Garden Variety: Ripe for the picking

Many fruits and vegetables announce their ripeness with bright colors and bigger sizes, but a few garden favorites like to leave a little more to mystery. While mystique can be good, cutting into an unripe melon is a bit disappointing.

Here are a few ways to help with the guessing game of growing melons, winter squash and pumpkins.

Watermelons

On the vine, look for short, curly stems known as tendrils. The tendril closest to each melon dries and changes as the associated melon ripens. Expect it to turn from green to brown, black or gray.

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One way to check for ripeness in a watermelon is to look at a watermelon’s underside. It will have a discolored area where it has been sitting on the ground that is usually white or pale green on an unripe melon and cream or pale yellow on a ripe melon.

Another clue is to look at a watermelon’s underside. Unless the melon has been turned over during the growing process, it will have a discolored area where it has been sitting on the ground. The spot is usually white or pale green on an unripe melon and cream or pale yellow on a ripe melon.

The last and least reliable method for an inexperienced gardener is called thumping. The idea is that the sound that's made when a melon is thumped is different for unripe, ripe and overripe melons. A metallic ping or ringing sound most likely indicates an unripe melon, while varying degrees of a dull thud indicates a ripe or overripe fruit.

Muskmelon/cantaloupe and honeydew melons

The easiest way to tell if a muskmelon or similar melon is ripe in the garden is to see if it separates from the stem easily. This is called slipping. A ripe melon will slip, while an unripe melon will hold tight to the vine.

If the vines die or the melons get picked early, they will typically still ripen. To check for ripeness in the absence of the vine, press gently on the end of the melon opposite the stem. This end softens as the melon ripens, so it should give a little.

Some references suggest that muskmelons change to a more golden color when ripe and develop a fragrant melon-y smell. Experienced eyes and noses might be able to rely on this method; otherwise it is about as reliable as thumping watermelons.

(Note: Muskmelon and cantaloupe are often used interchangeably to refer to the same fruit. The round-to-oval, netted-skin fruit typically grown in the United States is a muskmelon. The true cantaloupe has a hard, warty skin and green flesh.)

Winter squash (butternut, acorn, Hubbard, etc.)

This one is easier: Leave winter squash on the vine until the skin is hard. Test maturity by pressing gently with a fingernail or blunt object; the skin should be thick enough to prevent puncturing.

Pumpkins

Pumpkins should also be left on the vine until the skin is hard and passes the fingernail test. They should also be uniformly orange by this time.

If vines die before pumpkins are mature, they may ripen through curing.

Pumpkins will last longest if they are cured just after harvest. Wash the skin with 10 percent chlorine solution to remove microorganisms that lead to decay. Then, store them for 10 days in a place that is 80-85 degrees with about 80 percent relative humidity.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation. She is the host of “The Garden Show” and has been a gardener since childhood. Send your gardening questions and feedback to Lawrence Living@ljworld.com.

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