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The Vine-Ripened Tomato Lie

From a tiny yellow blossom: a grape-sized tomato, a golf-ball-sized orb, or something the size of a grapefruit? The size of the blossom doesn’t tell you much about the size of the fruit that’s on the way.

Tomatoes are coming on full-force in my small kitchen garden, and I hope you’re having the same kind of luck with yours. I understand that cool and wet weather has challenged many tomato plants from the Midwest into the Northeast. The lucky folks, apparently, have lost some fruit to blossom-end rot. The unlucky ones have seen late blight decimate their plants.

Whether your tomatoes are growing strong, coming ripe, or dying on the vine, you’ve probably been involved in at least one conversation about tomatoes this year. The one I hear repeatedly is about how terrible are the tomatoes you buy in grocery stores. Invariably, everyone in this conversation agrees, and someone offers up that those tomatoes come off the vines green and travel cross-country while ripening… and if it doesn’t ripen on the vine, it’s just no good.

I respectfully submit: That last observation is complete hogwash.

Water regularly, and your tomatoes will likely come out OK. However, one ill-timed rainstorm could cause cracks that lead to rot, insect infestations, and mildew.

Genetics Makes a Lousy Tomato

If you want a tomato that tastes horrible and has lousy texture, start by planting seeds for the “tastes horrible and has lousy texture” tomato. That’s what commercial grocery suppliers do. Plant breeders spent decades developing varieties of tomatoes that hold up incredibly well when stacked and jostled during harvest and transport. They paid no attention to the flavor and textural appeal of these tomatoes.

Hapless grocery store shoppers buy those horrid things because those shoppers have grown up believing real tomatoes taste horrible and have lousy texture. OK… that horrible flavor becomes an acquired taste if it’s the only tomato you ever eat.

If the tomato cracks early, it may try to heal itself. Once healed, it won’t attract insects and disease, but there will be a section you’d rather not chew.

These tomatoes aren’t bad because they’re picked green. They’re bad because they’re a lousy breed. Put a decent tomato on a truck and ship it 3,000 miles, and it’ll be a smooshed tomato at its destination.

Vine-Ripened is Over-Rated

On the flip-side of this discussion is the erroneously perpetuated belief that a tomato must ripen on the vine to be good. I’m confident that the belief exists because no right-minded gardener would pick a tomato before it’s ripe (unless there was threat of frost). Yet, would the right-minded gardeners of the world pick some un-ripened tomatoes for the sake of comparison, they would learn an astonishing and happy truth: vine-ripening is way over-rated.

In fact, vine-ripening tomatoes is one of the most challenging of all gardening tasks… yet experienced gardeners so often suggest tomatoes as the ideal beginner’s crop: Tomatoes are so easy to grow, we say, and they’re so superior to store-bought. But unless you have absolute control over how much rain falls in your small kitchen garden, and how often it falls, growing beautiful ripe tomatoes is a bit of a nail-biting proposition.

This tomato cracked because it got too much water during ripening. The cracks healed, but then the tomato received too much sunshine, so it developed green shoulders. When I slice this up for salad, I’ll probably cut off some of the green stuff, leaving less to eat.

Perfect Tomato Culture

When a tomato first emerges from its tiny yellow tomato flower, it’s hard to visualize the monster it may eventually become. Still, over the course of a month, the little green ball grows larger as it sucks water from the tomato plant. To produce a perfect, ripe tomato, the plant must draw from a steady supply of water. If there is no rain, you should water two or three times a week. Ideally the weekly total will be a full inch of water over the area defined by the outstretched leaves of the plant.

If you can manage that, you may also need to control the amount of sunlight that reaches the individual tomatoes; a tomato that gets excessive direct sun may not ripen evenly.

Cracks and Hard Spots (Green Shoulders)

So, you’re controlling the amount of water and sunlight your tomatoes get, and then it rains. Your tomato plants don’t mind too much of a good thing; they suck up the additional burst of water and the young, green tomatoes get larger. Here’s the rub: tomatoes that have started to ripen aren’t as resilient as younger, greener tomatoes. As they expand under the new load of water, their skins are likely to stretch and tear.

