Homesteading

4 Reasons Your Tomatoes Are Not Ripening + How You Can Help

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Tomatoes not ripening? Here are the four main reasons why your tomatoes aren’t turning red, and what you can do (if anything) to help ripen your tomatoes.

Unripe tomatoes on vine

Why do tomatoes turn red?

Tomatoes turn red because of their lycopene content. What is lycopene? From Web MD (emphasis mine):

Lycopene is a naturally occurring chemical that gives fruits and vegetables a red color. It is one of a number of pigments called carotenoids. Lycopene is found in watermelons, pink grapefruits, apricots, and pink guavas. It is found in particularly high amounts in tomatoes and tomato products.

In North America, 85% of dietary lycopene comes from tomato products such as tomato juice or paste. One cup (240 mL) of tomato juice provides about 23 mg of lycopene.

Processing raw tomatoes using heat (in the making of tomato juice, tomato paste or ketchup, for example) actually changes the lycopene in the raw product into a form that is easier for the body to use. The lycopene in supplements is about as easy for the body to use as lycopene found in food.

People take lycopene for preventing heart disease, “hardening of the arteries” (atherosclerosis); and cancer of the prostate, breast, lung, bladder, ovaries, colon, and pancreas. Lycopene is also used for treating human papilloma virus (HPV) infection, which is a major cause of uterine cancer. Some people also use lycopene for cataracts and asthma.

How does it work?

Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant that may help protect cells from damage. This is why there is a lot of research interest in lycopene’s role, if any, in preventing cancer.

Note that our bodies find it easier to use lycopene once it’s been heat processed. This is why I let my kids eat plenty of our homemade salsa, spaghetti sauce and ketchup.

So – no lycopene = no red tomatoes.

Reason #1 Your Tomatoes Don’t Ripen = Time to Maturity

Each tomato variety has a time to maturity, i.e., days that it takes to ripen fruit from when the seed is planted. As a northern grower, I make sure to include some varieties that have a shorter time to maturity, along with some of the larger, longer season tomatoes.

If we get a particularly bad year, the short season tomatoes may be the only ones to have time for ripening on the vine, but usually they are simply the first tomato plants to give me ripe tomatoes for the season. As the season progresses, more varieties ripen.

Most tomato fruits ripen in six to eight weeks after blossoms pollination.

Some of my favorite short season varieties are:

  • Early Girl (hybrid)
  • Glacier (heirloom)
  • Stupice (heirloom)

Cherry tomatoes also tend to ripen sooner than larger fruited tomatoes.

tomatoes not turning red, not ripening

Reason #2 Your Tomatoes Aren’t Turning Red = Temps are Too Cold

We ran into this problem in the summer of 2014. The spring was cold and wet, and the summer was cold and dry.

My friend, Tami, who busts her tail to start her seedlings early in her greenhouse and get them out in the garden as soon as absolutely possible, saw something she never saw before. Instead of getting red, her tomatoes stayed pink – but they rotted as if overripe.

She harvested all the pink, soft tomatoes and made some very ugly tomato salsa, but the flavor just wasn’t very good.

As the season progressed, the tomatoes that did ripen were bland and flavorless. I took to picking them as soon as they started showing the first blush of color and bringing them inside to fully ripen, because the nights were so cool. The peppers were the same way. Full size, but they stayed stuck in the mature green stage until I brought them in to the counter, where they turned red in a couple of days.

Tomatoes give off their own ethylene gas to promote ripening, so there’s no need to put them in a paper bag with an apple to promote ripening – unless you’re really in a hurry.

Reason #3 Your Tomatoes Are Not Ripening = Temps are Too Hot

This year (2015), many area of the country are running into the opposite temperature extreme – it’s too hot for the tomatoes to ripen. While tomatoes are generally heat loving plants, roasting heat is a problem. Cornell University Cooperative Extension notes:

The optimum temperature for ripening tomatoes is 70 to 75°F. When temperatures exceed 85 degrees to 90 degrees F, the ripening process slows significantly or even stops. At these temperatures, lycopene and carotene, pigments responsible for giving the fruit their typical orange to red appearance cannot be produced. As a result, the fruit can stay in a mature green phase for quite some time.

What can you do if you’re stuck with green tomatoes and intense heat? Once the tomatoes have reached mature size, you can bring them inside to finish ripening. Remember, tomatoes like it 70-75 °F – just like many of us humans.

