow me to enjoy amazing fruit weeks after they're harvested.

  7. I have a huge stink bug (bmsb) problem. I, also, have found that if I pick the tomatoes when they are orange and not fully ripe then I can actually have a few tomatoes for myself. Otherwise the vast majority of the tomatoes will be ruined by the stink bugs. I grow a lot of Juliet tomatoes because they are prolific and small (they look like minature roma tomatoes). When there are many smaller tomatoes as opposed to fewer large tomatoes, the odds that you can get undamaged tomatoes increases dramatically. In regards to taste, I must say that I PREFER the taste of a tomato picked before fully ripe than a fully ripe tomato.