With the dog days of August comes a special reward for veggie gardeners; the maturing of melons. Summer's heat and humidity increases the growth rate so that, almost overnight, a small melon in the patch turns into a juicy ripe candidate for dessert. If you're harvesting muskmelons (cantaloupes) or watermelons, here are some tips for picking them at the peak of perfection.
Knowing when to harvest muskmelons is easy. First, check the skin color. When the green melon's skin turns a dusty brown and the netting (ribbing on the skin) becomes more pronounced, it's harvest time. Next, smell the blossom end of the melon. Often it will have a sweet, aromatic scent that is a good indicator of ripeness. Finally, look at the stem attaching the melon to the vine. When it begins to crack and the melon "slips" off the vine with a gentle tug, it's time to break out the spoons and knives. However, at this stage it needs to be eaten quickly or it will turn overripe and mushy. When in doubt, harvest melons on the immature side since they will ripen indoors after harvest.
Deciding when to harvest watermelons is a little more challenging. Some gardeners like to monitor the color of the "belly" of the watermelon. This is the side that is lying down on the ground as the melon grows. Normally it's white, but when the watermelon is approaching ripeness, the belly side turns creamy yellow and the overall color of the watermelon dulls. The next tip is very subjective, but some gardeners have been able to perfect it. Thump the ripening watermelon with your thumb. Unripe melons make a "ringing" sound, while ripe ones make a "muffled" sound. This technique takes some practice, and it helps to have an old-timer to coach you.
A surefire way to tell if the watermelon is ripe is to check the tendrils closest to the fruit. Tendrils are the curly-cues attached to the vines that wrap around nearby plants or other objects to support the vine. When the tendril closest to the fruit turns brown and dries up, the watermelon is ripe.
Once you find a technique that works, stick with it and you'll be rewarded with great tasting melons every time.
Q. This year my corn developed big, black, greasy-looking growths on the ears. What is this and what should I do about it?
A. This is a fungus is called corn smut. The spores can remain in the soil 2 or 3 years, and can be blown long distances by the wind. In lightly-infested fields, the best ways to control smut is to stop planting corn for 3 or 4, or plant resistant varieties. You can also try sowing your corn seed shallowly to promote rapid germination, or pre-germinate your seed by placing it between two damp paper towels: sow seed once it sprouts. Keep the seedbed evenly moist the first 4 weeks after planting to discourage fungal growth.
Some studies have shown that a "living mulch" of white clover sown between rows can help suppress the corn smut fungus. However, you may need to water the planting more often, as the clover will compete with the corn for water.
Finally, this fungus is often eaten in Mexico as a gourmet mushroom. It is cooked in soups, with meats, or eggs as you would other mushrooms. Check in Mexican cookbooks or on the Internet for recipes.