A well-grown melon is about as rewarding and sensuous an experience as to be found in the grow-your-own universe. Perfumed, sweet and simply luscious, the ripe melon’s flavor and texture is unequaled. Leave the prosciutto in the fridge.
Sadly, even among gardeners who raise mouthwatering tomatoes and sweet corn, melons are not commonly grown, certainly in my orbit of gardening in the Mid-Atlantic. The reason is simple: They are finicky and easily stressed by the heat, humidity and soaking rains of the region. The diseases and pests are numerous.
They also need room to sprawl. Amy Goldman, the doyenne of the heirloom seed movement, may be the best melon grower east (or west) of the Mississippi. On the matter of spacing, she advises I put three melon seedlings in a hill and give them a growing area 15 feet in diameter. That would mean, in my veggie plot, room for six melon vines and nothing else, so that’s probably not going to happen.
If I ignore the needs of my taste buds, or the desire to get my hands in the soil, there is another way to luxuriate in the world of melons without sacrificing my garden. This is by way of Goldman’s new book, “The Melon,” graced with the photographic artistry of Victor Schrager.
It contains descriptions, backstories, and portraits of 85 melon and 40 watermelon varieties that Goldman grew in two three-quarter-acre gardens at her farm in the Hudson Valley, near Rhinebeck, N.Y. Schrager, a renowned still-life photographer, also from New York, shot the fruits in a makeshift studio on the farm.
Wait, keen-eyed fans of Goldman’s vegetable books ask, isn’t this deja vu? Yes and no.
In 2002, Goldman and Schrager produced “Melons for the Passionate Grower” along similar lines (although with a different publisher, Artisan. The new title is from City Point Press). The author and photographer have created similar books on the squash and the tomato, and the approach to each is similar and guided by Goldman’s meticulousness. She sources seeds of rare varieties (she is a leading light and philanthropist in the heirloom seed world) grows them over several seasons, observes and tastes them, and delves into the variety’s story with the help of her own extensive horticultural library. Oka, for example, is a muskmelon bred around 1912 by a priest at a Montreal monastery. Wilson Sweet is a 12 pound watermelon developed in Lee County, Va., around the same time.
She spent nine growing seasons trialing dozens of rare varieties. This was a lot of work and included creating a canopy of netting over the melon field to thwart crows with a taste for the high life. The underlying impetus is understandable. Heirloom varieties, which stand in contrast to hybrids, grow true from seed each year and are disseminated (literally) between locales and generations. They are woven into the cultural history of North America, they preserve precious genetic diversity, and, more immediately, they reward the grower with delicious fruits not available at any supermarket or even a farm stand.
The most common melon experience for most is of the “cantaloupe,” which is not a true cantaloupe, as Goldman reminds us, but a muskmelon, distinguished by the netting or reticulation that develops into a corky web as the fruit ripens.
True cantaloupes “are sweet dessert melons par excellence,” Goldman writes. They include Charentais and others developed in France, where melon growing became a hothouse art. Schrager’s image of D’Alger is irresistible, its rind is deeply lobed, dark green and patterned like clouds. Slice it open, and it’s disappointing — too large a seed cavity, too little orange flesh. The terrible price of beauty.
Prescott Fond Blanc is another French variety but is beige and billowy. “This ethereal, deeply furrowed, puffy-looking melon reminds me of dough rising,” she writes. The cantaloupes most dear to her heart are Petit Gris de Rennes, with succulent orange flesh; the green-fleshed Ha’Ogen, from an Israeli kibbutz of the same name; and Zatta, a lobed Italian variety embodying la dolce vita.
She explores 12 of the 16 cultivar groups of melon, some rarely grown in the United States, such as Khandalak melons from Central Asia and India, spherical two-pounders with ribbonlike stripes from top to bottom. Momordica melons, from India, will spontaneously split open after harvest. Not one you’d find in the grocery store.
The new book also devotes more attention to watermelons, fruits way beyond the insipid seedless types you might buy. Some are round, others torpedo-shaped, big and small and with rinds that are variously black-green, golden, variegated or striped. The flesh varies: red, pink, salmon, yellow, white, green and more. The sweetest is a North Carolina heirloom named Ledmon.
The heaviest is a behemoth named Carolina Cross, which consistently produces fruit over 200 pounds in the South. The current world record, at 350.5 pounds, is held by a Tennessee grower. At her farm, and with exacting cultivation, Goldman raised a 129-pounder, “which is pretty darn good for New York,” she says.
She has been growing melons for decades, since she was a girl. You might ask, as I did, what it was about the melon or watermelon that she didn’t already know, especially after doing the first book. The answer gets to the whole enterprise of lifelong gardening.
She offers rational reasons — each growing season is different, she didn’t have room for every variety in one or two years, there were failures she had to repeat. But then comes an explanation from the heart: “I just couldn’t give it up. I’m so obsessed with these wonderful fruits and I want to do them justice.”
Meanwhile, she is in the final stages of a book about peppers, and then there’s the squash book to redo.
“I’m not doing a third melon book,” she says. “I’m not doing it. I’m not.”
Tip of the Week
Dahlia tubers should be lifted after the first frost and before the ground freezes. Don’t wash tubers, and delay dividing them until the spring. Store them in a cool, dry place in perlite, in an open or perforated plastic bag, and check monthly to remove any that are going soft.
— Adrian Higgins
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