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When to Harvest Tomatoes, Melons & other Top Crops

Q. Hi Mike! I've planted cantaloupes and honeydew melons this year and they are coming along nicely. What I'd like to know is WHEN do I harvest them? Unfortunately, I'm not exactly sure when they went into the dirt, so it's going to have to be from some kind of visual cue. Thanks,
    ---Peter in Glenolden, PA
A. That's a great question Peter. As I explained in a recent watermelon Question of the Week, there's nothing worse than spending the entire season growing one of those big juicy fruits only to harvest too early and get no taste for your efforts. And if you wait too long, they'll lose the great flavor they once had.

Now, those netted fruits that virtually everyone in this country calls "cantaloupes" are actually muskmelons, a name true to their musky flavor and fragrance. Very few Americans have ever seen a true cantaloupe, although they are prized in Europe; especially France. I'm not splitting hairs here; the harvesting clues are very different for these different types of melons. So if your "cantaloupes" have skin that looks like the cratered surface of a moon, you've got muskmelons. And that's good, because unlike other melons, they "slip" or pull away easily from the vine when they're ripe, just like raspberries.

Your honeydews are actually a type of winter melon, which is also good, as these long-keepers have a big window after reaching full ripeness where their taste will be very good; unless, of course, they sit out in the hot sun for a long time after passing that peak.

It would be nice if you could remember when you put them in the ground, as the "Days to Maturity" listed on the seed pack or catalog description is an important consideration with melons. "DTM" is the number of days it takes a transplant to produce its first ripe fruits in an average climate in an average season. (Most honeydew plants need about three months in the ground to produce their first ripe fruits.) So next year, pay attention!

Amy Goldman, author of the beautiful book "Melons for the Passionate Grower" (Artisan; 2002) and Chair of the Board of the fabled Seed Savers Exchange, is the person I trust most in the melon-guessing arena. She warns that even she sometimes has a hard time judging when her honeys are dew, but says to watch for the rind color to change to a creamy hue, and for the melon to feel heavier and develop a subtle, fruity aroma.

Her personal favorite clue is the appearance of a crack in the stem end that leaks a sweet honeydew-like fluid. (I wonder if that's how they got their common name?) Sometimes, she adds, small cracks will even appear in the fruit itself. She wishes you luck and says to be patient; honeydews are rarely ready until the very end of the season.

Q. Mike: I'm growing tomatoes in the city in containers and so far have had good results. The ones we have harvested have good flavor. But when exactly should you pick tomatoes? Does it depend on the weather (like when its very hot and humid)? Thank you,

    ---Emily in Philadelphia
A. Also a great question, Emily. Let's begin with a few harvesting basics.

You always want to avoid harvesting soft fruits like berries and peaches when they're still wet with rain, as they won't store well afterwards. You don't even want to go near bean plants when they're wet—even from morning dew—or you'll impart disease to their testy little leaves. And you have to wait several days after rain to harvest garlic, or it might rot.

That said, morning is best for plants that don't mind being handled when they're a little bit wet with dew. You really don't want to harvest anything other than string beans in the heat of the day, as the produce won't keep nearly as well. Lettuce, for instance, might not even make it into the house without noticeable wilting.

Tomatoes, peppers, cukes, eggplant and such can be harvested in the morning or the evening; and even though it's not as huge an issue as with green beans, it's always best to avoid working with wet plants if you can.

Now; tomato picking soapbox time: Harvest your Love Apples promptly! Never let tomatoes sit out on the vine after they fully ripen up. Like sweet corn and melons, tomatoes can quickly begin to lose sugars and flavor if they cook in the sun after achieving final ripeness. I try and pick mine when they're mostly colored up and then bring them inside to finish ripening. They'll achieve full flavor in the house after they reach what's called "the breaker stage" if you leave them sit out in a cool, dry, airy spot. Don't put them in the infamous "sunny windowsill"; that's what you saved them from!

And now, a short course on some other popular crops:

Green beans (aka string beans, snap beans, etc.), snow peas, eggplant, cucumbers, zucchini and other summer squash can be picked at any size; in fact, the smaller the better in most cases.

Sweet Bell peppers: Unless frost is threatening, always let these tasty treats reach their final ripe color of red, yellow or orange. "Green peppers" are immature and have all the nutrition and taste of a paper bag. (Purple is an in-between color.)

Hot peppers are different; they have nice nutrition in the green stage, and the tastes change dramatically as the peppers go through the color changes leading to final ripeness. Sample all the different stages and see what you like best.

Sweet corn: Three weeks after the silks appear on at least half of the ears, start testing. Carefully peel back the edge of a sample husk and piece a kernel in the third row with your thumb or a toothpick; if the liquid inside is milky white, start the water boiling. If it's clear, test again in a couple of days.

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