Picked At Peak Of Perfection

Tomatoes Vs. Sweet Corn

Some gardeners sit tapping their fingers waiting for the first tomato of the season to finally ripen. I don’t. I’m waiting to sink my teeth into my first-picked ear of sweet corn.

Not that my tomatoes don’t taste really good, but they’re also good all winter dried or canned, as is or as sauce. Or just frozen.

An ear of sweet corn, though, captures the essence of summer. Not just for flavor and texture. It’s the whole ritual of peeling back the husks and snapping them off at their bases, brushing away the silk before steaming the ears, and then, holding an ear at each end, biting off kernels from one end to the other like an old fashioned typewriter carriage. (An image perhaps unknown to readers below a certain age.)

An art to harvesting corn at the just-ripe stage, and anxiousness for that first taste, make harvesting, especially early in the season rather tenuous. I do early planning for that first taste by counting the days-to-maturity from when I planted. Problem is that the days listed on seed packets vary: One seed company lists days to maturity for Golden Bantam, the variety I grow, at 75 days; another lists it at 85 days; another at 78 days; and yet another, more realistically, at 70 to 85 days. It depends on where the variety is grown and how the season develops.

The real countdown begins when tassels first appear atop the stalks. Harvest will be about 3 weeks hence.

Then it’s time to keep an eye out for drying tassels at the end of an ear. Once that happens, the time is near. That right moment is critical because harvested too soon, and the kernels have little taste. And this is among those fruits — yes, corn is a fruit, botanically — that will not ripen at all following harvest. Harvested too late, and the kernels are tough and starchy.

That exact right moment for harvest is when the ear feels “full” when grasped in my hand and a kernel on the peeled-back husk, with the ear still attached to the stalk, oozes a milky fluid when pressed with the thumbnail. If all these systems are go, it’s time to snap off the ear and whisk it to the waiting pot of steaming water.Corn, testing for ripeness
Golden Bantam is a non-hybrid variety. Like other non-hybrids, a planting does not ripen all at once, which is not a good commercial characteristic. It’s fine for me, though, because between staggered plantings and a wide window for harvest for each planting, I intend to be eating Golden Bantam corn, a favorite for many gardeners since its introduction in 1906, for weeks to come.

Watermelon, Are You Ripe

Besides the first harvest of Golden Bantam, which I’ll be enjoying by the time you read this, I’m also eagerly awaiting the first harvest of watermelon, which, according to days-to-maturity listed on the seed packet, 65-75 days, I should have already been eating. (I sowed seeds indoors in pots in mid-May but it’s been a relatively cool growing season.)

While I’m confident in harvesting sweet corn at just the right moment, not so for harvesting watermelon, another fruit that will not ripen at all once harvested. Yes, I know all the published indicators of ripeness: drying up of the tendril closest where the fruit is attached to the vine; a dull thud, rather than a tighter, ringing or hollow sound, when rapped with my knuckles; and a yellow or cream-color of the fruit where it rests against the ground, and a toughening of the skin there, enough to resist indentation with a thumbnail. (The thumbnail is evidently a useful harvest tool.)

A ripe watermelon?

A ripe watermelon?

Still, I’m not confident about harvesting watermelons on time, and not even just the first ones to ripen. The trial and tribulation is worth it. I hope to be harvesting and eating ripe watermelon also by the time you read this. (Update: I did and it was.)

Tomatoes, You Are Ripe

In contrast to harvesting Golden Bantam corn and watermelon (I grow the variety Blacktail Mountain), tomatoes are cinch to harvest. Except for some green-ripe varieties, which I don’t grow, tomatoes turn their characteristic shade of red when ripe.

Tomatoes can even be harvested underripe to ripen off the vine. Research has shown that when a tomato is about half green and half pinkish-red on the vine, a layer of cells form across the stem of the tomato sealing it off from the main vine. Then nothing that can move from the plant into the fruit, so the fruit can ripen to perfection.Ripe tomatoes

I came across some older research (J. Amer. Hort. Soc. 102:724-731. 1977) showing that the best-tasting tomatoes are those thoroughly vine-ripened. Duh. I knew that, and will harvest only vine-ripened tomatoes.


