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GARDENING : Royal Taste of Melons Awaits the Gardener : Luscious crenshaws, honeydews are rich in flavor and vitamins, low in calories.

May 07, 1989|BILL SIDNAM | Sidnam has written garden columns and features for The Times since 1975.

If grown properly and harvested at perfection, the crenshaw and honeydew melons are the king and the queen of the melon world.

Large size (up to 15 pounds), spicy aroma and luscious, juicy, salmon-colored flesh make the crenshaw the king of melons. With its delicate pale-green flesh and subtle, sweet, wine-like flavor, the honeydew is truly the queen of melons. Although both melons are sweet and luscious--perfect dessert items--both are also surprisingly low in calories and quite rich in vitamins A and C.

Unfortunately, many people never get the opportunity to experience the true flavor of crenshaw and honeydew melons because many of those sold commercially are picked before they reach perfection. If you want to sample crenshaws or honeydews at their true flavor peak, you will have to grow them yourself.

In the past, raising crenshaws and honeydews posed a real challenge to Southern California gardeners with the exception of those who live in our warmest inland valleys. This was because the older varieties required at least 120 days of very warm weather to mature to perfection.

In recent years, however, plant breeders have developed a crenshaw variety that will produce excellent fruit in 90 days of moderately warm weather and several honeydew varieties that will reach the harvest stage in 75 to 96 days in most Southland growing regions.

Flesh Firm, Delicious

The crenshaw variety is called Burpee Early Hybrid Crenshaw and it produces large, oval melons weighing up to 15 pounds each. The skin is green, turning yellowish green when ripe. The salmon-colored flesh is firm and delicious.

The honeydew varieties include Earli-Dew, Venus Hybrid and Limelight Hybrid. I have grown all three, and all are delicious. All have ivory-colored skin that takes on a golden hue when ripening and pale-green flesh. Earli-Dew is the earliest, reaching harvest stage in about 75 days. Its 3-pound fruits are an ideal size for the refrigerator.

Venus Hybrid has slightly larger fruit, but takes longer (88 days) to reach maturity. Limelight produces huge fruit (up to 7 pounds) with marvelous flavor, but it requires 96 days to reach maturity. Of the three, my favorite is Earli-Dew, but all are superb.

All of the melons listed here should produce in the great majority of Southland climatic regions, except for the beach areas where the moist air creates mildew problems.

Seeds for Burpee Early Hybrid Crenshaw, Venus and Limelight Honeydews should be available in local nurseries that stock Burpee seeds. Or they may be ordered by mail from Burpee Seed Co., 300 Park Ave., Warminster, Pa. 18991. You won't find seeds for Earli-Dew in local racks; seeds may be ordered by mail from Twilley Seeds, P.O. Box T65, Trevose, Pa. 19047.

Sunniest Location

To grow crenshaw and honeydew melons, select the sunniest, hottest area of your yard as they require heat to grow to perfection. They also like a well-drained soil rich in organic materials. Add lots of compost or peat moss plus an all-purpose vegetable fertilizer when preparing the soil. Water thoroughly before planting.

Like other melons, crenshaws and honeydews are usually planted in groups. Sow eight seeds at a depth of one-half inch in a circular area 18 inches in diameter. Allow 4 feet of space between groups. When the young plants are 2 inches tall, thin out all but the three strongest plants in each group.

Bear in mind that the vines are going to sprawl throughout a large area. If you don't have much garden space, here is a growing method that will save a great deal of space.

Use a 3-by-12-foot plot. Plant seeds at 6-inch intervals down the center of the 12-foot length of the plot. When the young plants are 3 inches tall, thin them to stand 18 inches apart. Each week, tuck the plants back inside the 3-by-12 perimeter of the plot so they form a mounded maze. The melons will form like eggs in a nest. When they start to reach harvest stage, examine the "nest" often to make certain you find all the melons before they spoil.

Weekly Deep Watering

Whatever method you chose, you can increase the yield, speed up the ripening process and keep the melons clean by using a black plastic mulch under the vine. Be certain to cut slits to ensure water penetration and proper drainage.

The plants should be watered deeply on a weekly basis. Never use overhead sprinkling on melons as this promotes mildew.

Burpee Early Crenshaw melons are ripe when they turn from dark-green to yellowish-green, and when the blossom end gives slightly when pressed and has a spicy aroma. Earli-Dew and Venus honeydew melons are ripe and ready for harvest when their creamy white skin takes on a light yellow tinge. However, when Limelight melons are ripe, they will slip from the vine with little effort, like a cantaloupe.

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