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Melon Time: Growing (and Eating!) Sweet Melons with Kaye & Roger Diefendorf

Put the growing needs of melons and the gardening conditions of much of the North State together, and what you get is an uncommonly happy marriage. This week on In a North State Garden (Northstate Public Radio 91.7 FM Chico/88.9 FM Redding, at 7:34 a.m. Saturday and 8:34 a.m. Sunday), I talk to Kaye and Roger Diefendorf of Morning Glory Organics about growing melons. Located in Butte Valley near Oroville, Morning Glory Organics grows a selection of specialty and heirloom melons.

The approximate average last frost dates for Chico/Redding are mid-late May and average first frost dates are mid-late October. That leaves over 150 days of fairly reliable frost-free growing, with upwards of 270 days in the standard growing season. In the foothills of the region – up to, say, 2,000 feet – there are perhaps closer to 130 frost free days and closer to 230 days in the growing season. The standard melon needs plenty of heat, which we have, and between 80 and 120 days, which we have, to spread its branching vines and bear sweet rounded fruits. This happy marriage results in all shapes and sizes of sweet, juicy fruits that are ready to enjoy right now in gardens, at market farms and farmers markets all across the North State region. Photo: A Sugar Baby watermelon and a Galia muskmelon ripe and ready to enjoy at Morning Glory Organics farm.

Before living in Northern California, I had never lived in a climate in which I could grow melons, and so to harvest a ripe melon in my own garden is still something of a minor miracle. The first year I grew melon, I tried a Blenheim Orange Muskmelon. Being new to this game, I was not at all sure when my fruit was ripe. I watched as the vine started to tendril its way across my garden space, as its little uplifted yellow and orange trumpet blossoms opened and called in the bees, as fruit set and began to swell, and swell, and swell. And then … I wasn’t sure. Photo: My first ripe muskmelon – the fragrance as I walked into the vegetable garden told me it was ready.

But I was very excited to try my new crop. I ultimately picked two of my three beautiful fruits on the vine too soon. With the third fruit, I finally understood what Kaye and Roger Diefendorf described to me recently as three of the keys to knowing a ripe fruit. The first key is “that hollow sound indicating ripeness when you thump them.” Roger actually walked through the melon vines in the Morning Glory fields thumping promising fruits, trying to find the perfect percussive response (wish I’d gotten that on recording for the radio portion of my program!). The second key is the aromatic scent emitted from a warm melon ready to be picked. And, with my third ripe fruit, I also understood the third key, which is what the Diefendorf’s mean by “full-slip”: that moment when you reach down for the sweet fruit of your labor and it slips away from its stem and right off of the main vine with hardly a tug, a good indicator of ripeness in most melon varieties. Photo: Firm orange flesh of a ripe Blenheim Orange muskmelon.

Roger and Kaye began their organic market garden focusing on heirloom and specialty varieties just a few short years ago in 2008. They had both been gardeners prior to their new endeavor, but their Butte Valley location outside of Oroville was their first opportunity to experiment with melons. They like to grow a few new (to them) varieties each year and to continue to grow market favorites from previous years. This season (due to a a slow damp spring), they began their plantings of melon seeds in late May, with additional succession plantings every few weeks through early July. While melons are easy to direct sow, if you want to extend your growing season, many people recommend starting your seeds indoors a few weeks before last frost and transplanting seedlings out when your soil has warmed. If you do this, be gentle with the succulent stems and try to avoid disturbing the roots too much. Homemade newspaper pots that can be directly planted into the soil are a good choice for melon seed starts. Photo: Roger looking for some good thumping candidates to illustrate the sound of a ripe melon.

Melons are members of the Curcubitaceae family, and are generally vining, tendril bearing frost-sensitive annuals. While many squashes and gourds are native to the Americas, cucumbers and melons are generally native to the warmer climates of India, Asia and Africa. The family includes so-called muskmelons (Cucumus melo), a group which in turn includes the standard aromatic sweet melons such as honeydew, crenshaws, and what many of us refer to as cantaloupes. The family also includes watermelons (Citrullus lanatus), cucumbers (Cucumis sativus), squashes (Cucurbita pepo) and gourds. Photo: A ripe round melon ready for picking, and melon flowers being pollinated by a helpful bee. Melons are predominantly pollinated by bees – honeybees as well as native bees.

Melons being annuals are heavy feeders and need rich, well-draining and warm soil. “We dig lots of composted manure into the melon and squash fields,” Roger says. They also need plenty of water, “up to four hours of slowly emitted water every day” while the vines are growing and fruit is setting,” Kaye indicates. “But pull back on the water when most of the fruits on the vines in one planting have reached full size but are not yet ripe. Too much water at that point flattens out their flavor.” Photo: A young fruit on the vine. From flower to fully formed fruit, melon vines need regular, deep watering.

