This section is from the book "The Gardener V2", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
The Melon is a fruit highly esteemed in its season where a large dessert is required. Although, unlike the Grape, the Pine-Apple, or the Peach, it is not a general favourite, I think the principal reason for this is, that we so seldom get them in the highest state of perfection. A badly grown and ripened Melon is certainly the most insipid of fruits; but, on the other hand, when it is well grown and cared for through every stage of growth, it has qualities appreciated by some if not by all • and with the hope of helping the lovers of the Melon who have not had the opportunity of being made thoroughly conversant with its culture, these few remarks are penned.
Span-roofed houses we consider best for them, with a bed 18 inches deep on each side of the house, having a flow and return hot-water pipe right round for bottom-heat. Some prefer water-tanks, but with us they do well with merely the pipe. For early fruit the seed ought to be sown about the beginning of January in pots filled with rather free soil, the seeds only just covered, and plunged in a bottom-heat of 75° or 80°, with a minimum top-heat of 70°, or 5° lower in very severe weather. The soil will most likely have enough moisture in itself to cause them to germinate; but as soon as they appear above ground let them have water, and from that time until the fruit shows signs of ripening they ought not to be allowed to suffer for want of water. In from ten to twelve days after sowing, or when they have made the first leaf, they will be ready for potting off singly into 3 or 4 inch pots, putting them into the soil down to the seed-leaf by twisting them round the pot, if too long. Use stiff turfy loam, with a little leaf-soil and river-sand. In all subsequent pottings the loam without any mixture will be suitable.
In making ready the bed for the first two plantings, put about 1 foot of stable-litter and leaves in the bottom of the bed, treading it in quite firm, and leaving it in a ridge along the centre, which will give a good natural bottom-heat, as well as put stamina into the plants as they advance in growth. For later successions we prefer half-rotted manure from the pig-yard, as there is more strength in it, and at this time there is less need of bottom-heat. After the dung is in, chop up as much good stiff loam as will cover the bed all over about 3 inches, the ridge to be 6 inches deep for planting: as soon as the roots get nicely to the sides of the pots, let them be planted out, pressing the soil firmly to the roots. If allowed to remain in the pots until pot-bound, they become hard and stunted in their growth, and precious time is lost before they again recover the check. As they are planted, let each plant be tied to a stake, to prevent breaking in syringing, and keep the side shoots rubbed out until they reach the first wire of the trellis-work on the roof. Then they ought to be allowed to run within two wires of the top on south side and one on north side before stopping. The reason for pinching to the second wire is to let more light to the fruit on the opposite side.
The fruit will be found at the first leaf of the side shoots: sometimes they fail in this, but if pinched back to the same leaf, they generally show next growth. As the flowers open let them be impregnated, choosing the time when most are open at once, as when one fruit gets much in advance of the others they seldom swell regularly. Three or four good fruit on each plant is a fair crop. When in flower, stop syringing overhead, but keep plenty of moisture on the paths and beds, as thrip and spider are apt to get a hold of them at that time, and in all cases prevention is better than cure. When the fruit require support, a thin piece of square board with a piece of copper wire at each corner will answer well. When the roots appear on the surface of the bed, let them have a top-dressing of the same soil as that in which they are planted until the fruit are fully swollen, when a top-dressing from an old Mushroom bed will keep the bed from drying up so quickly, and therefore less water will be required, and the evil of having cracked fruit will be obviated. 70° night temperature is sufficient in early spring, but as the season advances, 75° is not too high; or if the fruit is wanted at a given time, 5° higher may be resorted to with safety.
The first batch, treated to the first-mentioned temperature, should ripen about the middle or towards the end of May: of course later successions, when the days are long and the sun has much more power, take a shorter time. The last week in June is quite late enough to sow for the last crop, which should ripen about the end of September and beginning of October: later crops are rather uncertain.
Thrip and spider are their principal enemies, and nothing but a constant application of the syringe will keep them from gaining a footing. If from neglect they get a footing, fumigating with tobacco two or three nights in succession kills thrip; but for spider, a little sulphur in the water when syringing will soon make them disappear.
The favourite varieties here are Royal Ascot, a beautiful fruit, oval-shaped and finely netted, scarlet flesh, flavour good, and a free setter. Lord Eglinton's Favourite is another very handsome and good-flavoured scarlet-flesh Melon, shape round, generally growing to about 6 lb. weight. Heckfield Hybrid is sometimes rather shy to show fruit with us, but a good Melon. Incomparable, Lord Napier, and Malvern Hall are good, but Scarlet Gem is a gem indeed. Colston Basset is a good Melon in every respect. Munroe's little Heath we have grown, - the flavour was considered good: we cut fruit which weighed 8 to 9 lb.