Frankly, I'm on the medium-side--not too large, not too small--a 36 B to be exact. I've never been one to wish they were larger or smaller, or even give them much concern. I like them and enjoy having them, but really, I've never thought about them too much. But lately, I've been giving my melons a whole lot of thought.
In this case though, it's the kind that grow on the vine. (Come on . . . I'm a high school teacher . . . I never get tired of boob jokes. If I did, my career would be in serious peril.)
This year, in my little octagon garden, I've grown four varieties of heirloom melons. The first to ripen, Tigger, was a complete failure. I'm not sure I've ever tasted a fruit that was quite so unpleasant as this little guy, bless his heart.
But I'll spare you the details about Tigger. I've written about him before and I just don't want to drag myself through that trauma again. Luckily, I have other crops on which to focus.
I'll write about Charentais next, for my success with this plant has been mixed. First, it isn't a healthy vine as it seems particularly susceptible to powdery mildew, slower to set fruit than other varieties, and downright picky about water. Too little--the fruit won't set; too much--the fruit ends up flavorless and soft. On top of that, the fruit are really, really small. On the rare occasion that a fruit has loosened from the vine in the perfect state, when all the requirements of water, heat, and other magical elements I have yet to discover have combined in just the right proportions, the fruit is a dense, juicy balance of sugar, musk, and acidity.
I'm not sure I'll grow this little French beauty again, at least not in the challenging conditions I have in my plot. Someday, perhaps when I have more room to give her everything that she needs, maybe then, she'll be more generous with what I know she has to share.
Partly because of the name which in itself tells an interesting story and partly because of its promised sweetness, I also planted Collective Farm Woman this spring. This may have been one of the best decisions that I've made in my garden, because this plant lives up to all the images her name suggests: she's sturdy, productive, and a survivor. Powdery mildew, the bane of all melon existence, may persistently attempt invasion on this vine, but each time, she works through it and keeps on trucking. This plant has set fruit regularly throughout the growing season, and although the fruit are small, they are sweet, sweet gems of silvery coolness. Each orb begins as a dark green speckled golf ball, but ripens into a golden orb, occasionally flecked with dark green, that falls into my eagerly awaiting hand.
The flesh inside is cucumbery-white, fragrant, and surprisingly crisp. It also demands to be scooped right up to the rind, for it doesn't have the "dead zone" that so many other melons have, that area between the rind and the inner flesh that is flavorless and disappointing. Nope, Collective Farm Woman is a sweetheart through and through. She's a keeper and will be making appearances in my garden for years to come.
The other melon I planted this year is Boule D'Or, another French heirloom, but one that has been much more pleasant than her finicky cousin.
This is one healthy plant, one that grows large fruit in abundance, and one that looks powdery mildew straight into its evil eyes and scoffs, as if to say, "Go ahead, try it. You ain't got a chance, you fuzzy wanker."
This vine gave me the same cold stare at first too, and made me work to figure out its needs. The melons were huge, and needed extra supportive melon bras to keep them from falling off the climbing vine. And, the first few fruit disappointed me. This is a winter-type melon, one that doesn't automatically "slip" off the vine when ripe and emits no fragrance through its hard shell, so it was very difficult of me to determine when to pick the large fruit. I picked the first two when they turned yellow and seeped a bit of sap at the joint of the stem and the fruit. The fruit pictured above is one of those that I picked too early, and now that I know a bit better about judging ripeness on this plant, I know it is too pale yellow. Inside, the flesh was bland, mildly honeydew-ish, and as ECG said, "tasted like stem."
I decided to let the fruit hang on the vine and discovered that they continued to change color to a dark, golden mustard, close in color to the Collective Farm Woman pictured above. They netted more, and although never slipped from the vine, just seemed to "call" me more. I think it is best to let this fruit stay on the vine as long as possible, longer than what seems logical.
What I wait for this way is worth it: a sweet, yielding flesh that starts medium green just inside the rind merging to peachy-coral as it reaches the seeds. It is tender, intensely honeydew-meets-pineapple, and just plain delicious. I will definitely grow this plant again.
I've learned some things about growing melons in tight spaces; I also still have some questions. Here's my run-down:
1) Good idea: Create melon towers. Wire two square, collapsible tomato towers, one on top of the other. As the plant grows, weave the plant through the wires to coax it upwards, rather than out. Plants grown this way will need more water than conventionally grown simply to ensure the turgor pressure necessary to defy gravity. They will also need bras.
2) Bad idea: Clump the melon towers together in the center of the garden. Even though the melon grows up instead of out on the tower, crowding them in the center of my garden this year made it harder for breezes to pass through and and limited the sun on at least one side of the plant, making each plant more susceptible to melon plague: powdery mildew. Next year, I'll space them in separate corners of the octagon to make sure each gets plenty of sun and air.
3) Truth learned: Growing melons vertically means smaller fruit. Heirloom melons often tend to be smaller, but growing upwards means that they will probably be even smaller than usual. It is just harder for the plant to furnish the fruit with the materials it needs to grow large. This is not necessarily a problem, but if you're looking for huge melons, you need a huge plot on which to grow them.
4) Question: Organic solutions to mildew? I won't spray sulfur--it just causes too much damage to the rest of the mini-ecosystem it touches. Does anyone know of any completely environmentally sound home remedy to help keep the disease at bay? Or, should I just shut up, stick with the hardier plants, and deal with fuzzy leaves because powdery mildew is part of how the world works? I'm beginning to think that the last may be what I need to do.
So, is growing melons worth it? By heavens, yes. If I didn't, I wouldn't know the diversity of flavors the melon world offers, I wouldn't have ever tasted a melon as sweet as a Collective Farm Woman at its peak, and I wouldn't be able to have cooling salads composed of Charentais, Collective Farm Woman, Boule D'Or, and nothing else.
Believe me, these melons are spectacular when they are naked.