End of Summer But I Still Need some Watermelon

    Given sun, heat, and reasonably moist, fertile soil, watermelons are easy to grow. The greater challenge is in harvesting them at their peak of perfection. Even professionals sometimes fall short, as witnessed by not-quite-ripe watermelons I “harvested” awhile ago from a supermarket shelf and, a couple of weeks later, from a table at a local farmers’ market.
    That was while I was waiting for my own watermelons to ripen — the delectable variety Blacktail Mountain. But should I have been waiting?
    All sorts of indicators are touted for telling when a watermelon is ripe. The part of the melon laying on the ground supposedly turns yellow. The tendril opposite where the melon in question is attached dries up. Or my favorite method: thumping. Knock you knuckles on your forehead, your chest, and your stomach. The sound of a ripe watermelon should match the sound of the chest thump. The forehead sound indicates that the melon is underripe; the stomach thump, overripe.

Watermelon, it was ripe & delicious

Watermelon, it was ripe & delicious

    Sure, one could pull out the bells and whistles. As I wrote, even professionals have problems determining watermelon ripeness. To aid in commercial harvesting, nuclear magnetic resonance, one possibility, was considered — at $60,000 to $1,000,000 — out of budget. Acoustic resonance testing ($950) was a more viable alternative, but still not for me, with my five plants.
    After my two disappointing purchases, my mouth was watering for my own melons. I ignored the question mark hovering in air above the largest of the lot and, despite its lack of a dried tendril, a yellow bottom, or a telltale thump, cut it from the plant. Long story short: It was delicious, perhaps just a tad overripe.
    What about the other waiting melons? I’m just going to harvest them, as needed, and hope for the best.
    Update: I may have one more addition to the imperfect list of watermelon ripeness indicators. It seems that ripe melons might develop a whitish, waxy “bloom” on their skins.
    Update on the update: Scrap that way bloom indicator. Or, it might be part of the picture. Now I look for a number of indicators, and if some indicate ripeness — I thump the melon before picking.

Next Year: More Watermelon Plants

    Part of the watermelon problem is that I don’t grow enough watermelons. I once lived and gardened in southern Delaware, a few miles from one of the epicenters of watermelon production. With ideal climate and soil (sandy), I grew an abundance of large watermelons. Whether or not a single melon was picked underripe was not so critical. Once ripening began, any unripe ones could be relegated to the compost pile; a better one was always in the offing.

My Favorite Vegetable (Fruit?)?

    Like watermelons, sweet corn is also easy to grow. It can get by with less heat than watermelon, but demands a more fertile soil. Harvesting sweet corn at its peak of perfection also can be a challenge, though not nearly the challenge of watermelon. Picked too soon, corn is tasteless and toothless; picked too late, and it’s too starchy and toothy, a delight for animals, excepting humans.
    The first hint as to when I get to pick corn is when tassels atop the stalks begin to shed pollen grains — millions per tassel!

Corn, testing for ripeness

Corn, testing for ripeness

   About three weeks later, I start peering into the corn bed to look at the silks spewing out the ends of each ear. Silks are more or less dry on a ripe ear. At that point, I can usually tell ripeness by just wrapping my hand around the ear to feel its fullness, although less than perfect pollination can drain the bulk of a ripe ear so it feels underripe. (It’s hard to imagine less than perfect pollination when you consider that each tassel sheds literally millions of pollen grains; then again, each grain remains viable for only a few minutes; then again, again, it can travel hundreds of feet in that few minutes; then again, again, again, each kernel only develops if a pollen grain lands on a germinates on the single silk to which it is attached.)
    Any doubt about ripeness, and it can be confirmed before committing to harvest by peeling back the husk just enough to see some kernels. Their color and plumpness might be a giveaway. If not, a thumbnail pressed into a kernel should yield a milky fluid.
    Sweet corn, in contrast to watermelon, is easy to produce in quantity, even in a relatively small garden. So tasting an ear is no great sacrifice; there’s plenty more.
    Hybrid varieties of corn tend to ripen uniformly, so once one ear in a bed is ripe, the whole bed is likely also ready for harvest. A bed of a non-hybrid variety requires more frequent assessment and harvesting, which is better for home use where you might want a few ears each day or so, rather than a once-over harvest. With successive planting and selective harvesting, we’ve been enjoying sweet corn almost daily since the end of July.

Who’s the Best Gardener/Farmdener?

Fresh Watermelon, and More, with Help from Ethylene

Could I possibly be the best gardener west of the Hudson River? Perhaps. As evidence: On November 1st, here in Zone 5 of New York’s Hudson River Valley, where temperatures already have plummeted more than once to 25°F, I was able to harvest a fresh, dead-ripe watermelon. Not from a greenhouse, not from a hoop house, not even from a plastic covered tunnel. Watermelon, a crop sensitive to frost and thriving best in summer’s sun and searing heat.

