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Ask a Master Gardener: When to pick a watermelon

by Peter Sutter | August 26, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

For the last month or so, one of the most mystifying garden chores has been taking place -- picking a ripe home-grown watermelon.

With all the scientific advancement of our world, there is still no 100 percent foolproof way to select a ripe watermelon. Run out of patience, get too anxious and pick your melon too soon and you'll end up with pale pink flesh inside that green globe., usually only good for the compost pile.

On the other hand, exercise too much patience (or just forget to check it) and you'll have a bowl of dark red mush, again more fit for compost than the picnic.

That sweet spot in-between is what we are all looking for.

Luckily, there are a few guidelines that will help. Some people are able to use the time-honored thumping method. I have not perfected the thumping method yet, so we will take a look at some indicators to help take some of the mystery out of the process and let you know when your watermelons are close to ripe and ready to harvest.

There are two indicators: tendril and ground contact or "belly" color.

A word of caution as you are checking your watermelon: Be gentle. Do not disturb the vines any more than necessary. Although they look tough and do not appear to damage easily, most vining plants do not like to have their vines disturbed and will produce better if not bothered too much.

The first indicator is the color of that part of the watermelon that sits on the ground. This is sometimes called the belly of the watermelon. As the watermelon is growing, this area will usually be white. When it turns creamy or yellow, it is a good indication the watermelon is almost ready. Gently take a peek at the underside of the watermelon and then carefully put it back the way it was. If it is a creamy or yellowish color, go to the next step, which can also be used when in the market.

The tendril is the clinging part of the vine that the plant uses to attach itself to objects if it were to climb up something. Sometimes the tendril will attach itself to a nearby weed, if such a thing was allowed in the garden. It will look like a thin corkscrew wire. There will be a tendril very close to the stem of the watermelon. When this tendril starts to dry up, the melon is very close or is ripe. If it has dried up and fallen off, there's a good chance the melon is ripe, or worse, past prime, so don't wait that long.

It is at this point you might want to practice the thumping method. I look for a melon that is not ripe or even close to ripe and thump it and then I thump the ripe one.

Hear the difference? Some say to listen for a hollow sound, but trying to figure out what hollow sounds like is not all that easy. I am told it will come with experience. I have been waiting 60 some years for that skill.

A few years back I had a 35-pounder that I picked at the peek of perfection and fed all the family (including in-laws) in the area. This year I took my wife (the musician) to the melon patch. I thought if anyone could hear that ripe sound, she could. Well, evidently it is not a musical ear that is needed, so there is hope for all of us. Just keep thumping and you will get the hang of it, maybe.

A word of advice; cut the watermelon before you send the invitations. It saves embarrassment, one that I'm experienced at.

Happy gardening!

Peter Sutter is a lifelong gardening enthusiast and a participant in the MU Extension's Master Gardener program. Gardening questions can be sent to [email protected].

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