Wednesday, August 22, 2007

My Highly Subjective Melon Analysis

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.

28 comments:

Ricardo Bueno said...

Christina right? I read your comment on Eye Level Pasadena..."a dog house on stilts." Too funny!

Anyway, I like your writing still. It's hilarious!

Keep up the good writing :)

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am a new reader of your blog and love it !!
Your melon ( Tigger ), is a melon I grew up with but we never ate them.
They were grown for the awesome sweet smell they have, you can put several in your home and it will be very sweet smelling in no time.
We also called them plum grannies...not sure of the actual name of the melon...here is a link to plum grannies I found on Google.
Pam
http://www.victoryseeds.com/catalog/vegetable/melons/melon_plum_granny.jpg

Sarah said...

Oh these melon photos are marvelous! They look like NASA photos of planets.

See?

Wendy said...

Very nearly wet my knickers at the "fuzzy wanker" comment.
Loved this. Suspect my 5th years might do too. They do love their boob references!

Christina said...

Ricardo: Thanks! I appreciate the compliments.

Pam: According to the company I bought the seed from (Bakers' Heirloom Seeds), Tigger and Plum Grannies are different melons. However, the more time I spent around Tigger, the more I believe that you are right and they're not as different from each other as Bakers made them sound. They did smell wonderful. Thanks for the compliments, and I hope you enjoy further posts.

Sarah: Thank you! Wow, they really do look like planets. Thanks for that link--I love space photos.

Wendy: Glad to have made you laugh! I laughed while writing it. School starts on Monday, and I'll soon be surrounded by more boob jokes than I'll be able to keep up with.

rowena said...

I'm keeping this one in my newsfeed, absolutely loved this post! (More boob jokes? Bring it!)

Compared to you I am still in kindergarten when it comes to gardening. You are such an inspiration for wanna-be green thumbs like me. Brava!

The Passionate Palate said...

Wow, Christina...a very thorough, informative and funny melon analysis. The photos almost personify the melons. Lovely.

sarahww said...

Let me just reinforce, as someone who's had personal experience, that your melons are both tasty and gorgeous.

ann said...

Loved your kicker!
Judging from your comments I'd be a Boule d'Or. Maybe I'll start calling myself by my French/Indian name, Golden Boob. Just kidding. (kindof)
But seriously, wonderful post! You've reminded me I should go over to the greenmarket once I leave work and look for "the melon lady"
Thanks christina!

Truffle said...

Your photos are absolutely breathtaking. Seriously stunning photography.

Christina said...

Rowena: I'm glad you appreciated the humor--I probably offended a couple of people in this post. Alas. It sure was fun to write! Thank you for the compliments on the gardening; I am still learning a lot too. I don't think anyone really ever "masters" gardening.

Passionate Palate: Thank you! I enjoyed the melon photoshoots, using my afternoon light to the best effect possible.

Sarahww: Ah, shucks. Thanks!

Ann, er, Golden Boob: You are welcome. I had fun writing it! I hope the melon lady is there for you, or at least a farmer with a diverse selections of melons to explore. We have several growers at our market that have a beautiful variety of heirloom melons. It's funny you referred to her as the melon lady; I often talk about the vendors at my market as the -insert specialty item here- lady or guy, the herb lady, the egg guy, etc. One man is simply known as Farmer Guy.

Truffle: Thank you! I'm learning a lot about photography by keeping this blog.

Lucy said...

Just going through 'M' in the seed catalogue now...I want Collective Farm Woman too. Great post!

Erin S. said...

Collective Farm Woman? Any ideas on where that name comes from??

winedeb said...

Hey Christina! I come to you through Wendy's blog. She has been showing us her bountiful bunch of blueberries and I am so jealous as I want to grow some. I live in Key West, Fl. where the temps are quite toasty. But... on HGTV this past weekend, I saw Gardening by the Yard and he had a segment on blueberries. Apparently there is a breed that can grow in containers in warm climates. Wendy suggested I talk to you about them as you grow them in a warm climate. Any suggestions?
You have a lovely site and I will stop back soon! Thanks, Deb

Shaun said...

Christina - It is really very moving to read this evaluation of your first attempt at growing melons. It sounds like a first report card one might receive regarding a chil, or the first set of shots one gets for a pet. The post is filled with much love and tenderness, some sorrow, but lots of humour. I am sure your life is enriched by this experience, and I look forward to hearing about your venture next year. Thanks also for tipping me on to boule d'or.

Christina said...

Lucy: Enjoy Collective Farm Woman!

Erin S: It is a melon originally found on--you guessed it--a collective farm in the Ukraine. I don't know the whole true story about its discovery, but I have a little movie that plays in my head when I think about where the name came from.

Winedeb: I just planted a variety called Sunshine Blue which needs the fewest chill hours of any variety I know of, but I know there is a variety that University of Florida developed named Southmoon. Another variety that my grow well is Misty. All the varieties need very acid soil--my plant guy recommended planting in large plastic pots with straight peat. Also, the plants cannot be allowed to dry out. I hope that this is helpful!

Shaun: Thank you for your lovely compliments. It really has been a mixed experience growing the melons, but for the most part, it has been fun. I'm a naturally curious person and my garden is my huge science experiment, so even the failures are fascinating because they lead me to more things about which to be curious. I hope you find a source for Boule D'Or--they are wonderful!

Susan said...

