Many of the vegetables and fruits we grow in the summer have been bred over the years to tell us when they are ripe: tomatoes turn from light green to pink/yellow/green; sweet peppers do the same. All the melons we grow also turn color as well when they are ripe. They also loosen at the stem — a gentle pull disconnects them from the vine.
Anyone who can differentiate between the dark green of leaves and the red, yellow, orange or tan of the fruit can harvest any of these crops.
Peaches are trickier to harvest — they can look ripe from below but once they are picked, you may turn them over and see they are still green on one side. Also, since you are working in the shade with bright sun just above, the light plays tricks on your eyes. It takes experience and patience to pick peaches that are ripe but still firm. The task is even more challenging since we have almost 20 distinct varieties of peaches and nectarines growing here, and each is a little different. Only three people at Terra Firma are currently allowed to pick peaches, and even they don’t get it right all the time.
But of all the summer produce we grow, none is harder to pick than watermelons. Unlike their cantelope and honeydew cousins, if five watermelons are sitting right to each other in the field, one may be fully ripe and the other four still immature but they all look the same. And unlike other melons, watermelons do not necessarily easily separate from the vine at maturity.
There are several clues that the fruit and plants give, but none is a guarantee. The first is the size — generally, watermelons increase in size while they are ripening. The biggest in the field tend to be the ripest. Second is the spot on the bottom where the rind sits on the ground. Many — but not all — watermelons will develop a light colored spot there when ready to pick. Third is a tendril on the vine close to the fruit, which shrivels at the right time. But in the tangle of vines, each with many tendrils both dead and still living, it is very difficult to figure out which is the one to look for.
The only true test of a perfectly ripe watermelon is the sound it makes when tapped in exactly the right way — a sonorous tone with depth and resonance. An under ripe fruit has a higher pitch and no resonance. An overripe fruit is easy to spot — it makes a dull thud.
Only a handful of people seem to have the knack for picking good watermelons. You have to have both the eye and the ear for it. But you also have to be humble and willing to continually check your results. In the case of watermelons, this means smashing one fruit out of ten or twenty to constantly check yourself. This is what makes it hard for me, or anyone else with an emotional or financial attachment to the watermelons, to be a good picker.
Just before watermelon harvest begins, there is no prettier place on the farm — the lush vines covering the ground completely, the beautiful fruit nestled among the leaves. But once we start picking, the field becomes a battlefield, busted-open “tester” melons lying atop vines and leaves crushed by harvester’s feet. Generally I try to stay away once the carnage begins.
It is always our goal for every subscriber to get a perfect watermelon, but it’s just not possible. You never really know whether the melon you get will be the best you’ve ever had, or just okay. Very rarely a fruit will slip through that is not ripe enough to eat: for a yellow watermelon the flesh and seeds will be white, for a red watermelon the flesh light pink and the seeds white. If you get one of these, let us know — take a picture if you are able — and we will issue you a credit.