Thursday, September 16, 2021

Watermelon

 

Blacktail Mountain

Mrs ERJ's mother grew up in western Louisiana approximately 30 miles from the Gulf. Frankly, I don't know how anybody can decide where Louisiana ends and open water begins. That is a judgement call I don't have to make.

Nevertheless, Mrs ERJ inherited a love of pecans, fresh fruits and especially a love of watermelon from her mother.

So Mrs ERJ was overjoyed when Lucky Pittman, one of my fruit growing friends in Kentucky sent an email discussing the varieties he was trialing this year. While he didn't go into detail, I am of the impression that he grows a few, proven favorites as benchmarks and maybe three times as many new varieties. A horse-race, if you will.

Lost treasures

Even into the 1960s there were hundreds of strain of watermelon grown in the United States. Some of them came over from "the Old Country" and were grown by just a few families. Others were regional favorites.

Watermelons are relatively hard to ship and low value for the volume and mass. That kept those varieties safe for a while. 

Four things happened that drove many, if not most of those varieties into extinction. 

  1. The Interstate System made is economically viable to ship relatively low-value, fragile goods long distances. 
  2. The hundreds-of-thousands mom-and-pop retail outlets were wiped out by large chains like Krogers. 
  3. US families got smaller and craved more variety so they had no need of a 20 pound melon. 
  4. Finally, the US consumer preferred the convenience and lack-of-mess of seedless varieties of watermelons.

The changes in the market environment resulted in the development of hybrids which ripen all of their fruit at the same time. That way, a crew can make one sweep through the field and then the farmer can plow it up and plant another crop. The heritage melons might ripen fruit for three weeks or a month which was convenient for a family or neighborhood.

Another aspect of commercialization is that the size, shape, shipping characteristics and exterior color of the melon became more important than the taste. 

This has been taken to extremes in the European Union where legislators, at the urging of a few large corporations that sell hybrid seeds, made it illegal to sell cucumbers that are too long, too short or not straight. That pretty much wiped out landraces of seeds that were swarms of genetics rather than clones that produced cucumbers (and other produce) that was 200mm +/- 10mm. One assumes similar laws have been passed regarding every other crop where it is easy to save seeds.

Quite the boon for producers of hybrid seeds. While hybrid seeds will germinate and grow watermelons, the melons will exhibit a wide range of characteristics. That forces the producers to buy new, hybrid seed every year.

Wilson Sweet

A few people kept growing the old varieties. Some of them loved the memories of the family sitting on the porch steps eating slices of melon and spitting seeds. Some craved the different tastes, textures and colors the older varieties offered. Some wanted a connection to their heritage by growing melons that came from their family's country or region of origin. Most of them were just stubborn in a good kind of way.

The rise of the internet made it much easier for watermelon connoisseurs to find each other and to share seeds.

Lucky Pittman's tasting notes:

Blacktail Mountain was the first to ripen and a nice little melon... far better than Sugar Baby

Golden Midget was interesting... rind turns yellow when ripe, so it's easy to determine when to pick them... tasty little melon, just not terribly productive

Wilson Sweet - first one picked may be the best melon I've had yet... but later-ripening melons were just average; guess I jumped the gun in proclaiming it 'best ever'. 

Wibb -  deepest red flesh I've ever seen - it has the 'crimson' gene.  This one was bordering on overripe, but overnight in the fridge helped!  A friend who's grown it in the past says it's a little finicky about needing to be picked at just the right time not to be overripe.   At end of season, this one is my top pick across the board; will definitely plant it again next year. 

Orangeglo - My wife raved about the flavor, which is quite different from most red/pink types, and it is good, but like most yellow/orange ones I remember from the past, it's just not as 'crisp' as a good red/pink.

Halbert Honey -  planted this one I remember from my childhood... but it's been, overall, a disappointment; don't know that I'll plant it again. 

Had a few seeds saved from a GA Rattlesnake X Crimson Sweet cross a friend sent me... they're big... have a HUGE one I'm holding for Labor Day weekend, when we hopefully will have a crowd to help consume it.  It was - as I anticipated, very good!  Smaller ones - still pretty big - harvested later were all flavorful and crisp.

