I am starting to choose seeds for next year’s greenhouse growing and one of the crops I am most keen to try again is melon. This is a crop I have only recently started growing, having in the past not entirely believed it possible. In a former, more carefree life I backpacked around Australia and found myself working for a few weeks on a watermelon farm, trying to raise a small amount of cash to continue along my badly-funded way. Oh to want for no more than the next bus fare, a couple of pasties and the odd magnum: simpler times.
Sometimes the work involved towing a water tank on wheels along the rows of watermelons by tractor (my favourite job: sitting, shade, plus who doesn’t like driving tractors). Other times I had to walk along behind the stinking tractor in the blistering heat, watering the melons using hoses from the tank. What I learned was a) that watermelons take a huge amount of water, and b) it is extremely, sweatily hot in the places where they grow.
And so back in the UK and with my own cool and overcast garden I always discounted them, until I finally found myself in luxurious possession of a greenhouse, which in fact attracts and holds enough heat to fool a melon into thinking that it is growing in, well…not quite Queensland, but certainly somewhere much warmer than north Bristol. And I also found that breeders have been working away on the problem of Bristol not being Queensland and have created varieties that will flower, fruit and reach maturity in our short and oh-so-often disappointing summers. Some don’t even need a greenhouse, though are almost always better if you have one.
First port of call when I am looking for seed of anything that would ideally have a long, warm growing season is Real Seeds. Based in west Wales they source and breed varieties for early flowering and for speed, with the idea that these plants will race out the short growing season. And they do. Water melons are in fact among the trickiest melons to grow if you don’t have heat, and to my mind are also the least tasty. Instead I am this year going to try ‘Prescott Fond Blanc’, a rock melon (also known as musk melons or canteloupes) of great beauty, with a knobbly outer skin and gorgeously scented orange flesh. It is a French variety from the 1880s, and like all rock melons it doesn’t drop from the vine when ripe, which means there is no need to string up ripening melons with your old bras. Allotment neighbours will be disappointed.
I also like the sound of ‘Petit Gris de Rennes’, which is early enough to be grown outside, though more reliable and productive in a greenhouse. The catalogue calls it ‘the champagne of melons’, and I’d like to try that. And if you are determined to have a go at a watermelon Real Seeds has ‘Blacktail Mountain’, one of the earliest, though this really must be grown in a polytunnel or greenhouse. For outside the best bet sounds like ‘Minnesota Midget’, which swaps size for quickness, producing tiny and sweet melons very early in the season. Find Real Seeds at www.realseeds.co.uk and order good and early, because they grow their own seed and so offer in limited quantities. The best varieties always sell out.
I will soon be sitting down by the fire with my catalogues out and making these a part of my pre-Christmas greenhouse seed order. I will look forward to a summer of dripping, juicy, fragrant fruits, though this time sadly without any need to polish up my tractor skills.