Melon dreams

This year’s harvest is a month late—but worth the wait

Knock-you-out sweet or not quite ripe?

Knock-you-out sweet or not quite ripe?

April came, and the infant vines crawled weakly from the ground, stretching toward the sun, eager to thrive and flourish, and with faraway ambitions of bringing a 4-pound fruit or two into the world, just in time for Independence Day. Then clouds lumbered in, blacking out the light and dropping a nasty hailstorm on Yuba City. The little plants were crushed, and farmer Tom Dieckmann’s—and our—early crop of melons was lost.

Dieckmann replanted, but foul and foggy weather all spring slowed the growth of the vines dramatically, and now, as summer finally grows hot, the melon harvest is an entire month late.

Dieckmann, who plants 10 acres of melons most seasons (his acreage ebbs and flows with the market’s pull and push), says it was the coolest spring since 1972, and, as a result, we may not see the bulk of the local crop swell into size and sweetness until mid-August, though Dieckmann expects to bring his first melons to the Davis Farmers Market in late July. He only grows two cantaloupe and two watermelon varieties, but what his Wednesday and Saturday market stand lacks in color, it bears in quality.

“I experiment with varieties sometimes, but my customers have told me what they like, and so I just grow the winners,” Dieckmann says.

One is a knock-you-out-sweet, white-fleshed cantaloupe—and that’s all we know, because while Dieckmann is an earth-smart farmer who can predict the weather with a sniff of the wind, he is also a crafty businessman. He keeps a wary eye on competitors and declines to divulge the names of the fruit varieties he grows or where he sources the seeds. He says no one else grows the same melons, and he hopes to keep it that way.

Mike Madison approaches melon farming with a more socialistic gait. An author and journalist who penned a piece on melons recently for Saveur, the Winters farmer recognizes the global history of melons, their origins in the Middle East, their complex migrations through Asia Minor and North Africa—and he is happy to share information and further spread the sweetness. Of fruits in the family Cucurbitaceae, he will be selling two species: Cucumis melo, the true melons (which include cantaloupes and muskmelons); and Citrullus vulgaris, the watermelons. Among these will be seven or so varieties, including the Charentais, the passport Galia, the diplomat Galia, the Piel de Sapo, and the Rayyan, a 5-pound white-fleshed melon that is among the best cultivars that grow.

“It’s incredibly sweet, fragrant, juicy, sloppy. It’s so messy that it’s best eaten sitting naked in a bathtub,” Madison says.

The Afghan kharbouza melon is practically the opposite of the Rayyan: crisp and refreshing, more like a cucumber than a cantaloupe, Madison says.

“This one won’t put you into a sugar-induced coma.”

Melons grow from annual vines, must be planted anew from seed each year and also need to be tenderly babied into maturity. Once the plants’ roots are established, however, melons are a tough bunch, scarcely needing so much as water; farmers like Madison cut off their irrigation in late spring. The melons can take it. They are made of durable desert-borne genes, and it’s those long, waterless summers that make melons the happiest. It makes them sweet, anyway.

August will be prime time. Meanwhile, irrigated, over watered melons have been available at supermarkets for weeks. They’re big, cheap and abundant, pumped up with water that a struggling salmon stream could have used—but that’s water politics and a matter we’ll save for tomorrow.