By Sara Malone, Master Gardener
Like most gardeners, I have limited time, space and energy, so I have a list of criteria to determine which vegetables I am going to grow, and which I will purchase. Topping the list is taste - what do I love, eat a lot, and, when purchased, is not as tasty as what I grow? (This is the reason that most of us grow tomatoes.) Secondly, is it available regularly? This is often a reason to grow a particular variety of a vegetable - you may find some varieties in the stores or farmer's markets, but not the one that you remember from childhood or the one that is the most flavorful to your palate. Thirdly, how expensive is it? Sum these criteria and you will find me growing lots of tomatoes and melons and not a lot of cucumbers and celery. However, your list doesn't have to look like mine. You may love cucumber sandwiches every day and your palate may make distinctions amongst cucumbers that mine cannot. Make your own list and see which vegetable varieties you are going to allot garden real estate to.
Melons take up a lot of space - they love to ramble and roam, like cucumbers and zucchini. The good news is that melons are generally a different color than their foliage and their shape makes them much harder to lose amongst the leaves, so you will not find yourself playing hide-and-seek with the fruit in order to harvest it in time. I plant mine in raised beds and let them tumble over the sides, yielding more space in the bed for - other melon plants! There are so many delicious varieties - I like to start from seed so that instead of buying a six pack of one variety, I can plant several different varieties - Sharlyn, Crenshaw, Canary, Cantaloupe, Muskmelon etc. Already you can see that there are far more varieties available in seed than are generally found in the markets. We even have a melon - Crane - that originated right here in Sonoma County.
Determining when a melon is ripe and ready to eat dwarfs any of the other challenges when growing them. Melons are ripe when, though still firm, they have a very slight softness to their rind. I find that the best way is to smell them - a full fruity fragrance lets you know that the melon is ready to eat. Experiment a few times and you will get the hang of it. Remember, though, that unlike many other fruits, melons will not ripen after they have been picked. They will soften and get a bit juicier, so I generally let mine sit for a day or two after picking, but they will not get sweeter.
Melons are versatile, which is a good thing as there will be a lot of them, even with only a few plants. For breakfast or lunch I cut them in chunks and eat them plain - for a great appetizer either wrap melon slices in proscuitto and give them a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, or sprinkle slices with lime juice and hot pepper flakes. If you don't like pepper, use mint instead. You can even halve them and put a scoop of vanilla ice cream in the middle and have them for dessert! Melons are a good source of potassium and vitamin C and the orange-fleshed varieties have exceptional amounts of beta carotene.
Melon starts are available at most nurseries right now and seeds of many more varieties can be ordered from specialty seed companies such as Seeds of Change, Peaceful Valley and Thompson and Morgan.