One of the wonderful things about having your own garden is that you control when you harvest your vegetables. You can pick them immediately before preparing them to ensure that you have the freshest produce anywhere. Even better, you can also have the youngest. Most commercial growers don't pick tiny vegetables, knowing they'll get more for their money by waiting a few days. But the best picks -- especially for cucumbers and summer squash -- are the smallest vegetables on the vine. Don't worry if it takes six zucchini to make a meal -- there will be lots more where they came from, so splurge! Just be careful not to step on the vines when you harvest -- you may kill the plants.
If a crop gets ahead of your harvest efforts -- zucchini has a habit of doing this -- and the fruits grow large enough, the plant will stop producing and go on to the next stage of reproduction. You can still eat those larger vegetables, although they won't taste quite as good as younger ones. Cucumber skins toughen as they mature, and summer squash loses some of its flavor.
If your vacation time coincides with the first harvest and you'll be away from home, ask someone to keep the cucumbers or squashes picked, and offer them the produce. When you get back from your vacation, your vines will still be producing actively.
There are several ways to judge a melon's ripeness, and most people learn from experience, which is the most dependable method. Here are tips for valid signs of ripeness for muskmelons and watermelons.
Smell -- check ripeness by smelling for a strong, "musky" or perfumey scent around the stem-end of the melon. That unmistakable odor means ripeness every time.
Skin -- when the skin color changes from green to yellow or tan and the netting becomes pronounced, the melon is ripe.
Stem -- as fruits start to ripen the stems separate or slip from the fruit, with very little pressure. A crack appears between the stem and the fruit, signaling the prime harvest time. When the stem finally separates completely, which is called full slip, the melon is very ripe and won't last long before turning soft and mushy. Watch the slip signs and try to eat the ripest melons first to give yourself a steady supply of good ones.
Color -- check the spot where the watermelon rests on the ground. As the melon ripens, that "ground spot" turns from whitish to a deep, creamy yellow. Also, the melon's shiny surface dulls somewhat when it's ripe.
Thumps -- unripe melons make a sharp ringing sound when rapped and ripe ones sound muffled. However over-ripe melons make that same dead sound, so this isn't the most reliable test.
Curly-cues -- watch the tendrils on the stems to judge ripeness. When the tendril closest to a fruit turns brown and dries up, the melon is ripe. Beware, though: Some varieties may show this sign and not ripen for several more days, so you could be disappointed.
|1. Harvesting Vining Crops ← you're on this article right now|
|2. Ripening Vine Crops|
|3. Making Pumpkins Last|
|4. Into the Kitchen: Squash and Melons|
|5. Pickling Cucumbers|