In the Garden:
Upper South
September, 2007
Regional Report

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Sun-ripened, homegrown melons, such as 'Ambrosia', are a luscious treat.

A Melon and a Woman Are Hard To Know

This old French saying has long been one of my favorites, and it is more apropos now to my life than usual. It is my belief that most gardeners have at least a few "challenge" plants in their gardens; that is, plants that they would give body and soul in order to grow successfully, yet by which they are constantly thwarted. Melons happen to be on my list.

Sure, one can go to the grocery and buy a basic cantaloupe, but for one thing, most of these are pesticide ridden. Secondly, anyone who has ever tasted a French charantais melon or an heirloom American melon will know that there are sublime possibilities out there, rarely available in supermarkets.

This is why for the last several years I have battled beetles, mildew, drought, and rain to find the Holy Grail of melons. Each year I have just enough success to spur me onward to the next year. Melons, like squash and cucumbers, are most easily grown on black plastic to maintain even moisture levels and stop weeds in their tracks. I use a thick, porous plastic for this purpose. On my winter squash this year, I used every possible organic pest control and still they succumbed to beetles. For my melons, I was just grateful I got them planted by early July. Even without pest controls, most of the nine varieties I was comparing have faired pretty well.

The Harvest Dilemma
The question now is when to harvest. For all my crops this year I have maintained a notebook with a printed page from the Internet for each variety. A photo gives me clues as to what each variety should look like when ready to pick.

Another excellent resource is Amy Goldman's book Melons for the Passionate Grower (Artisan, 2002; $25). Goldman elucidates how difficult it is to be right every time. Her suggestions include: "Look for melons that have neither the hardness associated with immaturity nor the softness associated with overripeness." Also, "Go straight to the melon's blossom end: the base of the fruit, opposite the stem. Immature melons do not yield to pressure. A melon is ready to pick or eat when the skin is fairly easy to depress. If your finger finds little resistance or elasticity, and may even break the skin, the fruit is kaput."

Scratching the blossom end and sniffing remains one technique to determine quality, but it is not all-inclusive, as some melons, such as canary or casaba, exude little or no fragrance.

Although most of us are familiar with the "thump" test on watermelons, when we listen for that dull "punk" sound, the best way to determine a ripe homegrown melon is to look for the withered tendril closest to the fruit.

As to which varieties have consistently grown well for me, my hands-down favorite is the heirloom cantaloupe 'Minnesota Midget'. 'Ambrosia' is a hybrid variety that is a traditional netted cantaloupe with fantastic flavor and good disease resistance. 'Savor' and 'Summer Dream' are two charantais-type hybrids that have done well.

For watermelons, consider 'Golden Midget', since the skin changes color from green to yellow when ripe on the 3-pound fruit.

No doubt, I'll try dozens more varieties in future years because another dilemma I face is when to stop.

The Dilemma of the Gardener
Despite numerous promises to myself, my "driveway nursery" never seems to get any smaller. Okay, I just couldn't resist ordering that hybrid mulberry or snatching up a few of those new echinaceas, no matter that I wasn't quite sure where they could be planted. And for years now I've planted an extensive fall garden. Will the world end if I don't? Will I go hungry?

It's certainly a blessed eternal optimism that drives gardeners to keep planting ... and planting. We plant trees, knowing that we shall never know them in their full magnificence. Balance is a certainly a goal, but who can resist the siren call of dinosaur kale or a newly planted grove of butternuts? This woman isn't hard to know; I am a gardener, through and through.


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