The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Posts tagged ‘melons’

2009 Melon Torture Test

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

OK, 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 melons.

Last winter I discovered the Homegrown Goodness forum, an amazing little nook on the internet populated by gardeners as extreme as I am, and even more so! There, I was seduced into trialing way more melons than I usually do by CanadaMike, who gardens in Ontario in a similar (zone 4) climate and is also melon compulsive… He sent me seed for some very interesting varieties from the former Soviet Union, and a French one he has been growing with some success.

Alas, the constant wet and cold we had here for June, July and August was pretty much a disaster for melons, the second very bad season in a row. It was impossible to evaluate flavor for the varieties trialed: no sun equals no sugar. Still, it was possible to observe and compare how the different varieties responded to bad conditions, the Extreme Gardener Melon Torture Test.

All varieties were started in paper pots inside and moved on May 14 to a shelf outside along a sunny wall of the house. (That is to say, where, if the sun ever were to shine, it might shine there… theoretically…).

The first challenge was a night that dipped into the low 30s. There was no frost, and no signs of frost damage, but over the course of the next few days that followed, a large number of the seedlings seemed to faint away, collapsing at the soil level and expiring. I suspect some kind of fungal disease, perhaps, or maybe it was simply the cold.

    The varieties sown and their status on June 10, the last day of transplanting into the garden:

  • 12 Piel de Sapo – survived with some damage
  • 3 Apelsinnaja (Russia) – 1 pot barely survived
  • 3 CUM 304 (Russia) – 1 pot survived
  • 3 Luneville – 1 plant in 1 pot barely survived
  • 3 Altajskaja Ulucsennaja (USSR) – survived well
  • 4 Sary-Guljabi – wiped out
  • 6 Gnadenfeld – 2 pots survived
  • 6 Zatta – robust, survived well

As soon as the female blossoms were ready, I tried hand pollinating, but they all aborted, probably because I was molesting them in cold wet conditions, which is asking for rot. I don’t like to touch plants at all when they’re wet, but last summer everything was always wet, so I had no choice. Anyway, none of my hand pollination of melons was successful, and I was kind of surprised that any set fruit at all. Possibly if I had left them alone, they would have set more fruit.

Altajskaja Ulucsennaja, first week of October

Altajskaja Ulucsennaja was quite impressive. It started blooming (males) on July 11, with females starting 2 days later, and it bloomed heavily compared to the others. Zatta and CUM 304 were soon to follow a few days later, followed by Gnadenfeld, and Piel de Sapo at the beginning of August.

Left, Gnadenfeld, September 13; and Zatta, October 10, right

Gnadenfeld is a Manitoba heirloom variety. It managed to set several fruit, and was the first to ripen, slipping on September 11. Near the end of September I threw clear plastic over the melons that were still out there for a little frost protection, though by then the vines were pretty well gone. In a warmer garden, the other melons probably would have ripened much sooner after Gnadenfeld – when the cool weather sets in, heat lovers like melons slow down, and are prone to rot, as you can see in Zatta.

Altajskaja Ulucsennaja was next to ripen on October 5. It set 3 fruits, and 2 of those, brought inside to ripen, kept fairly well (a couple of weeks). I want to try this one again – it seems very cold tolerant and disease resistant, and the fruit is quite large, even though the vines are not rangy. The plant seems to put a lot of its energy into the fruit. Texture is nice – medium firm, and no rot.

Zatta set 3 fruit, with the first ripe on October 7. It had some rot, but the flesh is firm and dense with a very dark reddish orange color, and a nice melon fragrance.

The one lone vine of Luneville set one fruit, which I cut up on October 29 when it showed some rot. The rot was easily cut away. The fruit weighed about 1#, and had a very dense, smooth texture and nice fragrance.

This last one was a surprise. No name, only an accession number, CUM304, from the former Soviet Union. There was only one little vine, but it set two small round fruits. They were not ripe when I picked them and brought them insde in mid October, and I was skeptical that they would do anything. However, they sat on a warm windowsill, and actually ripened at the end of December. They got a blush of yellow on the skin, and when I cut into them, the seed was matured. Now, as with the rest of the melons in this trial, there was no sugar to speak of, but at the end of December they looked to me like exotic cucumbers. Cabin fever can do that to you, but hey, it works for me. I made them into salsa and they were REALLY good with chili. In fact, I think I’ve discovered another good winter storage vegetable that I can grow. And who knows, maybe if they got a little sun…

Growing melons in Vermont

Saturday, 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…