Do Tomatoes Ripen Faster on or off the Vine?

Planning on growing some tomatoes in your garden? Well here’s a common question that comes up that you might want to know the answer to. Do tomatoes ripen faster on or off the vine?

Tomatoes ripen faster on the vine when they are growing in optimal climate conditions. Place them indoors next to ethylene-producing fruits for best results. Temperature changes can prevent the production of carotene and lycopene, the substances responsible for the tomatoes’ red color.

Some tips and tricks can help you get your tomatoes ready in less time, but understanding the process that leads to improving their color and taste is essential. Check out everything you need below!

What Causes Tomatoes to Ripen on the Vine?

Ripening is the last stage of the maturation process of tomatoes and includes a series of chemical reactions that cause the fruits to turn from green to bright red. The chemicals involved change the tomatoes’ appearance and taste when these are still on the vine or even after you have picked them. Here I will explore this process in detail.

How do tomatoes turn red?

Green tomatoes boast high quantities of chlorophyll, a pigment responsible for the green color and essential for the photosynthesis process. The sunlight and ideal temperatures trigger a reaction through which the chlorophyll breaks down and produces carotene and lycopene. These compounds, in turn, are the pigments responsible for the characteristic red color of the tomatoes. 

In the meanwhile, the acid levels within each fruit rise, converting the tomatoes’ starch into sugar. This reaction, alongside the reduction of tannins, turns a firm green vegetable into a juicy one and betters its flavor. Lastly, as the ripening process begins, the tomatoes start producing ethylene, a naturally-occurring growth hormone in plants which promotes and speeds up ripening.

How long does the ripening of tomatoes take?

Once you notice new blossoms sprinkled among the leaves of your tomato plant, you can count on having fully-grow green tomatoes within 20 to 30 days. This process usually happens during the hottest months of summer, between July and August. When the fruit reaches the so-called “mature green” stage, they will need another 20 to 30 days to complete the ripening process. 

The main stages of this naturally-occurring development are:

  • Stage 1 – Green Tomatoes: during this phase, you can notice your tomatoes to be fully-grown, yet completely green. The surface’s tone can change from light to dark green depending on the variety. These vegetables reach this stage 20 to 30 days after their flowers have blossomed.
  • Stage 2 – Breakers: the ripening process has started, and you can finally see some red or pink shades across the surface. Tomatoes are “breakers” if the red color takes up no more than 10% of their skin. In some cases, cultivators prefer to pick the fruits during this stage and continue the ripening process off the vine. 
  • Stage 3 – Turning: now, you can notice a defined change in color. The red and pink shades are now taking over between 10% and 30% of the total surface.
  • Stage 4 – Pink: over 30% of the skin is now of a soft shade of red or pink. While the inside of the fruit still presents some green streaks, it is perfectly edible already.
  • Stage 5 – Light Red: the green shades are fading away. A pale red color characterizes the surface of the fruits, but it does not cover more than 90% of it.
  • Stage 6 – Red: your tomatoes are now at their juiciest and most colorful. Yet, this phase only lasts a few days, and failing to pick them during this timeframe can cause them to detach from the vine and crack.

Many cultivators prefer to pick their tomatoes during the “breakers” phase, especially if they are doing so to sell them then commercially. During this stage, the fruits have already started ripening, and the process can continue indoors. Aside from allowing them to speed up the tomatoes’ development, this strategy is the best one to avoid cracks and breakages.

Temperatures for ripening

Tomatoes tend to become fully-formed and completely green during the warmest months of summer. Afterward, the ripening process begins, and it requires milder temperatures, the optimal range being between 20°C and 25°C (68°F to 77°F). You can so expect your tomatoes to reach their mature stage around the end of summer.

Temperatures outside the optimal range can cause the ripening process to slow down. The development stops altogether if the climate presents temps above 30°C or below 12°C. Indeed, higher temperatures will inhibit the production of the essential pigments that the tomato needs to turn red.

Other conditions for ripening

Sunlight and climate are the main factors that contribute to the maturation of tomatoes when they are still on the vines. However, exposing the vegetables to strong or direct sunlight for too long can cause them to heat up and stop producing lycopene, the pigment responsible for the color red. Moreover, high external temperatures and sunlight might sunscald the fruits.