Charentais is the only specialty melon I've seen with any sort of regularity, and on those occasions, I was never that impressed by anything but the price. It's always a crapshot when you buy fr/ a market; you never know the conditions nor harvest time of a crop. You've worked hard, Christina, but (pardon the pun) you've gotten some great fruit for your labor. Thanks for sharing your results.

Autumn said...

I am going through my seed catalog and trying to choose heirlooms. I was trying to choose between Collective Farm Women and Boule D'Or to grow vertically. This will be my first attempt at vertically grown crops and the first growing melons since a child. Which do you suggest would be better? Taste and ease of growing? I am in Zone 7 in North Carolina. Hot and humid summers!

Christina said...

Hi Autumn: Thanks for coming by. Hmmm. Trying to decide between the two is hard, but I'll tell you what I've decided for this year--between the two, I'm only planning (at this point, at least) to grow Collective Farm Woman. Boule D'Or is wonderful, but it takes a LOOOOOOOOOONG time for the fruit to ripen, even here in Southern California. And, Collective Farm Woman is so incredibly sweet and crisp and cool. While Boule D'Or is like a honeydew, albeit a fantastic honeydew, Collective Farm Woman is unlike any other melon I've ever had.

I hope that helps in your decision-making. Happy growing!

Country Wife said...

Hi,
I just found your blog via a google search for the Collective Farm Woman melon, which I am growing for the first time. I just picked one and had no idea if it was ripe..sadly, I picked it too soon. I guess we'll find out if it will ripen on the counter. I'm getting impatient!

I am also growing the Tigger melon this year (for the first time). I'm saddened to hear they aren't as tasty as the seed ad said. :(

I'll be bookmarking your blog, btw! :)

Anonymous said...

I'm sure you've had lots of home remedy suggestions for the powdery mildew by now? If not: one part milk to 3 parts water as a foliar spray. As a preventative (it generally arrives the same time every year), one part milk to 9 parts water, once a week.

HTH,
Dev in OK

tom | tall clover farm said...

My climate is better suited to growing snap peas and mushrooms, but I never give up on melons. As a perennial melon optimist, I was encouraged by your success with Collective Farm Woman. Now if I may offer a melon for your consideration: Blacktail Mountain. It works for me every summer, granted I pick them in October, but sweet is sweet no matter what the month.

Here's a pic of them:

http://tallcloverfarm.com/?p=141

val said...

Hi! I have Collective Farm Woman seeds and didn't do too well with them last year... but it was our first year at this farm that we are restoring... and after your comments, I'll definitely try it again!

I have an answer for your powdery mildew!.. I saw the milk comment,.. and it did work for me when I lived on a farm with fresh goats milk.. but I have come upon and tested a superior method!.. Horsetail Tea! Yes Equisetum! .. 2 Tblspns to 1 gallon of water... make a tea... and dilute that to to make 5 gallons!.. Spray on the leaves... once a week... No powdery mildew At All! Isn't that awesome?.. and I live in Florida!!!

Haole boy said...

I use diluted baking soda for powdery mildew control. My raspberries are infected every september and they respond well to a spray with about 1 Tablespoon per gallon of water. Generally speaking, fungi prefer lower pH, and baking soda raises pH, thus creating an inhospitable environment for fungi (mildew). Spray in the morning and hit the undersides of the leaves and uninfected leaves as well. Go easy at first and try with one of your non-teacher's-pet melons before your favorites.

James said...

I know your blog post is from six(!) years ago, but thought I'd add what I know about Tigger melons. Your other article on it said "it tastes like very green banana with not-so-subtle undertones of garlic, black pepper, and garbage." That hasn't been my experience. No, they are not great-tasting melons by any means, but when I have picked them "dead-ripe" or even having fallen off the vine themselves, they taste like a mild cantaloupe. Nevertheless, I have stopped growing them as well because, although they grow easily, I want something tastier. I actually found your blog searching on Boule d'Or, which is among those I am growing this year. Haven't eaten them yet, but I do have several. I will remember to leave them on the vine as long as I can based on your experience! By the way, my growing area is elevation 4500 feet, Zone 5, with alkaline soil.

Christina said...

Hi James. I let the Tiggers ripen until they fell off in my hand, but they were still unpalatable to me, despite how amazing they smelled. There was something garbage-y to their flavor.

I do hope Boule D'Or fruits well for you. It is a perennial favorite around here--it is in my garden right now, as a matter of fact!

Our climates are very different. My first garden, the one this post is about, was just above sea-level in zone 10a. I currently garden at about 1200 feet in zone 9b, but like you, I have very alkaline soil.

Anyway, welcome to A Thinking Stomach! I'm glad to meet you! :)

James said...

Hi Christina,
Two for two: I had forgotten about this post, but found it again searching on Collective Farm Woman melons. It appears that great minds think alike.

The Boule d'Or is a keeper. Of course, it may have helped that my area had more than 20 days of temperatures above 100ยบ--my Black Krim tomatoes loved it; most of my other tomatoes not as much. But I'm looking for more melons that will keep a while. Canary was nice for me last year as well, but is another that might not fully ripen if we have an average (or worse) growing season, and Collective Farm Woman sounds like one that both ripens quickly and keeps for a while. An unusual combination?

By the way, my family used to live in Orange County. What I wouldn't give to be back in an area where I could grow citrus, avocados, and pomegranates. Just a pipe dream for me currently.

Deb said...

I remember reading an article about certain Asian melons - I believe Tigger is one - and it said to pick the melons and put in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks before eating. It supposedly increases the flavor and sweetness. I hope that this works for those growing them.