Post last updated: August 13th, 2018
For starters, not every melon “slips” from the vine. A “slip” is when the melon slips from the vine leaving a concave depression in the melon where the stem was attached. Watermelon vines, originally from South Africa, do not slip from the melon when ripe. Many muskmelons, except the Charentais varieties, do. Muskmelons are native to Persia (now Iran), were cultivated by Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Europeans and eventually, the western hemisphere. They include smooth skinned honeydews, crenshaw, casaba and netted cultivars.
He tried looking at the spot on the bottom, scratching the surface, looking at the tendril, thumping and listening for the sound, and watching for cracks on the vine where it connects. In short, he tried every suggestion he found on the Internet and garden books. Gene says it was all a bust when it came to watermelons.
Gene said there are a select few varieties where the spot on the bottom is useful, assuming the watermelon wasn’t rotated while growing, but he found even that to be hit or miss. The year he was trying to figure this out, he cut a lot of watermelons and the ripe ones were accidental luck. Most of the watermelons he cut at the wrong time.
Then a friend of his, an “Old Timer,” stopped by, curious to see how Gene’s garden was growing. Gene mentioned his frustration with the watermelons, and next thing he knew, the Old Timer was out there thumping the melons left and right, telling Gene which ones were ripe. The Old Timer seemed down right certain about it, too. Having already thumped his melons to near mush, Gene, in disbelief, asked the Old Timer how he did it.
The Old Timer proceeded to tell Gene something he had never seen in print anywhere. That secret made all the difference. When thumping the watermelon, you are not listening for the sound because sound is not really important. What you’re actually doing is FEELING the melon. It’s not a solidness or a fullness, it’s a tightness. Like hitting the surface of a drum with a thick, tight skin. The melon will give off a vibration. Ever notice how easily a ripe melon splits when you touch the knife to it? When thumping a ripe melon, it feels like it would split wide open if you were to hit it hard enough. It does take some practice, but that “ready to split” feeling tells you it is ripe.
Over the next few days, Gene picked several of the watermelons the Old Timer pointed out and found them to be ripe. He began to experiment with the Old Timer’s technique but decided not to rule out sound. The sound tells you how full the melon is — how much water is in it. Many melons, when they’re past ripe get really watery inside – they’re going to sound full. Also, many sources will tell you that to make the watermelon taste stronger, you should dry out the melons (don’t water them) shortly before harvest so the taste is more concentrated instead of watered down. The sound then can be useful to give you some idea of how well you’re drying them out. But it’s all about the feel. In other words, a deaf man can determine if a watermelon is ripe by thumping it.
Gene admits to some practice before getting it right, but once he knew what to look for, it didn’t take long to accurately pick out ripe, not quite ripe, and rotten melons. He’s been doing this just a few years and often needs to “relearn” the technique at the beginning of the season but he finds that it gets easier with each passing year. Even last year, with difficult growing conditions in his region, he got a few bad signals from the melon. Everything about the melon seemed ripe, they even split with ease when cut, but they were not ripe. It happened several times and really surprised him.
For muskmelons, Gene prefers to grow varieties that slip because that slip makes it easier to determine ripeness. Last year, he grew a Persian melon that, while the taste was good, he will never grow again because there was no reliable way to determine ripeness. None of his tricks for muskmelons would work on it. No split, no slip, no spot, no hue, no tendril, no vine change, no useful cracking, just nothing. With 20 to 30 melons on those vines, he never managed to catch one at the right time. Gene grows muskmelons that are not prone to splitting as it’s difficult to catch them when they’re ripe but haven’t yet split open, and keeping the pests out of them is also difficult. Of the ones he’s grown, Gene has never found the taste of the ones that split to be any more remarkable than those that don’t. He’d prefer to just avoid the hassle if it’s not going to result in a better tasting melon.
His Favorite Watermelon Varieties: Georgia Rattlesnake and Crimson Sweet. He likes the taste of Orangeglo but does not like the hollow heart he finds in some of them.
His Favorite Muskmelon Varieties: Baker Creek’s “Crenshaw,” Crane, Jake’s Melon, Minnesota Midget, and two that he created which he calls Black’s Cross and Honeydew. He also likes Ineya (virtually identical to Collective Farm Woman) but both have issues with splitting and don’t slip very well. Can’t miss when they’re ripe, however, as they turn a strong orange color.
This article is a collaborative effort by Southern Rural Route and Gene the Melon Man.