Article & Pictures by Camille Storch
Camille Storch is an off-grid mom of two living outside Philomath, Oregon. Her family gets a majority of their fresh food off their modern homestead, which includes a greenhouse approximately six times the size of their home. Camille raises Nubian dairy goats and spends a lot of time culturing some pretty darn good fresh cheeses. She also writes about local ecology, agriculture, and the reality of one family’s modest but joyful life on her blog, Wayward Spark (waywardspark.com).
An earlier version of this post appeared on Wayward Spark.
During the five seasons that I worked worked at Gathering Together Farm in Philomath, Oregon , I spent countless hours of each August and September picking and picking up tens of thousands of pounds of melons. In addition to harvesting cantaloupes almost every day for over a month, I also sampled and sold melons at the Corvallis Saturday Farmers’ Market on Saturdays. There were times when I felt like melons were taking over my entire life.
Unlike peaches or tomatoes, melons and watermelons do not get sweeter after they are picked. They only get softer. That means you’ll want to get one that’s vine ripened and freshly picked. Unfortunately, there’s no sure way to tell if a melon is ripe once it reaches its retail destination, so be sure to buy from a trusted source. Melon vendors at the farmers’ market work hard to build relationships with customers and establish their reputations as suppliers of a high-quality product. Many (Gathering Together included) offer a refund or replacement in the rare case where they sell you an under-ripe or otherwise unpleasant melon, which is a guarantee you won’t get a grocery store.
If you have melons growing in your own garden, there are a few signs to watch out for to gauge ripeness.
Most cantaloupes, like this extremely fragrant softball-sized charantais melon, show they are ready to pick by a subtle tearing from the vine.
With a gentle tug, they will “full slip,” separating cleanly from the stem.
Lots of netting, the raised scabby stuff, is another sign of a good cantaloupe.
There are some melons that are already too mushy inside by the time they will full slip. Gathering Together Farm sells Honey Oranges and Honey Pearls, which are orange and white honeydew-type melons. Determining if these varieties are ripe requires a careful examination of the blossom ends, and when they start to glow translucent, the melons are cut free from the vine.
Picking a ripe watermelon is a much bigger challenge than picking a cantaloupe. There are four things to look for, but every planting varies in it’s ripeness signs, so you can never be sure until you open up a couple and see what the indicators are for that particular group of vines.
The most reliable sign of ripeness is the trifecta of dead tendrils. At the juncture between the main vine and the vine that leads to an individual watermelon, there is a little tendril. There are two more tendrils at the junctures to the left and right of the primary one. While the watermelon is growing, the tendrils will be green, but as the watermelon reaches its peak of flavor, they will usually wither and die.
The other strong indicator of ripeness in watermelons is the thump. One must handle a great deal of fruits over several years to attune his or her ear to the perfectly ripe watermelon timbre. One of my former coworkers used to equate it roughly to the thumping of a person’s head, chest, and gut. The tone of the head is under-ripe, the chest is ripe, and the gut is overripe. This is a gross exaggeration, but it’s kinda sorta true.
The thump trick does work but only out in the melon field. Often times when watermelons are transported, their tone changes, so thumping one at the grocery store won’t help you much.
The other two things to look for are size and a good groundspot. While small watermelons will ripen up, they will never be as good as a medium or large melon. A good groundspot will be a yellowish area where the skin touched the ground, but it’s not known to be a reliable indicator on its own.
In Oregon, melon season is short, so be sure to get one while they’re available.