Make Room for Melons

This luscious fruit family offers a world of diversity. If you grow your own melons, you can harvest at the peak of flavor.

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There's far more variety in the melon world than those few you can buy in the grocery store.

This member of the gourd family is coveted worldwide for all its luscious textures, colors, shapes and sweet goodness. In fact, a melon at the peak of ripeness could cost up to $200 in Japan.

"Melons are the dessert course of the gardening world, and we are passionate about them here at Seeds of Change," says Emily Gatch, greenhouse coordinator at the New Mexico research facility near San Juan Pueblo, N.M.

She grows dozens of heirloom varieties of melons, each with its own history as rich as its flavor. One such variety is Blenheim Orange muskmelon, which was developed in the 1800s in England by one of the gardeners on the Duke of Marlboro's estate.

To truly appreciate melons, you have to either grow them yourself or live near a generous friend who does. So for those not so fortunate as to have firsthand experience with the gourds, here are some quick bios on different varieties:

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A cantaloupe by any other name

The moniker cantaloupe won out over the more accurate muskmelon.

"The word musk in muskmelon refers to its intense aroma," Emily explains. "Muskmelons began to be marketed as cantaloupes because there was concern that people would be thrown off by the word 'musk.'" And muskmelons are different from other melons when they're fully ripe — they slip right off the vine. Also, muskmelons don't have the starch reserves of other melons, so they can't sweeten up after they're picked.

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Winter melons

There are lots of winter melon types, and the most well known is the honeydew. Winter melons tend to have very thick skin.

"They are longer seasoned, meaning they should be left in the field almost until frost," Emily says. "The usual indicators of ripeness are not present with this melon. There's no softening at the blossom end, and they have no scent for the most part. But they can be wonderfully sweet if they are left to ripen in the field."

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Charentais, a true cantaloupe

Charentais is a distinct yet uncommon melon that you won't find at the grocery store because it doesn't store well. The variety was developed and selected centuries ago on a papal estate in Rome called Cantalupo.

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Watermelons

Watermelons are of the same family as other melons (Cucurbitacea), but they belong to a different genus: Watermelons are Citrullus; other melons are Curcuma. So while melons are rabid inter-breeders, they can't cross with watermelons.

Growing your own

Melons are warm-season plants that require a bit of real estate to allow for sprawling vines. They're also a hungry crop, so an extra helping of compost when planting will go a long way.

Should you hill the plants? Emily says it all depends on your soil.

"If you have heavy clay soil, hilling melons is a good thing to do because it increases drainage, and melon seeds and germinating seedlings don't like to be wet. It also helps to warm the soil a little bit." If you've got sandy soil, you don't need to hill.

To further warm the soil, you may want to consider laying down some biodegradable black plastic.

The most important part of tending to melons is how you water them. They are very susceptible to fungal disease, so drip irrigation is preferable to overhead watering. A slow, thorough trickle at the base of the plant is ideal.

Cucumber beetles are one of the more common pests among melons. The Seeds of Change farm uses row of covers shortly after planting as an effective deterrent.

One distinct advantage of growing your own melons: You pick them at the peak of ripeness, which means the peak of flavor.

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