Crimson Sweet & Charleston Gray were planted very late - almost as an afterthought...seeds were in the end-of-season clearance bin at the feed storee... so they're quite a ways behind... CG vines died back before the melons had a chance to really ripen fully;  Crimson Sweet... always seems to be a top-flight melon for me, with crisp, sweet flesh; even the smaller, season-end melons are pretty good

Chou Cheh Red... one my wife picked - catalog description said it was really sweet and won 2019 taste test at Baker Creek Seeds.  Not so here... and they're tiny... many of them fist size; I'd not realized that it was a mini until I started picking them... Avg size supposed to be 5 lb... not sure many of mine got that big.  Not all that tasty. Won't plant this one again.
Winter King top melon. Kholodok green melon on right. Wintermelon pale green w/ stripes on bottom.

Wintermelon on the inside

Planted three 'winter-keeper' watermelons this year... Kholodok (a Russian watermelon), King Winter, and Wintermelon.  Supposedly, you can pick them just as tendril opposite the stem begins to wither, put them in a cool place(50F), and they'll ripen over a 3 month period..  Have had a couple of larger King Winter melons that cracked at blossom end after I harvested and were beginning to rot - but flesh was crisp, pink and reasonably tasty, even though they're supposedly not fully ripe at this point.  Based on my average earliest frost date, I should have planted them in mid-late July, instead of late May/early June - but IDK if the vines would have withstood whatever pests/diseases typically cause them to wither and die. 
Lucky's melon patch before planting

Same patch about 60 days after planting

Lucky is serious about extending his watermelon season. Not only does he grow "winter melons" but he dehydrates slices of melon when the crop gets ahead of his ability to eat them. It may take two, even three days. There is a lot of water in a watermelon!

Another way Lucky extends his season is by planting a portfolio of varieties with different ripening dates but it might be simpler to pick one early variety like Blacktail Mountain and plant it in flights like sweet corn.

And don't be afraid to try varieties that get mixed reviews. Some melons like to ripen when it is really hot. Others have better quality when it is not so hot. Different melon varieties like different soils. A melon that does poorly in the lower pH of the southeast might be awesome in the higher pH of the high plains of Colorado or the Texas panhandle.

If any readers want to comment about watermelon varieties they found to be "connoisseur's" melons, I am sure Mrs ERJ will be happy to read them. It will also be helpful if you mention where you are gardening and a word or two about your soil.

6 comments:

  1. Do you have any suggestions what I could grow here near the shores of Gitchie Gumee? I have tried over the years with very little success. I would really like a heritage if you know of any. Thanks---ken

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    1. Blacktail Mountain was selected in Northern Idaho. That would be my first guess.

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    2. Agree. Blacktail Mountain and Golden Midget (bred by Dr. Elwyn Meader, in NH) are both 70 days to maturity. Either/both should work in short-growing season sites.

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    3. Thanks guy. Appreciate it.---ken

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  2. Small town Friday night, drinking 3.2 coors in the parking lot.
    Kenny says you know that field of corn out by such n such? Sure. Ain't but 4 rows of corn the rest is melons.
    My stock VW beetle is quiet cimb in and we will go get a couple.
    3 inside 3 of us standing on the bumper holding the open sunroof.
    Two sneak in, start walking around looking.
    BOOM, Shotgun blast from across the field in the other rows of corn.
    6 young men wishing they were somewhere else and 4 in various places on the rear bumper one running behind.
    The getaway driver eventually stopped and let some in. hahaaa the 70's

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  3. My grandfather once mentioned that the way watermelon used to be sold (this would have been in the Oklahoma/Kansas area pre-Dust Bowl days) was that the potential buyer was allowed to cut a small sample out to taste and decide if they wanted to buy it. Each time a tasting sample was taken, and the melon not purchased, the price dropped.

    That must have put a lot of pressure on making sure only ripe tasty melons got offered up for sale.

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