The proper time to harvest some vegetable crops is fairly easy to determine. Tomatoes turn red when ripe. Onions are harvested when the tops fall over and begin to dry. While some vegetables exhibit clear signs, the proper time to harvest other crops may require a little more knowledge and experience. Guidelines for harvesting and storing various vine crops are presented below.
Watermelon. Harvest when the underside or "belly" of the melon turns from a greenish white to buttery yellow or cream. This color change is especially pronounced on the dark green skinned varieties. It is often less noticeable on lighter skinned watermelons. In addition, the fruit tends to lose its slick appearance on the top and becomes dull when ripe.
Thumping or tapping the melon is generally not a good indicator of ripeness. The browning of the pig's tail (light green, curly tendril attached to the vine near the melon) is also not reliable. In some varieties, the pig's tail may turn brown 7 to 10 days before the melon is ripe.
When harvesting watermelons, leave 2 inches of the stem on the fruit. Watermelons can be stored at room temperature for about one week, and for two to three weeks at 40 to 50 F.
Muskmelon. The fruit of muskmelon or cantaloupe are mature when the stem pulls (slips) easily from the melon. The melon is not ripe if the stem has to be forcibly separated from the fruit. Other indicators of maturity are based on touch, appearance, and aroma. The flower end (the end opposite the stem) of the melon should be slightly soft. The skin between the netting turns from green to yellow. Finally, a ripe melon produces a strong "muskmelon" aroma.
Muskmelons can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Before refrigerating, place the melons in a plastic bag to prevent the muskmelon aroma from favoring other stored foods.
Honeydew. A slight softening of the flower end of the fruit is the best indicator of ripeness. Also, there may be subtle changes in the fruit's color.
Winter Squash. The fruit of winter squash are mature when the rind or skin is firm and glossy. A thumbnail will not easily penetrate a mature fruit. The portion of the fruit resting on the ground will be cream to orange. When harvesting winter squash, leave a portion of the stem attached to the fruit.
Pumpkin. Harvest pumpkins when uniformly orange. Retain a portion of the stem.
Pumpkins and winter squash should be cured at 80 to 85 F for a few days prior to storage. Store in single layers at 50 to 55 F.
Spaghetti Squash. Harvest spaghetti squash when the fruit color changes from ivory white to golden yellow. When harvesting, leave a portion of the stem attached to the fruit.
Store mature fruit on shelves in a cool, dry location.
This article originally appeared in the July 22, 1994 issue, p. 117.