The soil composition does not play a significant part in the ripening process, so adding fertilizers won’t make a massive difference in how fast your tomatoes will grow or turn red. As soon as the tomatoes enter the “breakers” stage of their development, they won’t be absorbing nutrients from the plant any longer and unable to reach the resources the soil could provide. This feature is what allows cultivators to continue the ripening process indoors.

How Do You Make Tomatoes Ripen Faster on the Vine

Most of the ripening process depends entirely on natural and climate conditions surrounding the vines. However, if the end of the warm season is approaching and you are not that keen on wasting away the green tomatoes that are still on the plants, there is something you could do to speed up the ripening.

Pruning

Regularly removing new leaves and branches, especially in indeterminate varieties, can lead to exceptional benefits. Pruning allows the tomato plant to stay healthy and keep in its best form by increasing its resistance to diseases and health conditions. Failing to correctly prune plants can cause them to grow denser branches by the ground. Since these low vines don’t receive direct sunlight, they are harder to dry and, therefore, more exposed to fungal and bacterial attacks. 

At the same time, limiting the plant to three stems before it starts to produce fruits can help you enjoy a higher quantity and quality of tomatoes. The plant can so channel the energy from the sunlight and the nutrients from the ground to those branches.

As your tomatoes start the ripening process, it is essential for the vine to direct all of its resources to such fruits. However, when pruning your plant, only eliminate the lower leaves. Cutting off top branches and vines can remove the growing tomatoes’ natural and essential shelter from the direct sunlight.

Removing other fruits

Of course, getting rid of some of the tomatoes you have been working on for many months can be saddening. However, if a vine boasts several maturing fruits, it will try to ripen them all at the same time by splitting its nutrients equally. This natural effort can be counterproductive if you are trying to get your tomatoes to ripen faster. Especially if you are dealing with a determinate tomato variety that will produce all of its fruits at once, removing extra fruits from the vine is essential. 

Start by taking smaller or bruised fruits off the vines to help your plant focus its efforts and energy on ripening the healthier tomatoes. Another useful trick is to harvest the vegetables that have passed their “breakers” phase and can now continue maturing indoors. For some tips on how to speed up this process, check out the last section of this article!

Remove unhealthy leaves and branches

Diseased and spotted leaves can slow down the ripening of your tomatoes as your plant tries to fight the disease that is affecting them. By cutting out unhealthy foliage, you can also protect your plant from other pathogen’s attacks, as well as increasing its resistance levels to fungi and bacteria. 

Provide shelter from direct sunlight

Tomato plants thrive when exposed to sunlight for up to 8 hours a day. However, the fruits’ ripening period is one of the most delicate if you are after perfectly-formed tomatoes. Excessive exposure to direct sunlight can cause the fruits to sunscald and become bruised. Moreover, tomatoes do not need light to ripen, as this reaction is a consequence of ideal temperatures and ethylene production only. Indeed, once picked, you can proceed to ripen the tomatoes indoors and even in the dark.

If you prefer to see your fruit ripening on the plants, it is essential to shelter them from the sun, especially during the warmest hours of the day. Additionally, if the temperatures tend to drop drastically at nighttime, you might consider covering your plants with a plastic sheet. This easy trick can prevent the temperature jump from inhibiting the ripening process.

Check your plants regularly

The ripening can proceed surprisingly rapidly after it has begun. It’s crucial to check your plant’s progress to pick the fruits as they reach maturity. In this way, you can notice that fruit is ready and prevent it from falling and spoiling. At the same time, picking the fruits as they are turning red allows your plant to focus on ripening the ones that are still in the green phase.

Reduce watering

Aside from sunlight and fresh air, tomato plants need adequate watering to thrive. However, reducing your vines’ water intake towards the end of the summer season can help you speed up the ripening process. Indeed, water and nitrogen-based fertilizer promote the growth of leaves on which the plant needs to dedicate energy to. Instead, by inhibiting additional branches’ production, the vines’ can direct their energy towards ripening fruits.

