A version of this post first was first published on Wayward Spark.
Every August, some Gathering Together Farm workers spend countless hours each week picking and picking up melons. Literally tens of thousands of pounds of melons. In addition to harvesting cantaloupes almost every day for over a month, there’s also the task of sampling and selling melons at our nine weekly farmers’ markets. For a few melon pickers, there are times when it feels like melons are taking over the entire farm schedule.
Melon pickers and melon sellers are asked variations of the same question thousands of times: “How can I tell if it’s ripe?” or “Can you pick me out a ripe one?” The short answers are you can’t tell, and they’re all ripe (hopefully).
Melons and watermelons do not get sweeter after they are picked (unlike peaches or tomatoes). They only get softer. That means you’ll want to get one that’s vine ripened and freshly picked. Your best bet is your local farmers’ market or farm stand. We highly recommend that you buy a melon from a reputable seller (like GTF) or one you’ve bought good melons from before. Anything at a grocery store is kind of a gamble with some winners and some losers.
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 vine.
Lots of netting, the raised scabby stuff, is another sign of a good cantaloupe.
There are some melons that are already too mushy 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 its ripeness signs, so you basically 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 are the 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 tendril will be green, but as the watermelon reaches its peak of flavor, the tendrils will usually wither and die.
The other strong indicator of ripeness in watermelons is the thump. One must handle a great deal of watermelons 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 ground spot. While small watermelons will ripen up, they will never be as good as a medium or large melon. A good ground spot will be a yellowish area where the skin touched the ground, but it’s not known to be a reliable indicator on its own.
At GTF, melon pickers (Sally the owner, Joelene who’s been there for almost 20 years, Sarah who’s been there for five seasons, and Dan who was new last summer) go down rows leaving neat little piles of ripe melons as they pass. Later, the melons are usually boxed up, carried over to an aisle, loaded onto a farm truck to be driven back to the packing shed, unloaded onto a pallet, reloaded onto a market truck, unloaded at a farmers’ market, and hopefully sold or else they’re loaded and unloaded several more times before reaching their final destination.
One way to speed up the process and keep the lifting to a minimum is the watermelon-toss method. Groups of two or three workers will gently throw watermelons from person to person bucket-brigade-style until they reach their destination in the large bins on the flatbed of the truck.
In the below photo, Joelene is tossing to Dan…
…and Dan deftly catches it.
There is a fair bit of skill and muscle involved, but it’s actually kinda fun.
We grow four successive plantings of melons and watermelons that get seeded during the month of May. The first planting is always smaller (both in number of plants and size of fruit) because it’s exposed to cooler nighttime temperatures. The second and third plantings are almost always robust, and we harvest the bulk of the crop off of those plants. The fourth planting can be great if the weather holds up, but if the fall rains come early, it can be a near-total loss.
Melons and watermelons appreciate as much heat as they can get. We transplant the seedlings into plastic mulch and then cover them with floating row cover to add extra warmth and limit insect damage. When the plants start to flower, we remove the floating row cover for pollination. The plants are watered regularly with drip irrigation until the first fruits are fully ripe. At that point, Joelene will water only enough to keep the plants alive because too much water can cause the fruit to split or taste diluted.
This year, Gathering Together Farm is growing the following types of melons:
Honey Dew Types‘Honey Orange’ from Johnny’s Selected Seed ‘Honey Pearl’ from Johnny’s Selected Seed
Charentais Type‘Edonis’ from Johnny’s Selected Seed ‘Santo’ (trial) from Johnny’s Selected Seed ‘Rubens’ (trial) from Johnny’s Selected Seed ‘Anasta’ (trial) from Johnny’s Selected Seed ‘Agustino’ from Osborne Seed Company
Cantaloupe‘Sarah’s Choice’ from Johnny’s Selected Seed
Galia or Tropical Melon‘Arava’ from Johnny’s Selected Seed
Watermelon‘Sunshine’ (yellow) from Johnny’s Selected Seed ‘Starlight’ (red) from Johnny’s Selected Seed ‘Little Baby Flower’ (mini red) from Johnny’s Selected Seed ‘New Orchid’ (orange) from Johnny’s Selected Seed ‘Sorbet Swirl’ (multi-colored) from Johnny’s Selected Seed
The season is short, so if you like a good melon, don’t wait.
Learn more about the best method for cutting a watermelon here.