Plant heirloom varieties now for a juicy harvest this summer

Sweet, succulent melons are an irresistible summer treat. Plucked fresh from the vine at the peak of ripeness, melons have a flavor that is tough to beat; even a single slice is the perfect dessert at a picnic or backyard barbecue. But which varieties taste best?

Last year in Sunset’s test garden, we planted nearly a dozen varieties, known for their outstanding flavor and aroma. At harvesttime, five varieties stood out from the others, bearing more fruit (at least two per running stem) with better flavor. Plant one or more this month for harvest this summer.


How to grow melons

The warmer your climate, the better melons will grow. Where the growing season is long, sow seeds directly in the ground. In cooler coastal areas or where growing seasons are short, choose fast-maturing varieties, use season extenders, and start seeds indoors in small pots. Plant the seedlings outdoors after the soil has warmed to at least 60° (raised beds warm up faster than flat ground).

Planting Choose a site in full sun and with good drainage. Mix a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost into the soil. Plant two or three seeds (or one plant) per hole, 1½ feet apart in rows 4 to 6 feet apart.

Season extenders In cool coastal climates or areas with short growing seasons, lay black plastic over the soil and tuck in the edges, then cut an X for each plant. Use floating row covers until the weather warms or plants begin flowering.

Watering Use drip irrigation or a soaker hose to avoid wetting the foliage. Water often enough to keep plants healthy. When melons reach full size (but before they’re mature), cut back on watering to avoid splitting and bland taste.

Harvest When fully ripe, cantaloupes slip off the vine easily. Pick honeydew types when their color changes or when the leaf where the fruit attaches turns yellow.


Five flavor favorites

Seeds of the following varieties are available from Seed Savers Exchange (563/382-5990), a nonprofit organization of gardeners who save and share heirloom seeds.

‘Amish’ (A) Heirloom cantaloupe. Orange flesh is very sweet and juicy. 80–90 days from planting to harvest.

‘Crane’ (B) Crenshaw-type melon (teardrop shape with light orange flesh) introduced in the 1920s in California. Sweet and very productive; pick when fruits are yellowish with green tinges. 75–85 days.

‘Collective Farm Woman’ (C) Unusual Ukrainian variety that’s similar to honeydew, but the skin changes from dark green to yellowish orange (some may be freckled green) when ripe. Very productive and sweet; best for mild, not hot, climates. 80–85 days.

‘Eden’s Gem’ (D) Small (4- to 5-in.-diameter) honeydew developed in Rocky Ford, Colorado, in 1905. Lime green flesh tastes spicy-sweet. 65–80 days.

‘Oka’ Large muskmelon, a type of cantaloupe bred around 1912, with sweet orange flesh. 80–90 days.