by Debby Hatch
For those of us who grow some or all of our food, there is often a single fruit or vegetable whose mention brings a smile to the face and a lilt to the voice. It’s the perfect food that we must grow each year. For Lopez gardener Ona Blue, it’s melons that bring this delight.
“I was thinking of the word ambrosia today,” Ona said as we sat down recently amid her planting records and seed catalogs. “Melons are just such an exquisite food. Like ambrosia, they are the food of the gods. I often say they are my favorite crop.” Quoting Amy Goldman, author of Melons for the Passionate Grower, she added: “They are a luxury nearly everyone can afford to grow.”
Even here with our short, cool summers we can enjoy this luxury if we follow the planting advice, harvest tips and variety recommendations Ona was happy to share.
“I find I have to be really careful with germination,” she began. “Potting soil that’s not too wet. That’s a really main thing.” She plants three or four seeds, half an inch deep, in four-inch pots, three or four weeks before setting them out in the garden, usually mid-May for starting and mid-June for setting out. Once the seeds germinate, she cuts out the weaker ones, leaving a single strong plant per pot.
“With melons the most important thing you can do to help them along is to keep them warm,” she continued. Indoors, she uses a propagation mat when she has access to electricity or puts them in a warm place. Outdoors, she spaces the plants two feet apart and puts hot caps over them. “I have all these old, plastic gallon jugs with the bottoms cut out. I put one over each plant. On a really hot day I can just tip them and push them down in the soil and they stay there most of the time.” When the plants outgrow the covers, she removes the covers so the blossoms can pollinate.
She also lays discarded black plastic in strips on either side of the plants and holds it down with rocks. “At first I didn’t use black plastic for warmth and I got melons, but then about ten years ago I decided I wanted MELONS!” It works!
She doesn’t use fertilizer and doesn’t give her plants a lot of water, adding: “if you’re limited with water, watering should be focused on when they are growing and then cut off once they are fully formed.”
While germinating the seeds and nurturing the plants are challenging, deciding when the melon is ripe can be the biggest challenge. “Cantaloupes are simple because they will come right off the stems. Most melons change color when they are ripe and many will have a wonderful fragrance. Also, the leaf where the fruit is attached to the vine will begin to yellow.”
“But Watermelon! I think watermelon is the most challenging and gosh is it hard to get it wrong because they are my favorite.” Common signs are when the tendril nearest the fruit is dry and there’s a yellow patch on the bottom. “There’s also a certain heaviness. And there’s the thump: Mark Twain said the sound is not a ‘pink or a pank it’s a punk.’ It’s like you have to have a trained ear. I feel like I’m still very much in training.”
Finally, all this cultural and harvest information is for naught if you don’t select varieties for our short season. For Watermelon, Ona recommends Blacktail Mountain and Yellow Moonbeam. For Cantaloupe, open-pollinated varieties are Eden’s Gem, Early Hanover, Green Nutmeg, Minnesota Midget, Sweet Granite. And while Ona prefers to use open-pollinated seeds, she also recommends some hybrids: Halona, Maverick, Athena, Alaska, Earigold.
Good catalog sources are Baker Creek, Johnny’s and Seed Savers Exchange. Savor the descriptions: “juicy and crunchy,” “deliciously sweet,” “wonderful aroma,” “spicy with a floral finish,” and then place your seed order.
How can we not share Ona’s enthusiasm? “It’s so exciting when you go out to the garden and there is a little watermelon and it is so adorable.” Try Blacktail Mountain. “It’s a small melon and a small miracle, like so much in the garden.”