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Garden Produce
Martha Maletta, Home Horticultural Consultant
Dated - July 09, 2004

July and August mean enjoying the great taste of garden and farm market tomatoes, corn and melons. It’s very disappointing when it doesn’t measure up. What are the factors that influence the taste of these prized summer crops?

Tomato flavor is based on a complex chemistry involving sugars, acids and aromatic volitiles. According to Jay Scott, a tomato breeder at the University of Florida, there are hundreds of volitiles in tomatoes, and tomatoes deemed to have good flavor tend to be high in volitiles. About 17 of them have been determined to be most important to “home garden” taste. But it is also the mix of the volitiles and their interaction with sugars and acids that ultimately determines flavor. It is flavor’s complexity that makes breeding for it difficult. The need to breed for many other important characteristics such as disease resistance complicates matters.

Cultivar is certainly a factor in tomato flavor, but growing conditions will also affect it. Lots of gray weather will produce less tasty tomatoes. How tomatoes are handled after picking is very important, too. Tomatoes should never be exposed to temperatures below 50 degrees F; do not put them in the refrigerator. Keep them out of the sun. Prepare them just before serving and serve them at room temperature. Of course, individual tastes vary, and great flavor to one person may not be great to another. Texture is an important eating quality, too.

Flavor and sweetness are top priorities with consumers of melons and sweet corn. Sweetness in corn depends on variety, maturity and storage. The older, “normal sugary” varieties (the well known ‘Silver Queen” is one) loose sweetness very quickly after harvest as sugar is converted to starch. The newer types, developed beginning in the 1950’s, are the “super-sweets” that have higher sugar levels and slower starch conversion rates and the “sugary enhanced” that have even higher sugar content. And there are now many hybrids of all these types.

For best eating, sweet corn should be picked when fully developed – not too young or too old – and cooked immediately or refrigerated and used very soon, with in a day or two for older varieties. A maturity test for traditional varieties: pop a kernel with you fingernail; if milky juice squirts out, it’s at the “milk stage” and perfect. The newer varieties retain their sweetness longer –up to several days - than older varieties. The fingernail test for these will produce a spritz of clear juice.

Melon taste is a combination of flavor, sweetness and texture. Flavor differs with variety. Sweetness comes from sugars that move from leaves to fruit. Maintaining healthy leaves and leaving the fruit on the vine as long as possible are both important to sweetness. Once a melon is picked, it will continue to ripen but flavor and sweetness will not improve. Melons need warm, sunny, dry weather to develop best taste. Cut back on water as harvest approaches and hope for little rain. For tips on knowing when to harvest melons for best flavor, send a SASE for Rutgers Fact Sheet “Harvesting Melons at Peak Flavor” to Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Hunterdon County, P.O. Box 2900, Flemington, NJ 08822.

If you are “picking” your melons from the market, hope they were harvested close to ripe (more likely with locally grown than imported melons), then use your nose and eyes. Ripe melons (except watermelon) have distinct fragrance, no or little greenish color and the blossom end yields slightly when pressed. (Shaking is not a good test.) Judging a watermelon’s ripeness is much more difficult. Best bet may be to buy a cut piece though that doesn’t guarantee sweet taste.

Here are a few more tips on harvesting or selecting prime produce. Green or wax beans should be full size but without bulging seeds. Lima bean pods should be green with plump greenish, not white, seeds. Eggplant skin should be shiny and seeds not brown. Cucumbers should green and the seeds soft.

COMING EVENTS

The Melda C. Snyder Teaching Garden at the Rutgers Snyder Research and Extension Farm is the site of two upcoming Friday morning programs. July 16th the topic will be Fall Vegetable Gardening. It’s just about time to plan and plant for harvests until frost and beyond. On August 6, Dr John Grande, Farm Director and turf expert, will discuss and demonstrate Renovating Your Lawn. Please RSVP to 908-526-6293 if you plan to attend either or both of these programs and for directions to the farm.

The 5th Annual Garden Party in Colonial Park Gardens will be held July 17th, 1 to 5 p.m. It will feature lectures and workshops, music and refreshments, plants and plant experts to answer questions. Call 732-873-2459, ex. 22, for more details.

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