A tomato that gets extra water during its last week or two of growth can develop stretch marks and cracks in the skin. Left to finish ripening, the cracked tomato can attract fruit flies and other sugar-loving insects, fungus and mold, and bacteria that rapidly reduce the tomato’s innards to smelly slime.

Even without the rain storm, sunlight striking the top of a tomato on the vine can prevent ripening there while the bottom and sides of the tomato sweeten, soften, and turn bright red (or whatever other color represents ripe for the varieties you grow). These “green shoulders” detract considerably from the flavor and texture of an otherwise ripe fruit.

This tomato has just started to show pink; I‘ll let it ripen on my dining room table and it will be ready to use in seven-to-fourteen days. It will taste every bit as good as a cracked tomato with green shoulders that ripens on the vine. Actually, it’ll taste better, because it won’t have green shoulders!

So, Don’t Vine-Ripen!

Earlier I said, “…unless you have absolute control over how much rain falls and how often…” You do have such control! Quite simply: don’t let your tomatoes ripen on the vine. When pink first appears on a tomato’s skin, pick the tomato and set it inside out of direct sunlight.

Unless I get busy and miss a few days, I pick each tomato when it starts to change color. Typically, this means that every second day, I harvest anything showing pink. I fill a large stainless steel bowl with the day’s pickings, and set it on my dining room table. About seven-to-ten days later, the tomatoes reach peak ripeness without torn skin and without green shoulders… and every tomato is just as delectable as any tomato I ever let ripen on the vine. In fact, every tomato is nearly perfect… and I could never say that in the days that I left them on the plants.

I picked these tomatoes about two weeks before I photographed them. They ripened on my dining room table, and they are as red, juicy, sweet, and delicious as any vine-ripened tomato.

Oh, Yeah? (an Anecdote)

I visited with a farmer once who managed an impressive kitchen garden. Before touring his garden, his wife and I discussed various gardening techniques. At one point, she insisted: “Oh, we let all our tomatoes ripen on the vine. They’re just not as good if they don’t.”

I countered: “I’ve found if I pick them when they start to ripen, they never split or develop green shoulders… and you can’t taste the difference.”

Her reply: “A farmer can taste the difference… and our tomatoes never crack.”

When we reached the garden, every red tomato on every tomato plant had one or more cracks in its skin. (No, I didn’t comment about it… that would have been rude. But I’d sure like to put my tomatoes up against hers in a taste-test with farmers.)

 

Here are links to other articles that discuss green shoulders and cracking tomatoes:

 

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76 Responses to “The Vine-Ripened Tomato Lie”

  • MikeS:

    Your article brought a smile to my face. My grandfather always maintained tomatoes were best, when picked after color had begun and before ripening. My wife always distrusted this advice and consequently we lost much of our crop to birds, mice and rats.

    Recently we bought some oddball varietals from Tomatomania, a business that specializes in tomato plants, for best fruit, their recommendation, is to pick before fully ripe.

    Eating Well magazine wrote an interesting article about grocery store tomatoes. Their conclusion blamed shoppers. For decades shoppers would squeeze tomatoes and choose the firmest ones to purchase. In an effort to please shoppers, increase sales and reduce waste firmer tomatoes were developed.
    Mike

  • Juliet:

    Good post! I’ve been pulling my tomatoes off the vine when they are *almost* ripe, but now I won’t hesitate to pull them a little earlier. I’m having a hard time beating the bugs to them!

  • nubbystubby:

    I picked some greenish-yellow tomatoes today after reading the first few comments. Our tomato vines are LOADED, so experimenting with a few won’t hurt anyting. I live in Convoy, Ohio, just 30 miles from Ft. Wayne, Indiana. We had a very warm spring, then tons of rain, followed by about 10 cold days, and a soggy garden. I started most of my seedlings indoors, then moved them to my make-shift “plastic over the swing” greenhouse. The rain was accompanied by high winds that toppled and drenched my seedlings.Some were lost, and what I saved were all mixed up so I wasn’t sure WHAT they were. I started seeds over again, planted them in larger pots as they grew, and didn’t put them in the garden until they were a nice size. Two plants emerged from the spaces between the rocks at the far side of my patio. They are squashes or gourds, and I left them right where they emerged, moving rocks to give them more room. They have blossoms and are growing like weeds!!! I still don’t know what they are, but it is so much fun watching them grow and waiting for my surprise!!! If we ever get out of this heat wave, would cooler over-night temps help the toms ripen??

