January 23rd, 2010
I have no business trying to grow melons “au natural” here on a high hill side in northeastern Vermont. This is what I keep telling myself, and yet every year I’m at it again. I can’t rationally justify the amount of effort it takes in proportion to the actual harvest. It’s a compulsion, like gambling I guess. It would definitely be cheaper to buy a melon at the supermarket, and I’d have a good chance of getting a nice sweet one there since I know what to look for.
Besides, I crave sweet ripe melons in hot weather, the week or so of it we sometimes get in July here. There will never be ripe melons found in our garden in July. The thing is, by the time a melon is mature enough to ripen, we are into September and nights with threats of frost. Sugars just don’t form well (or at all) in melons at such cool temperatures, and somehow the crisp cold mornings of September and October just don’t have that “Wow, a slice of melon would taste just perfect right now…” quality.
A hoop house, plastic mulch, anything to provide a temperature increase would help a lot, but I don’t like to use stuff that I have to buy and then send to the landfill after a few seasons. Hence my stubborn insistance on trying to grow melons “au natural”. The concessions I do make are starting the seedlings early (about May 1, no greenhouse or grow lights) and then protecting them when they are transplanted in June with some plastic cloches recycled from translucent 5 gallon vegetable oil containers.
I have had just enough success to keep me tantalized, but not enough to keep me from grumbling. We do sometimes have adequate sunny warm weather in the summer to get nice results from some very early varieties. Two that have done well here in the past are muskmelons Melba (a Polish variety), and Sweet Granite, bred for northen New England by Elwyn Meader (UNH).
Autumn equinox. Piel de Sapo ready to be picked for storage.
However, there is a whole class of melons that seem to be able to ripen off the vine, and I’m finding that this is a quality I like very much in our short growing season. These are “keeping” or winter melons and are better known in Europe than this side of the Atlantic. Anyway, a few years ago I thought I’d try my luck with a winter melon called Piel de Sapo, aka Toadskin, from the Valencia region of Spain. I thought it was a long shot since Spain has a considerably warmer climate than northern Vermont, but I was pleasantly surprised, and am now a devotee.
November 30. Nicely ripe and fragrant.
Piel de Sapo grows vigorously and quickly sets a good amount of fruit, each the size of a football, even here. I have grown it the past three seasons, the last two of which were totally the worst conditions for melons – cold, wet and no sun. In such lousy conditions, the typical early melons that slip from the vine when ripe have no flavor to speak of, and are extremely prone to rot. Whatever you’ve got for flavor when they slip is all you’re going to get. Although winter melons also need sun and heat on the vines to develop sugars and bouquet, if picked slightly immature they can continue to form sugars in storage. I still have one last Piel de Sapo left from this year’s harvest, and it is mid-January. It’s sitting in the kitchen on a sunny (theoretically sunny) window sill and I’m waiting for the tell-tale melon fragrance the fruits exude when ripe.
Right, slightly underripe; left, slightly overripe. Both tasty.
I hope my wait is not in vain. Even if it ends up being not quite ambrosial on its own, some raspberries from the freezer and homemade yogurt will make it a nice winter treat. Here’s one that ripened in late September, and was very delicious paired with some of our Swenson’s Red grapes:
Next, the results of my 2009 melon trials…