Harvesting the perfect melon
by Sonoma County Master Gardener Rosemary McCreary
Picking the perfect watermelon from a pile at a fruit market or supermarket can be a hit-or-miss affair. It’s a stroke of luck when a buyer finds a green grocer who taps a melon, listens with a cocked ear, then says, “I’ll help you find a different one.”
There is a difference between melons in the market place, and if you’re looking for a really delicious, if not memorable, taste experience, it pays to do a little thumping. Most watermelon aficionados take the thumping approach, but recognizing the sound of perfect ripeness requires a lot of practice and a receptive ear. One thing is certain, though; melons do not ripen, or develop additional sweetness, after picking. The real test comes in the field.
In our own gardens we want to harvest all varieties of melons at their peak ripeness after the long weeks it takes to bring them to maturity. Watermelons aren’t as popular as other melons with gardeners on the North Coast, possibly because of the vagaries of our summer weather, though their requirements are similar to other varieties. For those few who do grow them, it may be helpful to know what Johnny’s seed catalog has to say about recognizing a ripe watermelon (www.johnnyseeds.com):
“There are 3 ways to tell when a watermelon is ripe: 1) the tendril nearest the point on the vine where fruit stem attaches is browning/dead, 2) the spot where the fruit rests on the ground is yellow, and 3) the classic mystery—you hear ‘punk,’ as opposed to ‘pink’ or ‘pank’ when you flick the melon with your fingers.”
Cantaloupes and muskmelons have their own criteria for ripeness. Determining factors sound simple enough to understand but applying them can be confusing. Generally, fruits should slip off the vine when you apply a slight pressure with your finger at the base of the stem. If you meet resistance, wait a little longer.
Certain varieties—mostly those with a netted skin—begin to change from a grayish green to pale yellow, and some develop a distinctively ripe odor. For melons that release little or no aroma, color change is more critical, even on those with smooth skin. Some gardeners look for a yellowing on the leaf nearest the stem or mottled yellowing on the rind itself. Crane and Honeydew types may be the most difficult since they emit little aroma and do not slip easily off their stems, but in maturity they develop a slightly deeper color on their bottom surface.
The National Gardening Company in Petaluma (www.naturalgardening.com) provides notes in their catalog about harvesting many vegetables they sell as seeds or transplants. About melons, they say: “As the fruit ripens, small cracks appear in the stem where it joins the fruit. When the cracks circle the stem and the stem itself looks shriveled, the melon should be ready to pick. The stem should break cleanly with no pressure; just picking up the fruit should be sufficient to detach it. The color of the bottom surface also provides a clue; if it changes to a deeper color, the melon is ripe.”
Stems won’t detach easily in every case, however. When they don’t and you’re convinced that the melon is ripe, use clippers to cut the stem. Leave it short enough so as not to damage other melons, but be careful not to tear it away from the fruit or spoilage may occur.
Reviving the garden
Melons and winter squashes are late-harvest crops in our gardens because they demand long, warm growing periods. They reach their peak now and in the coming weeks while other summer-bearing vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, cucumbers and beans, still linger on. Flavor of these latter will slowly begin to wane at some point as days become increasingly shorter and the sun’s angle changes. It’s always a conundrum whether to pull them out while plants are scraggly but still producing or leave them in until the bitter end.
Many gardeners save seeds but are disappointed with results the following year after planting. The problem is usually associated with the type of seed saved rather than how it was harvested or stored.
Open-pollinated varieties should come true to type whereas hybrids revert back to characteristics of the parents that produced the cross. It’s a matter of knowing what you have growing in your garden before attempting to save seed.
This article is adapted from Rosemary McCreary’s column “Homegrown,” which previously appeared in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.