Melons are fairly easy-care plants, and their needs are simple: sun, heat, space, medium rich soil, regular water, and more sun and more heat and more space. “Look at those runners!” Kaye exclaims, looking down the rows of melons. A few pests and diseases should be watched out for, though, “like the plague of grasshoppers that wiped out some of our plantings last year!” says Kaye.

Additionally, cucumber beetle, verticillium wilt and anthracnose can be issues. Vigilance in terms of hygiene will help reduce the risk of infection: clean out all dead or infected plants, especially from season to season, provide good air circulation and consistent water and food. Row covers prior to vine flowering will help to deter insect borne problems, but covers should be removed once flowering begins to facilitate pollination. Crop rotation will help to diminish pests or diseases that can winter-over in the soil. Finally, try to choose disease resistant varieties. Photo: A casaba and a crenshaw melon.

When it comes to harvesting and eating your melons, Kaye and Roger’s advice is to pick them when ripe and eat them at room temperature to get the full effect of their exquisite aromas and flavors. “Most of the ones we grow are pretty good keepers and if picked when ripe should hold for up to a week.” Photo: Kaye cuts open a perfectly ripe Sugar Baby watermelon: “Hmmm,” she is saying, “Do you hear that cracking of the rind, it’s perfect!”

But when their fragrance is calling to you on a hot afternoon and the flesh is the perfect texture and crispness, who can resist eating them for a whole week? Photo: Ripe red melon.

If you have not grown melons before, or have stuck to the most basic varieties and are interested in being a bit more adventurous next year, melon time is here in the North State. Now is the perfect time to explore your local farms and farmers markets to test varieties and take notes for sowing next spring.

Below are a handful of the melons that Morning Glory Organics grew in 2011:

Galia melon – developed in Israel, this is a cross between a regular muskmelon and a honeydew, the “galias are favorites at market,” says Kaye. Roger describes them as having a “finely netted, bright yellow exterior and a green flesh” as well as being “tasty and aromatic.” Photo: A perfectly delicious galia – its fragrance intense in the warming sun.

Athena melon – is a solidly disease resistant variety according to several sources and while more well known in the eastern US, it is a “good grower and keeper for us,” Roger reports.

Crane or Io River melon – has a lovely spotted, smooth exterior and was developed in the 1920s by Oliver Crane in Sonoma County, and Roger says that “Crane’s family is still growing it on the Crane Ranch there!” According to an article in Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste archives, the Crane melon was achieved by “crossing several varieties of melons, including a Japanese melon, a white melon, a Persian melon and an ambrosia melon among others.” Photo: The signature spotted exterior of a Crane melon on the vine at Morning Glory. When ripe, the rind will turn a lighter beige color.

Bidwell Casaba – is our region’s very own variety, named for Chico’s General John Bidwell who trialled the seed for the USDA in the late 1860s. An interesting striped and ridged melon, the fruit “can develop slowly and at maturity has a wide range of sizes” in Morning Glory’s fields, but the flavor is sublime. Photo: Bidwell Casaba on the vine.

Sugar Baby Watermelon – is a nicely sized watermelon for the home garden, for transporting to market and for keeping in the fridge. Photo: Sugar Baby watermelon.

Moon and Stars Watermelon – is a very pretty melon, the yellow speckled deep green, smooth exterior of which gives it the source of its name. “Did you know the yellow speckling is also a mark of its foliage?” Roger asked me. I did not. Photo, below: Speckled moon and stars watermelon foliage.

Morning Glory Organic’s produce – including melons and much more – can be found at the Oroville Saturday Farmers Market located at Montgomery & Myers Municipal Auditorium Parking Lot May 21st – October 29th 7:30am -12 noon. Morning Glory Organics will have a farm stand opening on-site in Butte Valley late this summer – with luck by the Labor Day weekend – check their website for more information.

For more information on growing melons, see Claire Hutkins Seda’s article “Growing Melons with Chico Area Farmers” in the Spring 2011 issue of Valley Oak Magazine Photo: The flesh and seeds of an immature melon. In part due to melons being such heavy feeders, their rinds make great additions to the compost pile – breaking down rapidly and according to the “Gardener’s A – Z Guide to Growing Organic Food” by Tanya Denckla, they are rich sources of phosphorous and potassium.

Amy Goldman’s beautifully photographed book “Melons for the Passionate Grower,” is a thorough reference on the subject.

For seed sources of good melon varieties try: Redwood Seeds out of Manton, Synergy Seeds out of Willow Creek, or Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Interested in heirloom edibles? The 1st National Heirloom Exposition is being held in Santa Rosa, California September 13, 14, and 15th, 2011. Heirloom melons, as well as every other edible crop you can think of will be on display, as will tools, seeds, art and educational workshops and demonstrations. The North State’s own Chris Kerston of Chaffin Family Farm will be among many featured speakers. For more information on the event: www.theheirloomexpo.com.

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.