The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Growing melons in Vermont

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…

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8 Responses to “Growing melons in Vermont”

  1. Matt M says:

    I share your annual desire to grow melons (especially watermelons) in Vermont. I’m in Bennington (southwest corner of the state) in zone 5 and didn’t have any luck last year, given we didn’t really have a summer last year. I’m trying again via a newly-built hoop house, although I may opt to put the melons under a row cover instead since I would rather not tie up space in the hoop house for such a prolific vine.

    Best of luck to you. I’ve started a blog myself this year. Link to it if you desire.

    Cheers!

  2. gayle says:

    One of the hard adjustments I had to make to gardening up here was not being able to grow melons. I grew up in Kansas, where melons practically grew themselves.
    I’d been thinking of trying Granite and Minnesota Midget. Your winter melons are intriguing…

  3. the extreme gardener says:

    Matt & Gayle
    If you use row covers or a hoop house, should be no problem growing some decent tasting melons, especially for Matt down in the banana belt. Most of the regular very early melons that slip have fairly compact vines, and some have fruit small enough that trellising also might work to conserve space. The winter melons, however, generally have larger vines and need more space, which could be problematic under row covers or in a hoop house… You might also need to provide some way for pollination to happen under covers.

    For watermelons – Cream of Saskatchewan is really good (pale yellow sweet flesh), and there’s a Russian one that keeps very well – Small Shining Light.

  4. The Extreme Gardener: experiments in permaculture and other gardening adventures in Northeastern Vermont says:

    […] I had my rant about how hard it is to grow a decent melon here. Despite the difficulties, and all my whining, I keep trying very early ripening […]

  5. led grow lights says:

    Excellent stuff

  6. Janis says:

    I was so tickled to run across your blog while searching about Piel de Sapo melons. I like your extreme theme and your many-armed logo! 😀
    I am in SE VT, and I just bought one of these melons at a discount store… this one has light green flash… wow, it is delicious. I think it must be a bit more related to the cucumber side of the family. What source do you recommend for seeds? I saved these from the one we ate, but maybe it is hybrid? It was grown in Mexico.
    On another note, my new favorite book is “Root Cellaring,” from Storey publications. Happy gardening, and thanks, I look forward to exploring your blog!

  7. Stacey says:

    I’m sitting here in the middle of the state, under three feet of snow, browsing seed catalogs and trying to fool myself into believing winter will be over one day.

    I had exactly one melon look good last year, which the neighbor’s pony broke the fence to snack on a week before I wanted it. So not only am I determined to get some good melons, but will take particular delight in zapping the evil beast when it hits the new electric fence.

    Pinetree Garden Seeds is based out of Maine, and have several varieties they consider hardy. Piel de Sapo is in there, and a nice looking one called Passport, bred in NH (which is a hybrid, whose seeds generally don’t keep as well…). I’ve never used seeds from this company, but am going to try it. I’m salivating already. Good luck!!

  8. Eiven B. Lovgren says:

    I tried to grow Piel de Sapo melons last year. I live in the Scandinavian country of Norway where we have, I believe, the same climate as Vermont. I bought a melon in the store for the first time in the summer of 2009 and was delighted at how sweet the fruit was. T saved the seeds, dried them and planted a few in my window sill last spring. I was very happy when I saw that they started to grow. When I had 4 leaves on the vine, I transplanted them into my greenhouse and tied the vines up so as not to interfere with my tomatoe plants that I also had growing there. They grew quite well but I only got 3 melons altogether with only one of them almost fully ripening. I figure that I must have done something not very correctly. I was wondering, can anybody tell me when is the best time to sow the seeds in my window sill and what kind of fertilizer, preferable organic, to use and how much of it? What is the best type of soil to use. Do they need lots of water? Does it help to tie up the vines to keep them off the ground? I use black plastic foil on top of the soil in the greenhouse so that it dosen’t dry out too quickly. In other words, I need all of the good advice that anyone can give me. Thank you in advance.

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