See Summer Gardens – Dealing with High Temperatures in the Garden for more tips on coping with extreme heat.

Never put your tomatoes in the fridge! Keep them at room temperature. With apologies to my husband’s late great Uncle Bill, who worked on the railroad for many years and shipped tomatoes in refer cars – don’t store tomatoes in the refrigerator.

Cold temps turns the sugars in the tomatoes to starch, ruining the flavor and making them mealy and bland. This is part of the reason many store tomatoes taste so bland. They are shipped in refrigerated trucks. Tomatoes stop ripening and don’t rot, but the flavor is subpar.

Reason #4 Your Tomatoes Aren’t Turning Red – They’re Not Red Tomatoes

With the growing popularity of heirloom tomatoes, there are many varieties now available that simply do not turn red, even when ripe. Tomatoes varieties may ripen to pink, orange, yellow, purple – even green. If you’re trying a new variety of tomatoes, make sure you know what the mature stage is supposed to look like, so you don’t miss out on the yumminess.

For instance, when I first tried garden peach tomatoes, I gave a plant to my mom. She didn’t tell my stepdad what she was growing. He saw the thin skinned, lightly fuzzy tomatoes in the garden, and thought they were sick. He picked the ripe tomatoes and tossed them out.

Mom went looking for her tomatoes and found them gone. They got it sorted out, but she had to wait a little longer to try the tomatoes.

Since I plant several different colors, I always note which plant is where on my garden charts. I also take care not to place plants that have similar size fruit but mature to orange and red next to each other, so I’m not mistaking underripe red fruit for ripe orange fruit.

How to Tell When Green Varieties of Tomatoes are Ripe

I’ve been growing Green Zebra tomatoes for a number of years, because the flavor is excellent and they usually produce a good crop here. As the name implies, they ripen green with stripes. As with other green varieties I’ve tried, you can tell they are ripe because the underlying color of the green tomato turns more yellow/golden instead of white/lighter green when they’ve reached full maturity. The flesh turns soft and juicy.

Ripe green zebra tomato

2020 Possible Factor – Wildfires?

I’ve noticed this year that my tomatoes are struggling to ripen even when other conditions are right.

A reader contacted me recently and was talking about shifting sunlight affecting plant growth. (The sun goes through cycles and the lighting shifts over time.)

This got me thinking about how the smoke from wildfires is spreading over large areas of the planet.

Obviously, this does impact the sunlight hitting (or not hitting) the ground. I haven’t seen any studies on this yet, but it seems likely this could affect ripening.

One study I did find indicated that increased levels of CO2 can interfere with ripening. They tested higher levels than we would normally see, even with smoke.

If smoke is thick, it can clog the stomata in the leaves of the plants, and interfere with respiration. This could stress the plant and slow down ripening.

I’m curious if anyone else has run into this phenomenon.

When Your Tomatoes Finally Do Get Ripe…Or If They Don’t

Check out these recipes that will help you enjoy your harvest year round!

Yes, Green Tomatoes are Safe to Eat!

Also, if your tomatoes refuse to ripen, green fruits are safe to eat. Just process them in some way before eating, such as cooking or pickling. We turned the green tomatoes knocked off our plants during a hail storm into green tomato pickles (recipe here).

Other Reasons For Strange Colored Tomatoes

Sunscald – Light colored, leathery patches, generally found on the top or side of the tomato, may be sunscald. Sunscald is due to intense sun exposure. If not spoiled, the rest of the tomato may be used. Sometimes the scald leads to rot.

Soil Fertility IssuesCornell University Cooperative Extension notes, “high levels of magnesium and low levels of potassium can lead to conditions like blotchy or uneven ripening or yellow shoulder disorder.”

Blossom End Rot – When the blossom end of your tomato fruits has a small or large black lesion, this is blossom end rot. It’s linked to low calcium availability in the soil, so adding calcium during planting may be helpful for avoiding it.

BUT – even when there is calcium in the soil, too much or too little rain can make it unavailable to the plants. Regular, even watering is best. Read “7 Steps to Stop Blossom End Rot” for more on the causes of BER and how to prevent and control it. 

For more tips on dealing with excess rain, see Too Much Rain in the Garden – Managing Wet Dirt and Waterlogged Plants.

Extreme case of blossom end rot on tomato

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green tomatoes on vine

Originally published in 2015, last updated in 2020.

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