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Here are a hundred melons, each ...
Here are a hundred melons, each photographed exquisitely by Victor Schrager, and each with a story. Also included are directions on how to grow, propagate, and harvest them, sources for seeds, and how to become, like Amy Goldman, a seed saver and do something important toward preserving our agricultural heritage.
Entering the melon patch is like walking into a candy store. It's the dessert course, only better. Easy to grow, melons gratify instantly, producing luscious fruit in one season. The taste of melons at their peak, oozing honey, is incomparable, as is the air, redolent with muskmelon, on an August night.
The Christmas, an heirloom or old-fashioned melon, was my first melon love. For weeks I had waited for the fruit to ripen, and one morning it was ready, lolling in the garden like some outlandish hot air balloon, its hard rind covered with vivid yellow and green streaks. I dropped to my knees and cut it open to taste its delightful green flesh. Since then I've formed passionate relationships with a number of other melons. I'm devoted to Cob, Fordhook Gem, Petit Gris de Rennes, Prescott Fond Blanc, Snake . . . and the list goes on.
In May or June, scores of melon plants spring up in my garden, blanketed by tents of spun polyester cloth atop black plastic mulch. They are protected from the elements by diatomaceous earth (an organic pest control), a spritz, scores of heirloom BT (Bacillus thuringiensis), and TLC (tender loving care). What more can I do but pray for sun? After the floodwaters of June recede and the first hatch of insect pests has passed, I remove their cocoons and let the melons sprawl, at ease, until the garden becomes a verdant sea of vines bearing fruit.
The green bowling balls that pass for watermelons or the melons posing as cantaloupes in grocery stores across America don't begin to describe the world of melons. We've all seen melons that are netted, wrinkled, striped, or ribbed; but there are melons with warts, freckles, and stars; melons that look like snakes or bananas; others that smell or taste like pineapple, mango, peach, or perfume. These are extraordinary heirlooms.
Heirloom fruits and vegetables are treasures from the past, carefully tended and preserved by generations of farmers and gardeners. They are beloved for their looks and their taste. I can't count the number of times someone has tasted one of my melons for the first time and said, "This brings back memories of my childhood," or "I'm in ecstasy." At a taste test of my melons at the Union Square Greenmarket, there was almost a stampede. Until they tasted heirlooms, the crowd didn't know what they were missing. But the delight of melons that taste sublime is only one reason to grow heirloom fruits and vegetables. The other is because we need their germplasm. It's their genes that will help us fend off the potato famines and corn blights of the future. Without their genetic diversity, we will be prey to ever-more virulent pests and diseases.
Unfortunately, countless heirloom varieties are threatened with extinction, and thousands have already been lost. During the consolidation within the seed industry over the past twenty-five years, Mom and Pop operations were gobbled up by giants. A polite term for what happened is deaccessioning, and like paintings removed from galleries in museums to make room for new acquisitions, heirloom fruits and vegetables—also things of beauty—were sent to dry dock and oblivion, leaving only faint tracings of their integrity behind.
Filling the void left by heirlooms' departure was easy: Industry makes far more money from hybrids. The bottom line is that first-generation (F1) hybrids are proprietary inbreds that yield unreliable seed. Heirloom seed, on the other hand, breeds true, producing offspring like its parents. You're taking potluck when you save seeds from hybrids, and you don't want to rely on chance, you need to ante up for fresh seed. Clever these seed companies: disposable seeds create dependency and repeat business.
The industry promotes hybrids whether they're genuinely better or not. When it comes to melons, even plant breeders admit that hybrids have nothing over heirlooms. They're not bigger, better, or more improved. The development of seedless, or triploid, watermelon seems to be the major "advantage." But breeding the life out of a melon is not exactly a desirable trait.
While supermarkets devote whole aisles to hybrids, heirloom varieties are hard to find, and they are becoming scarcer by the day. Still, much remains of our vanishing vegetable heritage, and through the largesse of Kent Whealy and the Seed Savers Exchange, one can plant a garden where the extraordinary is ordinary. Kent gives us the seeds of special things to eat, the seeds of yesteryear. If we sow and grow those seeds, we are nourished; and if in the end we harvest more seed, we ensure next year's bounty. This is the natural history of agriculture, the way our grandparents and great-grandparents fed themselves. But it's not the way we commonly feed ourselves today.
Kent and his wife, Diane, have been working together for twenty-five years to help home gardeners and orchardists keep heirlooms alive. The Seed Savers Exchange, in Decorah, Iowa, is a nonprofit membership organization that collects heirloom seeds, maintains and grows them out in preservation gardens, and distributes the seed to others. Most of these old-time varieties are not native to North America, but became part of our common heritage when immigrants brought the seeds here, hidden in their suitcases or sewn into their dresses or hatbands. These precious portable possessions spelled breakfast, lunch, or dinner and the comforts of home in an uncertain New World.
Kent Whealy gave me the chance to play a small part in agricultural history when he sent me two cardboard boxes of melon seed by overnight mail. Opening them, I realized I had in my hands a gift of vast magnitude, an irreplaceable wonder, the seeds of yesterday. Kent had only a few seeds of some varieties left, and he wouldn't have given them to me if he felt I couldn't handle them. Still, I was afraid something would go wrong and even had a nightmare about the theft of plants from my garden. I've since regained my composure and harvested hundreds of melons from Kent's seed. This book attempts to portray them in all their glory.
Posted November 7, 2002
This past summer, I was wavering about whether or not to set aside some space for the heirloom watermelon seeds I had bought earlier -- after all, couldn't I just buy melons at the grocery store? After reading this book, I was motivated to not only grow my melons, but plan out next year's crop for two or three more luscious heirloom varieties. Melons for the Passionate Grower is a tribute to the various heirloom (open pollinated) melon varieties that are sure to rapidly disappear from the face of the earth if we, the home gardeners, fail to grow and enjoy them in favor of the bland, hybridized things that pass for melons in the supermarkets. The photographs in this book are luscious and artistically done. The text does contain some bare information about how to cultivate the melons, but really focuses more on the melons themselves and their histories. The reader is left with a sense of appreciation for these perfumed garden desserts and a fire to grow them. I can recommend this book to anyone who wants to pick just the right melon for their garden to savor that old fashioned flavor.
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