Slice of summer
By ANDREW WEIDMAN
Summer just wouldn’t be the same without picnics and cooking outdoors. And what’s a picnic without watermelon?! Maybe you get that melon from the supermarket, or if you’re lucky, a roadside stand. Maybe it’s local, but more likely, it comes in from one of the Southern states or California on a semitrailer piled high with melons. It never fails: That “good one” is always at the bottom of the bin.
Now, imagine serving up your own homegrown melon at the next Labor Day picnic, knowing for certain it’s a good one. That’s not a pipe dream: You can grow good watermelons right where you live.
The right melon
With more than 1,200 varieties, there’s a melon that’s right for just about any growing condition in the United States, even as far north as Alaska. Spend some time going through seed catalogs, and you’ll be amazed by what you discover. Melons come in all sizes, from 1-pound single-serve to 100-plus-pound record-breakers. Rinds can be hard and thin, good for shipment and storage; or tender and thick, perfect for making watermelon pickles. Even their flesh comes in a variety of colors: crimson, orange, yellow, even icy white.
The most important information in the catalogs usually gets overlooked-days to maturity. Watermelons can mature in as few as 70 days and as many as 110 days. These are counted from the day you plant your melons in the garden, whether as seeds or transplants. They absolutely must be warm days for best flavor, at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit, day and night.
Charleston Gray produces large, 20- to 40-pound oblong fruits in 90 days. The flesh is deep red, and the rinds are thick enough for watermelon pickles.
Cream of Saskatchewan gets by with a shorter season, needing only 80 days to deliver sweet, pale yellow, even cream-fleshed melons. The melons are 8 to 10 pounds, round, icebox type fruits, perfect for the fridge.
Moon and Stars is more a family of heirloom melon varieties, and it’s a popular one. They need a season ranging from 90 to 100 days. All types are large melons, ranging in size from 15 to 40 pounds. The fruits are oblong, with dark green rinds dusted with tiny yellow “stars” and larger “moons.” There are red-, pink-, orange-, and yellow-fleshed strains available.
For seedless melons, try Harvest Moon. A descendant of Moon and Stars, Harvest Moon yields 18- to 20-pound pink-fleshed seedless fruits in 90 days. Note that seedless watermelons require cross-pollination. Pollinator seeds are included in each packet, so plant every seed.
Hailed as one of the most flavorful melons, Bradford Family also holds the reputation of the deadliest. In the past, growers would go to great lengths to protect their Bradfords from marauders, including armed guards, electrified melons, and even poison-laced bait melons. Bradford delivers large, 40-pound melons in a surprising 85 days. Its red flesh is ideal for fresh eating, distilling brandy, and making molasses; and the rinds are reputed to make the best pickles. Almost lost since the middle of the last century, the variety has been preserved by the Bradford family. Seeds are available on a limited basis, so if you get a hold of some, it’s wise to save your own seed.
Use your melon
Picking a ripe melon can be a challenge if you don’t know what to look for. Melons don’t just slip off the vine, but they do let you know when they’re ripe. As a melon ripens, its belly will fade from green through white, then yellow or cream. Some gardeners also claim that a ripe melon will also form faint “ribs.” I’ve never been able to reliably pick a good one according to ribbing. The big giveaway lies in the tendril, that little corkscrew growing by the melon. When it dies and dries up, you’re in business. Don’t pick a melon too early-once it’s off the vine, it’s finished.
There’s a myth about watermelons that needs busted: Watermelons will not cross with cucumbers. Yes, they are closely related. And yes, watermelons will readily cross-with other melons. However, contrary to popular belief, they won’t cross with cucumbers. Even if they did, it wouldn’t affect the resulting fruit; only the seeds would be “cucamelons.” Don’t blame a bland melon on an innocent pickle patch.
Now it’s time for a little flair, a little picnic ceremony. Go ahead, grab that carving knife (or sword if you prefer) and do the honors. Your melon will be a good one. Have a slice of summer. There’s nothing like it.
Rosy watermelon rind pickles
(Farm Journal Freezing and Canning Cook Book, 1973)
A small bottle of maraschino cherries gives pickles a pretty rosy color.
Yields 5 pints.
4 to 5 quarts watermelon rind
4 quarts plus 2 cups cold water, divided
3 tablespoons salt
3 cups vinegar
10 cups sugar
1 tablespoon whole cloves
3 sticks cinnamon
2 teaspoons peppercorns
1 piece dried ginger root
1/2 cup maraschino cherries
Trim outer green skin and pink flesh from melon, leaving thin line of pink. Cut into 1-by-1-by–inch pieces.
In large pot or bowl, soak melon in mixture of 4 quarts cold water and salt for 24 hours. Drain.
In large stockpot, cover melon pieces with boiling water, and boil gently for 1 hours. Drain, and put melon into ice water until thoroughly chilled. Drain.
Combine vinegar, remaining cold water, sugar, and spices tied in clean, thin white cloth, and bring to a boil. Add rind, and boil gently for about 30 minutes; remove spices. Let stand for 24 hours.
Add cherries, and bring pickle mixture to a boil. Pack in hot jars. Adjust lids at once. Process in boiling water bath at 212 degrees for 5 minutes. Remove jars from canner and complete seals, unless closures are the self-sealing type.
NOTE: Substitute 1/2 teaspoon oil of cloves for whole cloves; 1/2 teaspoon oil of cinnamon for stick cinnamon. If cherries fade in the jar, substitute a few from a new jar before serving.
END OF ARTICLE: Excerpted from Grit. To read more articles from Grit, please visit www.grit.com, or call 866-803-7069. Copyright 2019 by Ogden Publications Inc.
Please Enter Your Facebook App ID. Required for FB Comments. Click here for FB Comments Settings page