A Guide to Early Melon Varieties

A guide to early melon varieties, growing and discovering the most delectable watermelons and cantaloupes, including short-season traits and direct seeding versus transplants.

| April/May 2003

These delectable early melon varieties of watermelons and cantaloupes are guaranteed to give you great eating.

Picking a Vine-Ripe Melon

When to Harvest Melons

A Guide to Early Melon Varieties

Yes, melons need heat to develop their sugars. And yes, they need sun-drenched days to produce the rampant vines that manufacture carbohydrates that sweeten the fruits. But they don't need endless days of such weather. Plenty of delicious melons can he grown in summer-starved places from Montana to Maine and into Canada by using varieties that mature in 85 days or less, heating up the soil fast and starting seeds indoors. Even in areas with longer growing seasons, these early birds provide a sweet prelude to the later-season favorites.

Numerous heirloom melons — some brought from Russia, and other varieties developed by cold-climate breeders — mature within the 85-day window and are available early. Consider the spicy sweetness of 'Green Nutmeg,' which has been around more than 150 years. It's ripe in 80 days. Or think about planting 'Golden Midget,' a pink watermelon with a rind that turns golden yellow when fully mature at 75 days. Dr. Elwyn Mender of the University of New Hampshire created this open-pollinated, 6-inch melon in 1959. Another extra-early (70 days) watermelon, 'Blacktail Mountain,' sets the flavor standard for all watermelons, according to Amy Goldman, author of Melons for the Passionate Gardener. "The flesh color is scarlet, and the taste is juicy, crunchy and sweet. It's everything you ever want from a watermelon," says Goldman, who has grown more than 200 melon varieties.

Short-Season Melon Traits

Smaller fruits and early flowering are traits that set apart melons that mature early in the growing season. Aaron Whaley of Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization that preserves heirloom varieties at Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa, says, "If a melon grows in our three-month season here, it will grow anywhere." Many of the best-tasting and most-attractive varieties grown at Heritage Farm have small nuts and ripen fast. 'Jenny Lind,' a green-fleshed cantaloupe that weighs about a pound, is ready to pick in 70 days. 'Cream of Saskatchewan,' a super-sweet white-fleshed heirloom watermelon, weighs four to 10 pounds and ripens in about 80 days. So does 'Sweet Siberian' watermelon, which Glenn Drowns of Sand Hill Preservation Center grows in his Calamus, Iowa garden. The yellow-fleshed melon weighs in at about eight pounds.

Drowns developed Amy Goldman's favorite, 'Blacktail Mountain,' when he lived in Careywood, Idaho. The growing season there is only 75 days long; the six to 10-pound melons ripen in that short period of time. Compact foliage is another characteristic shared by short season varieties. Their vines and the distance between leaves (nodes) are shorter than larger, long-season melons. "I can go through a field of different melon varieties," Drowns says, "and tell immediately which ones are fast producers. The distance between nodes on the vines will be shorter. They flower earlier, too."

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