Mark Kane appreciates a good melon. It's not just the taste (a tantalizing mixture of flavors as complex as wine) or the texture (a silken juiciness with just the right crisp edge). "I love the smell," said the longtime garden expert and author. "Some really good melons have that aroma, that muskiness. Commercial breeders made a big mistake when they took the muskiness out of melons."
Mark Kane appreciates a good melon.
It's not just the taste (a tantalizing mixture of flavors as complex as wine) or the texture (a silken juiciness with just the right crisp edge).
"I love the smell," said the longtime garden expert and author. "Some really good melons have that aroma, that muskiness. Commercial breeders made a big mistake when they took the muskiness out of melons."
That's why Kane -- like thousands of other gardeners and consumers -- seeks out heirloom varieties of melons.
People are definitely more interested in heirlooms," said Kane, former executive garden editor at Better Homes & Gardens and now strategic editor of the gardening website YourGardenShow.com. "Heirloom melons are attractive. ... They offer a surprising range of flavors and texture.
"Most people know melons as these little cannonballs with netting and underripe crisp flesh," he added. "But there are so many more melons out there. They can be orange, green, yellow or white. They can have smooth skin or deep ridges. They can be flat or long or look like squash, but they're still melons."
Like tomatoes and apples before them, melons are the hot "new" heirloom for gardeners with vintage varieties -- and hybrids you've never heard of -- making themselves at home in backyards and community gardens.
"Melons are popular in home gardens," said Chelsey E. Fields, Burpee's vegetable-product manager. "Though they usually take up a good bit of space, they are well worth it because a fresh melon out-tastes any store-bought melon since you can harvest the fruit at peak perfection."
Burpee's best seller is a 1920s heirloom muskmelon, Hale's Best Jumbo.
The Internet has helped make heirloom varieties more accessible to backyard gardeners. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com) offers scores of old-style melons such as Collective Farm Woman (a Ukraine heirloom) and Bidwell Casaba (named for Gen. John Bidwell, who grew it in Chico, Calif., in the 1870s).
"There are all sorts of melons available," Kane noted. "On the Seed Savers Exchange, for example, you can find things you can't find anywhere else. You can get seeds from a Turkish farmer who grows a family melon that's only been grown on their farm in Turkey. Or you can get seeds for a sweet Thai melon that's shaped sort of like a big banana. And you can now grow that melon yourself."
Kane, who lives in Iowa, has his favorites: Jenny Lind (a sweet green turban that dates from the 1840s), Missouri Gold (a pre-Civil War "hillbilly" melon), Green Nutmeg (like a green-fleshed cantaloupe) and the French heirlooms Charentais and Delice de la Table.
Heirloom melons all need heat, space and lots of water. Warm summer days and nights prompt fast growth. Most melons, which are planted in hills, need a space 6 to 8 feet around. They all like consistent, deep watering.
Page 2 of 2 - Burpee offers many melons, both old and new. The hybrids include such unusual melons as Twice as Nice (which cues harvest by changing color) and Creme de la Creme (imagine an orange honeydew).
Several of the newer melons are minis that take less time to mature and need less space to grow. Or they can cope with less-than-ideal melon weather, which is hot and dry.
"These varieties are bred to cope better with a range of conditions from cool nights to heavy rains," Fields said of the hybrids. "Some of the older varieties need more agreeable weather to perform well."
Kane always starts his melons indoors under very bright light in 2-inch pots. The seeds sprout fast and deep taproots grow rapidly. The seedlings are ready to set out in less than two weeks.
Fields offered this advice for a better melon harvest.
"Great melons need to be mulched or trellised to keep the fruit in perfect condition and away from critters," Fields said. "They also need a lot of water during the growing season -- up until about two weeks before harvest, when cutting back on water will help to concentrate the sugars."
When is it ready to pick? "Look for 'sugar cracks' at the blossom end and the tendril on the vine end to brown," she said. "These signal the fruit is mature. If it pulls easily from the vine, you are ready to harvest."
And you can taste for yourself why melons may earn a permanent spot in your summer garden.
- YourGardenShow.com: This website features a wealth of advice on all gardening, including melons. It now is hosting an heirloom contest, "Grow It Forward."
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, www.rareseeds.com: This company has dozens of heirloom-melon varieties.
- Seed Savers Exchange, www.seedsavers.org: This online network connects gardeners and heirloom seeds around the world, including many exotic melons.
- Burpee, www.burpee.com or 800-888-1447: The mail-order giant offers scores of melons new and old plus lots of advice on how to grow them.
Contact Debbie Arrington at email@example.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.