Ah--melon season. For us northerners, there is but a brief window of about six or eight weeks when fresh melons can come from the garden. The vines are sprawling, and most gardeners find room to grow only a few each season. If you are a melon lover, the anticipation can be too much to bear. But, dear gardener, bear it! There are few garden moments so disappointing as cutting into your first (or second) hard-earned melon that you've been (not so) patiently waiting for only to discover that it's not ripe.
As in life, so in the melon patch: timing is everything. Here are some clues to picking melons at their prime.
For muskmelons and cantaloupes, the melon is ripe when the melon has turned a deeper, more orange tone and the fruit slips easily off the vine with a gentle tug. (Certain melons, such as Charentais, are actually ripe before the "slip" stage; however, all muskmelon varieties that we currently sell are best harvested then.) In general, it's better to harvest the melon at the onset of the slip stage rather than waiting for the melon to start detaching from the vine itself. The longer you wait once the melon is ripe, the greater the risk of the melon developing a rotten spot where it rests on the ground--or simply turning too soft and overripe for most people's palates. (Of course, the melon is at its sweetest then, but in general most people prefer a compromise between sweetness and texture.) Most garden varieties have a shorter shelf life--and much more delectable texture--than commercial crops, so be sure to eat within a few days of harvest.
For watermelons, determining ripeness is much more difficult. There are four clues to look for:
- A bright yellow spot where the melon rests on the ground. In yellow-skinned varieties, this spot will be whitish.
- Detectable ribbing along the surface of the melon. When immature, the watermelon has smooth skin lacking a topography. As it ripens, the skin becomes an undulating landscape which can be detected by rubbing your fingers around the melon. The more distinct the ribbing, the riper the fruit.
- A drum-like resonance when you knock the melon with your knuckles. You should be able to detect some reverberation--not just a dull thud.
- The browning and wilting up of the tendril on the melon vine that is adjacent to the little stem leading to the ripening fruit. As the melon grows, this tendril looks green and curly; when the melon approaches peak ripeness, the tendril grows brown and shrivels from the tip down to the base. If the tendril is not fully withered, the melon is probably not fully ripe.
Once you've identified a fruit that meets all these criteria, wait a few more days (unless you are growing a variety with a thin rind, in which case prompt harvest is necessary to prevent splitting). In general, the longer you're able to abstain from harvesting, the riper your watermelon will become. While regular melons will continue to ripen a little bit once harvested, watermelons stop dead in their tracks once you pull them off the vine. So, in nearly all circumstances, the longer you wait before harvesting, the better. When you do decide to harvest, cut the watermelon from the vine (it will not slip).
You'll know as soon as you try to slice into a watermelon whether or not it's ripe: a ripe watermelon will seem to pop open--as if to relieve inner pressure--as soon as the knife slits the skin.