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    Mark: Interesting idea with the determinate versus indeterminates. Are there really no determinate varieties that are juicy, sweet, and tomatoey in all the right ways? Admitedly, I grow only indeterminate varieties, but there must be SOME decent determinates… anybody?

    MikeS: I like the “shoppers did it to tomatoes” hypothesis, but I’d bet grocers had far more influence. Can you imagine the aggravation when a grocer opened case after case of bruised or squished tomatoes? I imagine grocers created a lot of pressure for growers to come up with those horrid “vine ripe” tomatoes so common in grocery stores.

    Juliet: Good luck. I’m confident you’ll be very pleased with picked-pink tomatoes.

    nubbystubby: Seems so many gardens this year have had rough starts. That acknowledged, I love being able to let volunteer plants grow; I hope your volunteer squash plants prove prolific and they produce yummy food.

    As for cooler temps to help tomatoes ripen? I’ve never heard that they do. Tomatoes do best in hot, sunny weather. When they ripen at cooler temperatures, they’re rarely as tasty as tomatoes that ripen in the dog days of summer.

    Good luck!

  • Farmer Bob:

    This post has legs. Two years later and the comments are still coming in. People can be very passionate about tomatoes. I have been picking my tomatoes when they are a bit more red than green for years. So long in fact that I was at a loss for some of the reasons when someone asked me why. Reading the post and comments reminded me of every conclusion I had made before.

    I like your style Daniel. Gardening requires thought and adaptation to do well. I think you are doing a great job of sharing your knowledge in an easy to read way. I have added your blog to my Bookmarks

  • nubbystubby:

    Less than 1 week since I picked my green tomatoes and voila!!! YUMMY red beauties!! Green for me, but hubby waits on his, which is OK, because our 3 Wal-Mart plants are loaded!Plenty for friends and family; it makes all the hard work worthwhile. Hubby planted them, but I hoed, nurtured, added packaged manure & peat, and also snuggled them with custom made news paper ground blankets! The 3 planted indoors by a friend haven’t fared as well; I think he put those three in the ground too early, and they had a slow recovery, but they have tomatoes as well! I babied them much more, because I was afraid they wouldn’t survive. My young hens are laying….2 eggs !!! They are smaller than a golf ball! I am so happy to share with you and you are a VERY wise woman!!!

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    nubbystubby: Thank you for visiting and sharing your garden’s progress. Those first ripening tomatoes are always so satisfying; I just bought some fresh mozzarella so I’ll be ready when the tomatoes on my dining room table are ready… probably two or three days from now. Hens!? Since I started blogging about kitchen gardening, I’ve felt pressure from many online friends to get some chickens. What fun to have eggs growing in your own yard!

    I’m very flattered that you think I’m wise… I’d suggest “experienced,” but thank you. I must confess, however, that I’m not a woman; that’s my wife’s job!

  • nubbystubby:

    OMG!!!! I don’t know why I assumed you were a female like me……am I a weird woman to want to play in the dirt and hang out with chickens? My grandpa was a farmer before tractors. He farmed with big horses. I guess it’s in my blood!!!! I still enjoy reading and sharing on this blog! I am still chuckling, and it’s so good to have cheap entertainment!

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    nubbystubby: I can’t tell you whether you’re weird, but I’m happy to reassure you that gardening and raising chickens isn’t a valid gauge of weird. There’s an awesome network of gardeners and landscape designers on Twitter and Facebook, and my gut tells me it runs about 10% to 15% men. There’s no doubt that every human would find farmers among their ancestors… sadly, huge numbers of us have lost touch with that history, and evidence is growing that being disconnected from the soil is what makes us (Americans, that is) overweight and physically ill. It’s a great pleasure to connect with people who enjoy growing and eating their own food!

  • Schneider:

    Please tell me what variety of tomato is best for canning; the result is always half a jar of water and half a jar of tomatoes. Is that typical?

  • nubbystubby:

    Do you know anything about asparagus? I planted some seeds and have these beautiful feathery plants that I have in flower pots, but I don’t know what to do with them next .I read where they are supposed to be in trenches, but I remember picking asparagus growing along fences in the country. Do you think I could just plant them in my flower garden ? They are so pretty, I don’t care if they grow spears.

