Melons: Past and Present

As summer approaches, thirst-quenching watermelons and cantaloupes become ever-present snacks and dessert priorities.
Yet the intensively hybridized melons we find at the supermarket, or grow from seed ourselves, are a far cry from their wild ancestors.  In melons of all types, and in watermelons in particular, it is the high water content — appreciated as the juice drips from our chins — that makes them special.
In point of fact, the wild progenitors of these fruits were not harvested for their pulp, which was bitter, but rather for the water that they contained.  In cool storage pits or caves, these melons could be stored for months at a time, to be be removed and cut open for their juice as the need arose.
Keep in mind that melons are native to the Kalahari Desert, North Africa, and the Middle East, dry climates where rain is unreliable and all possible sources of water, including plants, are highly prized.  Melon seeds have been discovered in the tombs of Pharaohs, including King Tut’s tomb, where melons were found on wall paintings as well.  According to historians, this is evidence that melons were placed alongside mummified royal corpses to serve as watery sustenance needed in the long journey, according to the Egyptians’ belief, that the soul undertook on its way to the Afterlife.
I was prompted to investigate the history of melons upon receiving the following email from Pete Torrez, who gardens in Sylmar:  “I am growing watermelons and cantaloupes on a drip irrigation system and was wondering if, once they start producing fruit, I need to keep them off the ground. I guess I’m concerned with them rotting on the bottom side.”

melons surrounded by plastic mulch

There is an opinion that truly healthy melons will not rot if they make contact with the ground and, certainly, commercial growers do not go to the trouble of keeping their ripening melons from touching the earth.  Yet, backyard growing conditions are never ideal and so it is advisable to separate melons from contact with the soil.  One of the ways of doing this is by spreading a straw mulch under your melons, but small blocks of wood, black plastic, grass clippings, and dried pine needles have all been used under ripening melons as a means for rot prevention.

melons growing on a trellis

Of course, the surest way to grow melons without concern for soil contact is to train them up trellises.  Cantaloupes and small-sized watermelon varieties will grow up vertically without complaint.

A number of years ago, I visited Gina Di Nino in Canoga Park, who grew all of her vegetables, and cantaloupes too, in this manner.  Di Nino had arthritis and the pain from bending over was so intense that she had no choice but to grow her crops vertically.
Incidentally, true cantaloupes, which have smooth rinds and green flesh, are grown extensively in Europe but seldom seen here, while muskmelons — what we call cantaloupe, honeydew, Casaba, and Crenshaw — are the melons grown commercially in the United States.
Tip of the Week: Burpee Seeds recommends growing watermelons in the middle of a lawn.  “Simply dump two 40-pound bags of composted cow manure and one 40-pound bag of topsoil into a heap on the lawn,” Burpee advises.  “Mix and mound with a trowel or by hand to integrate all materials. Water well and plant 6 to 8 seeds and later thin to three plants. The vines will ramble all over the lawn, and you will have to mow around them. But the watermelon foliage will shade most of the grass underneath it and slow its growth.  After harvest, pull up watermelon vines; rake the nutrient-rich manure mix over the lawn for fertilizer and water well. Within a week, the grass will be growing vigorously again, and it will be a healthy dark green.”

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