One of the best reasons to have a big summer garden is to grow melons and watermelons. Sitting on the back porch (or anywhere else) eating watermelon and vying with the kids to see who can spit the seeds the farthest is a favorite summertime sport. There is no way a store-bought melon can be ripe because they’re picked green (although sometimes the ones at farm stands and farmers markets are ripe), and they are not usually the sweetest varieties. Back in the day, melons were only grown locally because they tended to have thin rinds. Since shipping wasn’t an issue, growers concentrated on flavor. With the advent of railroads and big trucks, melons – especially watermelons – were selected for thicker rinds as they held up better in shipping. Flavor went by the wayside. Since they’re green when picked and they don’t ripen off the vine, they just get softer, not sweeter. Supermarket shoppers have no idea what’s really out in the melon world: pocket-sized melons carried for fragrance rather than eating; giant red-fleshed sweeties; yellow, orange, cream, pink, red or green flesh; even a striped orange and yellow melon called ‘Tigger,’ after the Winnie-the-Pooh character. If you’ve always bought melons from the grocery (or even from farmer’s markets and roadside stands), heirloom melons from your own garden will be a revelation. One of the first things you’ll notice is the aroma. Some older melons, like Green Nutmeg from the 1800s, were grown as much for their luscious scents as their eating qualities.
Melons are for the summer garden only – they’ll sulk or rot if the soil is too cool. If you do it very carefully and before they are three weeks old, you can transplant them. Grow them in a container that allows you to tip the soil mass and root ball out intact; handle them very gently. You will get better melons if you prune them. Shorter vines mean more nutrients go to the fruit instead of the leaves. Remove the end buds when the vines are two to three feet long. Prune fruits as well, so you only have one or two fruits per vine (that’s individual vines, not the whole plant). You can slice these little unripe fruits for stir-fries or salads, or use them in chutney. If you’re seed-saving, remember that all melons will cross. The seed lasts well. Gardeners in the 1700s and 1800s typically preferred seed that was four to 10 years old as the plants were shorter and produced more intensely flavored fruit.
- Kleckly’s Sweet Watermelon – also known by the moniker “Monte Cristo,” this is a high sugar, thin rind watermelon that can’t be shipped. Burpee introduced it in 1897.
- Diamond Rattlesnake Watermelon – a true Southerner, reportedly developed in Georgia around 1830. Although it was used as a shipping melon, it’s a high sugar variety and needs time to ripen on the vine, so in those days, it wasn’t shipped very far. There’s a similar variety called Georgia Rattlesnake that I think is probably the same thing or at least closely related.
- Old Time Tennessee – This is similar to an elongated cantaloupe in appearance, but the rind is more deeply creased. High sugar content and lots of fruity undertones. It’s fragile and doesn’t keep well; harvest when ripe and eat immediately.
- Hale’s Best Cantaloupe – this 1920s cantaloupe has stood the test of time because of its flavor. It can handle drought a little better than most melons, but much better to keep it well-watered. It might be a good candidate for a dryland garden, though.
- Crenshaw – probably my husband’s favorite melon. Oval and greenish-yellow, but the sweet flesh is salmon pink. Originally a cross between the Casaba and a Persian melon. First introduced to American gardeners in 1929.
- Bidwell Casaba – Chico, California, is about 120 miles (as the crow flies) from where I live. General John Bidwell, an important citizen in the town, obtained seed stock for this melon in 1869 from the USDA. He grew them for many years and they were locally famous for their taste. The fruits are very big; some may weigh 16 pounds. The football-shaped melon yields creamy orange flesh that people often say tastes like orange sherbet.
- Ananas – Thomas Jefferson loved this melon and grew it at Monticello in 1794. It’s very rare today, which is a shame, as the light green flesh is sweet and highly perfumed. Another one that doesn’t keep well.
- Melon Vert á Rames or Green Climbing Melon – preserved by the French National Institute of Agronomic Research and spread through the US by the Seed Savers Exchange. Usually grown as a climbing vine, they look like small acorn squash but in a pale green. The hard skin allows them to be picked later in the year and used as “winter melons.”
- Winter Valencia – related to the honeydew. Thomas Jefferson grew a similar variety called the Malta melon, now lost. These were often planted in mid-July so they ripened just before the first frost. They were picked ripe and stored in root cellars, then brought out for use from December through February.
- Jenny Lind – you won’t find this grown commercially. Introduced in the 1840s, it was named for the famous opera singer known as the Swedish Nightingale. The fruit has a distinct knob, called a turban, on the end.
Like peppers, it’s hard to choose just one, but if I had to, I would go with the Hale’s Best for an all-around melon and the Kleckley’s Sweet for a watermelon. In both cases, I’m going purely for flavor. Melons, generally speaking, are high in fiber. Different melons have different nutritional benefits. For example, cantaloupe is a good source of vitamin A, while watermelon (like tomatoes) is high in lycopene. Both are high in vitamin C.