Watermelons are hands-down the most challenging fruit or vegetable to harvest, for a number of reasons. Obviously the flesh of all melons is hidden from view. But with other types of melons, the rind changes color completely when they are ripe, and they continue to ripen once picked. Watermelons do neither. And because of their size, people are unlikely to buy more than one watermelon at a time, so if they get a unripe one it is particularly disappointing.
For all of these reasons, finding the right varieties is crucial to growing the best watermelons. They can’t just be tasty — they must have reliable “indicators” showing you when they are ripe and ready to harvest. Among other things, the rind touching the ground will turn a different color. The melons will also become much heavier when they ripen fully, due to increased sugar content. Some people swear that they can tell just by looking at the vine right by the fruit, but in the end Watermelon harvesters must pick up every single melon to check the ground spot and the weight before they cut the stem.
Making matters more complicated at Terra Firma, our watermelon fields always have two different varieties growing together. We primarily grow so-called “seedless” watermelons. But in order to produce, they need to cross-pollinate with a seeded watermelon growing in close proximity. Obviously, the two varieties must be visually distinct. But they also have different “ripeness indicators”.
For many years we have been growing a yellow-fleshed seeded variety called Sunshine as our “pollinator”. Our seedless variety is a small melon with a darker rind called “Bijou”. The two melons performed very well together, and we would get a good harvest of both.
Unfortunately, this year the seed supplier discontinued Sunshine and we were forced to very quickly select an alternative pollinator. We chose a seeded red that we have grown in the past called Starlight.
So far, we’ve had all kinds of problems with the Starlight. First of all, it doesn’t seem to pollinate as well as the Sunshine did — up until now we’ve gotten far fewer seedless watermelons than we expect to. Talking to the experts about this, it appears that the new pollinator might flower “out of synch” with the Bijou — producing lots of pollen when there are not many flowers to be pollinated. But the culprit also may have been the weather.
The other problem is that the Starlight is not picking “true”. That means when the melons’ indicators tell us they are ripe, they are wrong. We’ve grown this watermelon before and never had this problem. It means that TFF subscribers have been reporting to us in significant numbers that they are receiving unripe melons. I personally cut several melons in the field on Saturday that I was 100% certain would be ripe inside, and they were not.
There is no way around this problem for us. We have decided for now simply to stop harvesting the Starlight melons rather than continue to disappoint our customers. Luckily, the seeded melons make up only 20% of the field.
Happily, the pollination problem with the seedless melons seems to have resolved itself over the last few weeks. Our watermelon field is now about as full of fruit as I can remember, and the melons finally are ripening. Today we harvested several thousand pounds of Bijou watermelons, and I can attest personally that they are perfectly ripe, juicy, sweet and delicious.
So we apologize for the late start to our watermelon season and for any disappointment you may have experienced from a dud melon in your box. We expect to have a good supply of high-quality watermelons from now until Labor Day. We’ve also started harvest of cantelope, orange honeydew and Sharlyn melons and you’ll see those in your boxes soon too.