Harvesting takes tricks

KENNEWICK -- Knowing when and how to harvest members of the "cucurbit" family or melons and gords can be a bit tricky.

This garden family includes watermelons, cantaloups, pumpkins and winter squash.

Gardeners can use a combination of indicators to tell when their watermelons are ripe for the pickin'. It's important to harvest watermelons only when they're fully ripe, because they don't get any sweeter after picking.

The first sign of maturity is the curly vine tendrils close to a particular fruit turning from light green to dry and brown. As the fruit matures its skin becomes rougher and harder to pierce with a fingernail.

While some gardeners still insist on thumping their watermelons and listening for a hollow sound, the color of the bottom spot where the melon touches the soil is more reliable. As the fruit ripens, the bottom spot changes from greenish white to a buttery yellow or creamy white.

The ripeness of muskmelons and cantaloupes with netted skins is a little easier to determine. These melons are ready for harvest when they "slip" or are easily pulled off the vine. Other indicators include feel, color, and aroma. The netting becomes rougher and the skin between the netting changes from green to yellow, golden orange, or tan. The flower end of the fruit (the end opposite of the stem end) will be slightly soft.

Finally, a good sniff of a ripe melon will reveal its tantalizing aroma.

Like watermelons, cantaloupes don't increase in sweetness after picking, but will soften a bit and develop better flavor if held at 70 degrees for several days.

There is no trick involved in telling when a pumpkin is ripe. When its skin turns hard and uniformly orange (except for some specialty varieties), it's ready. It's important to harvest pumpkins before a hard frost because the freezing temperatures can damage the skin and lead to rot in storage, although they usually can tolerate a light frost without trouble.

Pumpkins are "picked" by cutting them from the vine, leaving at least a three to six inch portion of stem attached to the fruit. Handle carefully to avoid scratching and bruising. Do not carry them by the stem. Wash off dirt with clean water and then "cure" the pumpkins. (Some gardeners like wipe to them with a 10 percent bleach solution or diluted household disinfectant to help protect against rot before curing them.)

Curing toughens the skin and allows for longer storage. To cure the fruit, place them in a warm (about 80 degrees) location for about a week or two and then store in a cool, dry place. All is not lost if your pumpkins haven't turned completely orange by the time frost kills the vines. The curing process may encourage mostly green pumpkins (those just starting to develop some orange color) to turn orange.

Pumpkins are easy, but it's more difficult to tell if the many other types of other winter squash are mature and ready for harvest, especially if you're not familiar with their mature color and size.

Refer to the variety description to insure the fruit has reached the typical size and color for that variety. Also, their stems should be hard and the skin difficult to puncture with a fingernail. Like pumpkins, they're cut from the vine, washed and cured.

Knowing when to harvest may be a bit tricky, but there's no trick involved in enjoying what we harvest.

* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Benton County Extension Office.