On one hand, it’s been a wonderfully summer, temperature wise. We’ve been enjoying many days in the 80s F (27 to 32 C) which is right balmy for normally muggy Virginia when August days are often in the 90s F (33 to 37 F) – even reaching into the 100s last year (40 C). Even better, the nights have been pleasantly cool – the type of cool we often don’t see until late September, with temperatures in the 55-60 range (13 to 16 C). We have hardly turned the air-conditioner on. The peppers are loving it: it’s cool enough that they keep producing blooms and set fruit – yet warm enough that the fruit ripen. All we need is some rain now. We have not seen any on several weeks. Can a gardener ever be satisfied with the weather?
On the other hand, the melons are taking it a little too easy. I suppose they would have been a little more along if I had planted them earlier – under glass, I suppose, since spring was also on the cool side – and melons and watermelons like it hot.
This year, I decided I was going to get some watermelons – but not just any watermelon: I don’t want them too big (not 30 pounder please!), I want a story going with the melon, I want good disease resistance, and above all, I want flavor. So I ordered them – along with many other seeds – from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds who is known to carry many many kind of heirloom melons. Their 2008 catalog featured 45 American melons, 18 Asian & Eastern melons & 17 European melons – many French, including true Charentais melon – as well as 54 watermelons. Each description is of more enticing than the prior ones, which makes you buy many more seed packets than (1) you need, and (2) you have room to plant.
On May 29, after I broke apart my last compost pile and used it to make my melon planting bed, I planted two kinds of watermelons: ‘Blacktail Mountain’ and ‘Ali-Baba’. ‘Blacktail Mountain’ is a small (8-12 pounds) cannonball round and dark green watermelon bred in the chilly mountains of Northern Idaho by Glenn Drowns in the 1970’s for cold tolerance and early maturity. Mr. Drowns named it after the mountain in its backyard. Amy Goldman in her book “Melons for the Passionate Grower” describes it as the “quintessential watermelon” and “the gold standard by which my daughter and I judge all watermelons” – my head swarmed and my stomach made indiscreet noises as I was reading her text back in January when I was selecting seeds and needed somebody to help me narrow down the choices (Baker should was no help as each melon was better than the other and half of them were their favorite!) Anyway, Baker says it takes an average of 70 days to get a mature fruit. Other have the days to maturity at 73 or 75 – that should give me a ripe watermelon by the second week of August. Still pretty fast, given that most watermelons seem to have a maturity date around 100 days – including the other one I planted: Ali-Baba, a bigger melon (16 to 25 pounds), that’s oblong and very attractive with its pale green rind. How can anyone resist a watermelon called Ali-Baba? I’ll tell its story another time.
So what’s the problem? Well, here we are, past mid-August and ‘Blacktail Mountain’, albeit beautiful as shown on the picture above (the first picture was taken on August 3, the 2nd on August 18), is only at 5 pound 8 7/12 oz (and yes, I did take the kitchen scale to the melon patch!). It’s harder to tell a ripe watermelon compared to a ripe muskmelon or a ripe cantaloupe: the stem does not turn brown; the rind does nor change color or develop tiny cracks; it does not give off a sweet scent that will make a maiden swoon… According to Amy Goldman, you want to look for a variety of signs: first, you listen to the sound it gives back as you thump it – a certain hollow-yet-full sound indicates maturity ! I am guessing that the more watermelon you grow, and the more you “thump” and taste them, the more experience you’ll get at that… in the meantime, you can look for the other signs: the tendril closer to the stem of the fruit starts to dry off, the shape is “true”, the maturity date has been reached, the color looks good and it’s within advertised weight range – and it stops growing (as measured on successive days by your trusted kitchen scale). As of yesterday August 18, 2008, I’ve got just about all the signs except the weight is less than 8 lb!
Then, I was researching a little more for this article, I found on the Seed Savers Exchange Website this description “Round 9″ dark green fruits weigh 6-12 pounds”. That’s it. I am taking the scale back to the garden, and I am going to pick that baby!
I may just regret it, if it’s not ripe.