Generally, Baltimore summers are revolting, a sauna on steroids. But they have at least one redeeming feature. Melons.
Juicy and sweet, they help us beat the heat while stoking up on antioxidants. Chilled cantaloupe with vanilla ice cream, sliced honeydew drizzled with Cointreau, creamy orange Charentais, yogurt, and strawberry freezes, and chunks of ice-cold watermelon slurped in the shade. Heaven. And in the past few years, our choices have expanded hugely, thanks to both new hybrids and rescued heirlooms.
" 'Moon and Stars' watermelon is the poster child of the heirloom seed movement," says Amy Goldman, author of Melons for the Passionate Grower (Artisan, 2002, $25).
'Moon and Stars,' which has a big buttery blotch amidst a constellation of "stars" on its green / black skin, was introduced commercially in the 1920s, but by mid-20th century had virtually disappeared. In 1981, Kent Whaly, founder of Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, put out an all-points bulletin for it on a radio show. The plea produced a home gardener with enough seed to jump-start the variety's resurrection. 'Moon and Stars' is now in seed catalogs and even shows up on seed racks at local garden centers.
Melons (Cucumis), members of the Cucurbit family along with squash, pumpkins, and cucumbers, are annual vines. There are Cantaloupes and Casabas, Crenshaws Galias, French Charentais, and Honeydews.
Though the terms cantaloupe and musk melon (Cucurbit reticulatus) are used interchangeably, true cantaloupes (Cucurbit cantaloupensis), have hard, rough, warted rinds with either gray-green or deep orange flesh, like 'Prescott Font Blanc,' which looks like a small, petrified pumpkin. Watermelons (Citrullus lanatus), which are in a slightly different melon group, run the gamut from smaller-than-a-soccer-ball to dirigible-shaped mammoths. Among the 200 or so melon varieties, each has its own ardent fan.
"My favorite is 'Early Queen' cantaloupe," says Steve Bellavia, vegetable product manager at Johnny's Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine. "It's one of the first and has really good eating quality. And I really like those tropical Galia green-fleshed types like 'Passport' with almost a spicy taste."
"'Early Silverline' is very, very sweet," says Dave Devine, marketing and greenhouse manager at W. Atlee Burpee. "It's beautiful, too, like someone painted it."
" 'Petit gris de Rennes' is the true champagne of French melons," insists Goldman. "Serve it cut in half, pour a little port into it and you've got the taste treat of a lifetime."
Melons range from the creamy flesh of 'Queen Anne's Pocket Melon,' a tiny, intensely fragrant melon that Victorian women carried purely for its perfume, to the pale yellow of tiger-striped 'Tigger,' the pale green of 'Eden's Gem' and 'Cavaillon Espagnol,' to the salmon of Charentais and the pumpkin orange of 'Burrell's Jumbo.' 'Butterscotch Sweetie' mingles pale lime and sherbet orange in its flesh. Watermelons now come in a range of flesh colors too: the typical ruddy pink of 'Sweet Favorite,' the pale blond of 'Golden Honey,' the neon yellow of 'Sunshine,' the rose-threaded mango of 'Sorbet Swirl,' and the tangerine-to-the-rind of 'New Orchid.' The icebox-sized varieties like 'Sugar Baby' are currently popular, as are the "seedless" types, though they are less easy to grow.
Unlike some of their Cucurbit kin, melons are not stick-in-the-ground easy to grow, which is why it helps to be passionate.
"Melons are finicky," notes Goldman. "The trick is to duplicate the conditions in their native Africa."
Goldman sets out transplants rather than seed, uses black plastic mulch to conserve moisture and heat up soil in spring, then covers plants with floating row cover for several weeks to protect them from drying winds, cold, and pests. "And vigilance is important," she adds. "Cull defective fruits, be alert so pests and diseases don't take hold."
In addition, melons are sensitive to how much water they get when. Too little and the plants won't grow. Too much too close to harvest, and the fruit has no taste.
"They need about 10 days without water at the end to develop their sugars to the fullest," says Bellavia.
Most are ready to harvest when melons part easily ("slip") from the stem. Watermelons are ripe when the vine tendril closest to the melon turns brown.
Johnny's Selected Seeds
955 Benton Ave.
Winslow, ME 04901-2601
Seed Savers Exchange
3094 N. Winn Road
Decorah, IA 25101
W. Atlee Burpee & Co.
Warminster, PA 18974
Seeds of Change
P.O. Box 15700
Santa Fe, NM 87592-1500