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    Schneider: Half tomatoes & half water is a bit extreme, though canned tomatoes usually float and leave, perhaps, 1/8 to 1/4 of the jar tomato-free at the bottom. The variety of tomato plays in this far less than your canning technique. Here are two ways to improve the tomato-to-liquid ratio in your canning jars:

    1: Pack the tomatoes firmly. I’m talking about diced, sliced, or halved tomatoes: don’t just drop them into the jar until the jar is full. Rather, as you fill a jar, manipulate the tomato chunks so you fill as much space as possible with them. If the contents of a jar look “loose” I’ll hold my hand across the top and give the jar a shake or two to help the tomato pieces settle. It’s good even to press down gently to encourage the tomato chunks to slip together (but don’t crush the pieces unless you’re using the “pack in their own juice” method which requires 85 minutes in a boiling water bath canner). When you add boiling water, release air bubbles with a chopstick or something similar, and again encourage the tomato chunks to settle tightly. I usually have to add a few more tomato pieces at that point and then a bit more water. Yes, the tomatoes will float after processing, but you’ll probably do better than the 50/50 split you’ve described.

    2: This is a less practical way to get a higher tomato-content in a canning jar: de-seed the tomatoes before you pack them. The gel and seeds take up space that could go to tomato meat. By removing seeds, you make it easier for the tomato chunks to snuggle against each other. The difference will be small, and you can achieve it more easily by choosing “paste tomatoes” to plant for your next crop. A paste tomato has far fewer seeds than a slicing tomato has. Romas are, perhaps, the best-known paste tomatoes, but if you Google “Paste tomato” you’ll find many other varieties as well.

    Honestly: I can both paste and slicing tomatoes (often mixed in the same jars). I usually cut them into about 1-inch chunks, and when I pack the jars well, I rarely get even an inch of clear liquid at the bottoms of my pint jars (I don’t can tomatoes in quarts).

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    I’ve seen two very healthy asparagus patches that looked kind of like lawn with asparagus plants growing in it. Ideally, you plant asparagus roots somewhat deep in heavily-amended soil (lots of compost), and mulch over them with compost (hence the trench concept). As they put up shoots, you add soil/compost (again: good reason for a trench). Of course, setting the plants in decent soil and hitting them with compost mulch several times a season will produce perfectly acceptable results. My asparagus does just fine with even less attention than that: I pretty much just weed around it a few times a year, but I haven’t fed it compost in quite some time. Now I’m feeling guilty; I WILL mulch my asparagus with compost THIS WEEK!

    Can you plant them in your flower garden? I’d Google “companion planting” and see whether anyone mentions good and bad plants to set near your asparagus. After that, why no grow asparagus in your flower beds? Design for a plant that spreads very very slowly from the roots, and that can grow 4 or 5 feet tall.

  • lee:

    my tomatoes fit the too much water/too much sun/ cracks and insects scenario to the “t”….while I had a huge crop this year…unbelievably….I’ve lost some to insects and then some seem to fall off the vine easily, with barely a touch….I do think we watered too much….

  • nubbystubby:

    With frost warnings nearing, I picked all of my acorn squashes, and some tomato vines with green ‘maters on them. I’m going to hang the vines in the chicken house with my 3 little hens, who weigh about 10 pounds each now. The first eggs were smaller than a golf ball! They all prefer one nest box, and it so cute to see them wait their turn to lay. They are having a field day eating bugs off of the okra still attached on their sturdy stalks! I read somewhere on the net that this lady’s grandma strung the okra pods on twine, so I will see if my husband lets me get by with hanging these as decorations! The chicken droppings will be put on the garden and be broken down by the winter weather to make a nice fertilizer by spring.

  • nubbystubby:

    OH! I transplanted my asparagus to my flower garden. We will see how do this winter and hopefully, I will see them again in the spring! I think I should put straw or something on them before winter.

  • Wm_Atl:

    The science backs you up. As soon as the Tomato starts to show a little hint of pink the plant is done with it. The fruit does not receive anything from the plant after it starts to turn. In fact the ones I picked just as they started to turn looked a lot better than the ones I missed on the plant.
    For me the season is done. I harvested all the tomatoes and have them in a box with a couple apples to help them ripen.