Use tools to extend the maturing season

The strategies listed above can help you speed up the ripening process. However, if it is still not happening fast enough for your needs, you could consider making use of some special garden tools such as:

  • Weather protection blankets – these are perfect if you are looking after a more abundant crop, and the drop in temperatures at the end of summer is inhibiting the ripening process. Adding these covers overnight can also protect your vines from frost.
  • Greenhouses – if it is now late summer and your tomatoes are still struggling to turn red, investing in a greenhouse can help you protect them against the natural elements. Moreover, this tool can maintain stable temperatures throughout winter, which is essential to your tomato plants’ survival if you live in a climate zone characterized by harsh winters.

How Can You Speed up the Ripening of Tomatoes

Allowing your tomatoes to ripen on the vines might be beneficial for their flavor and consistency. However, many cultivators opt to pick them just after the “breakers” stage. During this phase, the ripening process has already begun, and you can catch the first signs of it by looking at the turning color of the fruits’ skin. Not only picking the tomatoes at this stage is not counterproductive, but it can also help you enjoy fruits that are not damaged or bruised.

Indeed, once the environment has triggered the production of carotene and lycopene, the tomatoes start to create ethylene, and the ripening process will continue whether these are still on the plant or not.

If you prefer to ripen your tomatoes indoors, some tricks can help speed up the process and enjoy them in your dishes in just over a week. 

Adding ethylene gas

Ethylene is a gaseous hormone responsible for the growth and maturation of fruits, such as tomatoes, apples, and bananas. Ripening tomatoes produce this substance naturally and continue to do so even after they are off the vine. Cultivators that aim at selling their produce pump this gas in the containers to promote ripening while the fruits are in transfer to a supermarket or seller. 

Follow these steps to add ethylene to your still-green tomatoes and speed up their ripening process:

  • Wash the vegetables to avoid cross-contamination. Cut off the stems and foliage that are still around the fruit, as these might puncture and damage other tomatoes in the batch.
  • Place the green tomatoes in a breathable container or paper bag. Allow for enough ripening room between them. 
  • Add ripe apples, tomatoes, or bananas to the bag. Alternatively, if you have other unripe tomatoes from your vines, you could add those instead. The fruits will produce ethylene that will remain in the bag, positively affecting the surrounding fruits and speeding up the ripening process.
  • Place the bag in a warm and dry location away from direct sunlight. Exposure to direct light can cause the tomatoes to overheat and bruise. 

Ripe your tomatoes indoors

If you don’t mind too much about your vegetables on the vines taking a little longer to mature, but there is an early frost approaching, you could opt to continue the process indoors. It might require you to uproot the plant and transplant it indoors entirely. While this might not sound like the ideal solution, you should consider whether that plant would die anyway due to the winter temperatures. If you are cultivating in a climate zone that presents harsh winters, this is a possibility.

Uprooting your plants and continuing the ripening process indoors, in this case, will allow your tomatoes to become red while still on the vine, but in a more controlled environment. Some of the essential factors you should take into consideration for this process are:

  • Hang the plants upside down, ideally by their roots. The leaves will protect the young fruits from sunlight damage and bruising.
  • Pick a warm and dry place that is near a natural source of light
  • Keeping the vines close to each other can increase the amount of naturally-occurring ethynol.
  • Avoid uprooting the vine before the tomatoes are at their “breakers” stage. They contain all the sugars of fully-matured fruits only during or after this phase. Picking them when they are entirely green will negatively affect their taste and consistency.

Final Thoughts

Tomatoes are easy to grow even for first-time gardeners, but picking them at the right time is vital to enjoying the fruits of your hard work. Tomatoes, just like apples and bananas, keep ripening even after they are off the vines thanks to the naturally-occurring ethanol gas they produce. This feature allows you to either leave them on the vines and wait for them to ripe or pick them off and continue the process indoors. 

In any case, it is essential to allow your tomatoes to reach the “breakers” phase before picking them to preserve their flavor and consistency potential. To speed up the ripening process, pruning, harvesting, and avoiding increased watering, are effective methods to use while the tomatoes are on the vine. Instead, if you have picked them, add bananas and apples next to them in a breathable container.

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