Okay, perhaps I can’t assume all that much responsibility for the melon. Let me explain . . . 

Every fall, I have a landscaper dump a whole truckload of leaves vacuumed up from various properties at my holding area for such things. Rain and snow drench the pile in the coming months, starting it on the road to decomposition. When sufficiently warm weather has decided to stay in spring, I scoop out a few holes in the pile, fill them with compost, then tuck in watermelon transplants.

Last fall’s pile yielded well from summer until early fall this year, at which time I gathered up remaining melons for eating or, if unripe, for composting along with the vines. The tractor, with its bucket, was able to move and compact the now dense pile to make way for this  year’s crop of leaves.


Ben & Jeremy show off the November watermelon.

Ben & Jeremy show off the November watermelon.

Now we’re up to November 1st, time to spread the leaf mold before it freezes — a big job that necessitated enlisting the help of my neighbors Jeremy and Ben. We were loading and hauling and loading and hauling, forking deeper and deeper into the bowels of the pile, when Jeremy yelled that he’d just speared a watermelon I had overlooked when cleaning up. I cleaned it off and sliced it open. It proved to be a ripe watermelon. The taste? “Awesome,” to quote Jeremy.

The Watermelon Mystery

Okay, I admit to not being able to claim too much credit for the ripe watermelon. How did it get there? Was it ripe and overlooked, then buried and preserved in the warm bowels of the leaf mold pile? Was it unripe when buried, then subsequently ripened? Probably not. No leaves were poking out of the pile, capturing the sun’s albeit weak rays for photosynthesis to make the sugars needed for ripening. A couple of nights of 25°F would have done in the leaves anyway.

Some fruits can actually ripen after harvest. These include apples, pears, bananas, avocados, and other so-called climacteric fruits. Just before ripening, respiration of climacteric fruits dramatically increases along with a burst in production of the plant hormone ethylene. Through a feedback mechanism, ethylene stimulates more respiration which in turn stimulates even more ethylene production and even quicker ripening. Hence, enclosing bananas in a bag stimulates ripening, and why one rotten apple — injury, whether mechanical or from pests, also elicits an ethylene response — can indeed “spoil the barrel.”

This burst in ethylene production occurs even after climacteric fruits have been harvested, as long as they were sufficiently mature at the time. You can’t pick a golfball-sized green apple and expect it to ripen off the plant.

Non-climacteric fruits lack that pre-ripening spike in respiration and ethylene production, and do not ripen after harvest. Or so the thinking, based on early experiments, went. According to more recent research, fruits show various degrees of ethylene production. Watermelon is not a climacteric fruit, but at a certain point the white flesh within does release a burst of ethylene some time after which it morphs from bland and unripe to sweet, red, and ripe. But that won’t happen off the vine.

(“Ripe” is open to some debate. Peach, for instance, is a climacteric fruit that, if picked sufficiently mature but underripe, will soften and become more edible. But it won’t develop the aromatics of a tree-ripened fruit or, until rotting changes starches to sugars, become at all sweeter after picking. I don’t call that “ripe.”)

So my watermelon must have been overlooked and ripe and evidently kept perfectly well in the moist warmth of the leaf pile.

Deb & Ethylene Take Credit for the Peppers

Ethylene, and not me, is going to take credit for the fresh, sweet red peppers in today’s salad. Peppers are a climacteric fruit. Green peppers are unripe peppers, but if the fruits have just a hint of red on them, they can ripen even after harvest to full red (or yellow, orange, or purple, depending on the variety of pepper) color and, at least to my taste buds, flavor.

Still eating fresh, red, ripe sweet, juicy, delicious peppers.

Still eating fresh, red, ripe sweet, juicy, delicious peppers.

Skill is needed to ripen peppers off the plant. Cool, but not too cool, temperatures hold the fruits for storage and warmer temperatures then speed ripening. Just the right amount of humidity is also needed to, on the one hand, avoid drying, or, on the other hand, rotting. My wife, Deb, rather than I, plies these skills, so should probably get credit for the ripe, red peppers.

This season has been the best pepper season ever, both in quantity and in quality. King of the North peppers, large and blocky, with thick, juicy walls, now ripening in a basket taste as bland now as they did all summer. I won’t grow them again. In contrast, Carmen, Sweet Italia, and (slightly hot) Pepperocini peppers, also ripening in that basket, taste as good now as their siblings did snapped from plants basking in summer heat and sun a few months ago.