Garden Clippings

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A recent trip through the vegetable garden reminded me that even with the heat, this time of year is a gardener's delight. Buckets of tomatoes and peppers make us oblivious to insect bites and sweat on the brow.

Some crops, such as tomatoes and peppers, are easy to recognize when they're ready for harvest. Others, though, such as Ambrosia muskmelon, are not as easily recognized.

This year, I wove the vine of my lone muskmelon around a bush cucumber and a couple of tomato plants, because small yards just don't have the room to grow these sprawling vines. However, because we don't see the melons easily, it can be hard to tell when they are at their best.

A muskmelon is ready to be picked when the stem slips off easily. When this occurs, the melon is left with a craterlike scar, which is a good indication at the produce stand that it was ripe when it was harvested. This indicator, however, does not apply to honeydew melons, because they don't slip from the vine. Instead, put a little pressure on the blossom end of a ripe honeydew. If it has a somewhat soft feel, it's ready.

Knowing that the muskmelon you pick from the garden is mature is important, because muskmelons do not continue to ripen after they are removed from the vine. A muskmelon that is harvested before it's ripe may look and feel nice, but it will disappoint the taste buds.

A ripe muskmelon will only keep for about a week - even in the refrigerator - so make sure the neighbors get a share of this crop so it doesn't go to waste. Ambrosia has an even shorter shelf life than most muskmelons. It is at its best for only about four days, but since it's a favorite, I'm willing to pay that price.

The watermelon section of the garden or produce aisle is another matter. People searching for the perfect watermelon will thump and shake a watermelon to see if it's ripe. Thumping used to be a good indicator of a ripe melon - a hollow sound meant it was ready. The flesh of the newer varieties, however, tends to be firmer than older varieties, so thumping is no longer a reliable test.

Instead, look for a nice butter-yellow color on the underside of the melon and a small curly-Q left from the flower on the opposite end of the stem that is brown and dry. Both of these things are indicators of ripeness.

Watermelons keep longer than muskmelons. Two weeks would not be too much to ask from a watermelon that has not been cut or scarred during harvest. Storing watermelons at refrigerator temperature actually decreases their shelf life, though. If you have a spare refrigerator, set it near 50 degrees, and it will be perfect for storing not only watermelons, but also other garden surplus.

Now it's time to get busy canning homemade salsa, so I can enjoy this time of the season year-round. I hope you do the same.

This article originally appeared
in
CAPPER'S Aug. 5, 2003.