  • Stasia:

    I just want my tomatoes to ripen NATURALLY, I am so sick of gas ripened tomatoes. They just don’t taste right at all!

    I grew up on home grown tomatoes though. So maybe that is my problem.

  • amber dawn:

    All you tomato lovers out there should check out a song by Guy Clark!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yiWcS4w1i0&feature=related

    Enjoy!

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    Amber: Thanks. That’s going on my list right next to the Canning Song.

    -Daniel

  • [...] door with the blinds open during the day. This piece by author Daniel Gasteiger entitled “The Vine-Ripened Tomato Lie” takes this idea even further, and cites numerous reasons why vine-ripening isn’t [...]

  • Tomato Maker:

    I won’t buy the assertion that fruit picked unripe will match ripe-picked fruit in flavor.
    I will allow that of course picking fruit early reduces the risk that bad things will happen
    to it (other than a reduction in final flavor).

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    Tomato Maker: Thanks for visiting. I found the notion that ripening off the vine could produce a decent tomato quiet unbelievable and was astonished at the result when I actually compared vine-ripened next to “picked-pink” tomatoes from the same plant. I have had amazingly special vine-ripened tomatoes that benefited from several extremes (container-grown, limited water, intense midday heat), but in a typical garden plot, the texture, flavor, and juiciness of picked-pink versus vine-ripened has been uncanny. I hope the tone of the article encourages people to do this comparison; not to accept any assertion–for or against vine-ripening–just because one sounds more likely.

    -Daniel

  • izzy:

    I must say this blog entry puzzles me. I tired the pick green method many times and found a large taste difference. In fact I challenged my woman to pick some , ripen them and then do a blind test test with me against vine ripened of the same variety – hands down vine ripened tasted better. In fact there is only only one variety that consistently ripens off vine that approximated on the vine in taste for us (about 85% of potential).

    I would like this to be true, and have heard about it for years, but my experience does not match others.

  • Mike S:

    Izzy, Did you pick a tomato with a blush of color? Once a tomato has started to change it will ripen in a bowl as well as it will on the vine. Are you allowing the tomato to ripen fully or are you eating a green tomato?

    MIke

  • Keli:

    Hi there! I am a new home gardener. I started with tomato seeds I bought in Germany in March this year. I started with red and yellow tomatoes but also red and yellow bell peppers.

    Indeterminate yellow
    The yellow tomato plants grew faster and more vigorously than the red ones, but their fruits were more prone to cracking than their red cousins and they crack really badly. I’ve had more success when picking the yellow ones when they start to change their color or just when I notice they stop growing in size. When I stop watering them, they can fully ripen on the vine going from very green to yellow then gold-orange, with no green shoulders.

    Indeterminate red
    I’ve been able to let the red ones ripen on the vine while watering them but they end up having green shoulders. They don’t totally ripen and they crack a little when they get too much water. If I pick them when they start turning pink and let them ripen indoors, they end up totally red. As for the taste, either I let them ripen on the vine or indoors, there’s no difference.

    Determinate red
    BUT, an unknown tomato plan grew in my garden, probably from my not so totally ready compost. I let it thrive and transplanted it. The plant was not growing so well and the fruits were not as big as expected. I let them ripen on the vine while watering them and guess what! They totally ripened on the vine, under a heavy sun and heavy rains. I even let the fruits on the vine for a few days after they totally ripened while watering the plant and they were just fine and firm. I finally decided to harvest them and I was very surprised by the taste and the texture. They were extremely red, unctuous, sweet and tasty. I saved a few seeds that I sowed recently. The new plants seem to grow better than their parent.

    Everything you said in your article is true for some kinds of tomatoes but might not be applicable for other kinds.

    I don’t have any proof about what Dr. Tomato said about the nutritional value of a vine ripened tomato but I believe he is right. Why? Because if the plant was actually done with the fruit after it starts ripening, the fruit would not crack. Why does it crack? Because it was still being fed by the plant in some ways.

    I’m not here to criticize. I just want to learn more and share my experience. I learned a few things in your article and from other people’s comments and I’m grateful for that.

    By the way I live in West Africa and we have a beautiful, almost steadily sunny weather. I do gardening in containers on the roof of my house.

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