Those who are familiar with American humour of the broader sort, and bearing on the gastronomical weaknesses of the negro, cannot have failed to find many references to one particular species of Melon, namely the Water Melon. Sambo Jumbo is supposed to have a pronounced partiality for this fruit, and to have away of disposing of a 7-pounder for his luncheon with rolled-up eye and rapturous gurgle.
Never having shared his meal, I am unable to say whether his taste is sound. If the Water Melon of his kailyard is "the Water Melon of our botanical collections, Citrullus vulgaris, then I think we have better material to hand in the many varieties which we possess of the garden Melon, Cucumis Melo. This plant being a very easy one to cross, hundreds of new varieties are raised annually. Every other gardener one meets has his own Melon, which his eye and palate endow with fabulous virtues, but which never reaches the pinnacle of fame represented by inclusion in a seedsman's catalogue.
In years gone by Melons were very largely grown on hotbeds, but glass is cheaper nowadays, and consequently most large gardens have their Melon pits - low, sunken structures, with a couple or more of hot water pipes running round them, and a raised floor on which mounds of soil bring the plants close to the glass. Still, Melons may be grown, and well grown, on hotbeds.
Many gardeners have a belief that Melon seed improves by being carried about for a few months in a waistcoat pocket. Why not a trousers pocket, I should like to know? The flimsy argument that the seeds would be getting lost through being drawn out with money will not satisfy me. Gardeners are not so reckless in handling their loose cash. Again, I should like to ask where the lady gardener comes in - the one, I mean, who does not wear rationals? Is she to pine Melonless because she does not wear a waistcoat? Good Melon seeds should be plump, well rounded, and firm. If the seeds are light, shelly, and hollow, yielding under pressure from the finger tip, I am afraid that you might carry them in your pocket from youth to old age without making plants of them.
Given one firm, plump, ripe seed in the middle of a 3 inch pot, plunged in a propagator or on a hotbed, a plant is tolerably certain. When it has made two or three rough leaves (the smooth seed leaves are not counted) nip off the growing tip in order to encourage a strong break from below. The resulting shoots, to the number of three or four, may be trained to opposite corners of the frame from the central position which the plant itself occupies, and if stopped at two-thirds the distance, will speedily fill the space with laterals. These will probably show fruit; if not, they may be stopped, and will push fruiting sublaterals.
Broadly speaking, what is known as the spur system of Vine pruning, which has been described in Chapter 14., is the best for house Melons, and it has the great merit of simplicity. A leading shoot is taken up, and side growths ("laterals") are trained from it. It is not often that the strict regularity of Vine training is observed throughout; in fact, the laterals frequently take a turn and are trained in parallel with the leader, but there the system is - a good one to follow, a bad one to beat. To get successional fruit, remove the flowers on some of the first laterals, and stop these at the third joint. Sublaterals will then form, on which fine fruit will be got.
The beginner will speedily observe that he has two kinds of flowers on his Melon plants, one having a small protuberance at its base, the other without. This is common, of course, to the Cucurbitaceae, and is observable in Cucumbers and Vegetable Marrows. It will not take the grower long to arrive at the conclusion that as Nature put two flowers there two are wanted, but that the flower with the protuberance is the one to give the fruit. This is so, but, differing from Cucumbers, the Melons should be hand fertilised - that is, when the pollen dust in the plain flowers is observed to be loose, the bloom should be picked off and thrust into the centre of the fruiter.
It is a common mistake to have too many Melons on a plant. Generally four fruits are enough if line specimens are wanted, and the number ought not to exceed six. I am afraid that this is one of the gardening rules more honoured in the breach than in the observance.
It facilitates a good set to provide a brisk bottom heat, give only just sufficient water to prevent flagging, and maintain a warm, dry atmosphere. Pollen is then plentiful. The flowers should be fertilised daily, and when the fruit is seen to be swelling the shoots ought to be stopped one joint beyond the fruit. Afterwards add a top-dressing of warm soil, give water as needed, and syringe gently.
Bearing on the question of watering is that of canker, which frequently attacks the collar, or point of junction between stem and roots, and causes failure. In all cases the soil should be sloped from the stem instead of towards it, so that water may not lodge round the collar. If canker should show itself rub some lime and soot well into the collar.
There is no better compost for Melons than fresh, fibrous loam, with a pint of superphosphate or bone meal to each bushel, although I should use a third part of leaf mould for the seed pots.
Successions may be had by making periodical sowings from the first week in January, in all cases allowing about five weeks to get plants ready for putting out. With a temperature of 65° to 70° at night, rising 5° to 10° by day, it is generally possible to get ripe fruit in about four months. Liquid manure helps the plants when they are swelling their fruit.
It is rather an invidious business to single out sorts, but I think it may be said that although getting on in years Countess, Hero of Lockinge, and Read's Scarlet-flesh still hold their own. The two first have white flesh, and both have excellent flavour to recommend them. Blenheim Orange is worth mentioning as thriving with less heat than the majority, and Syon House is excellent.
A, seed (natural size): a, external view; b, section showing embryo or young plant, the germination being the commencement of its development; c, germinating and pushing radicle or root.
B, sowing seed singly in 60's (3 inch): d, crock over aperture; e, rough parts of compost; f, soil; g, seed; h, fine soil; i, space for top-dressing.
C, seedling in 3 inch pot earthed up: j, soil added.
Definition of plant: k, rootstem and roots; 1. stem; m, seed leaves (cotyledons); n, second (usually called rough) leaf; o, grouting point.
D, sowing seeds several in a pot: p, drainage; g, rough parts of compost; r, soil; s, seeds; t, fine soil; u, space for holding water.
E, pot of seedlings at potting offstage.
F, seedling potted into 3 inch pot.
G, seedling intended for training to trellis, not to be stopped, the leading growth being secured to a stake and laterals rubbed off to the height on the stem desired.
H, plant intended for planting in frame or pit and growths trained over bed: v, growing point pinched out at second rough leaf.
I, plant at desirable planting stage: w, laterals from base of seed leaves; x, laterals from axils of rough leaves.
A, portion of plant: a, flowers with stamens; b, flowers with pistils; c, laterals stopped one joint beyond fruit; d, stopped two joints beyond fruit.
B, staminate flower detached: d, corolla (part removed); e, stamens.
C, pistillate flower; g, ovary; h, stigma; i, pollen applied.