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Showing posts with label fruit. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fruit. Show all posts

October 29, 2015

BEYOND THE HONEYCRISP - TAKE A CRISPY BITE RIGHT OUT OF THE 18th CENTURY

Joe bites into a dark, crispy' Black Oxford', an antique apple variety that dates back to 1790 in Paris, Maine.

Think about it - - how often can you really experience something that Benjamin Franklin actually ate? Just name one antique shop where you could eat the exact snack that Abraham Lincoln munched on while writing notes in his office. Here in New England, antiquity we can come across in so many ways that the idea of 'old' sometimes becomes diluted with its abundance- old signage and shops, two hundred year old stone walls and weathered barns, steeples and 'spot's where George Washington slept' - - but with a few, special things, (let's say food or plants), rarity, or maybe simply scarcity, factors in new dimension, once which transforms an experience, and so it is, with antique apples.

The 'Knobby Russet' or 'Knobbed Russet' hails from Sussex, England could be the planet's ugliest apple, but this gnarly treasure presents a complex flavor that is hard to define. Nutty, fruity and crisp, it may not make the shelves at your local supermarket, but eaten fresh or pressed into cider, it is sublime.


Ask most any farmer in New England or upstate New York where their favorite apple tree or variety is, and you will get a nostalgic and passionate short-list of trees, some 100 or even 200 or 300 years old. What you are not going to hear are names like Macintosh or Macoun, and you a re definitely not going to hear Red Delicious or Granny Smith come out of their mouths, after all, these are seasoned connoisseurs of apples, and they know what makes an apple great. Instead, you will hear more curious names, each often coming with a story, for every apple has a good story behind it). Even in his late 90's, my father, in his moments of faux-lucidity, through waves of dementia, dreamed out-loud about having to go pick (his) Roxbury Russets up on Rabbit Hill (after his 'paper route').


My dad always called these Sheepnose apples (not incorrect, as many farmers did), but Black Gilliflower (or Red Gilliflower)  is a far better name, for this parent of the modern Red Delicious. It's hard and elongated, with a crispy, flavorful flesh which sadly does not last long in storage, but it will make an epic pie!


Gnarly, russeted, knobby with warts, these aren't always pretty apples, at least to the average consumer, but their names often hint at the magical experience inside - Pomme Grise, Blue Pearmain,Pitmaston Pineapple, Winter Banana -- old apples deserve to be revisited for many reasons, not the least being hard cider! If you are a baker or pie maker, these apples may change how you feel about what apples you mother used, as she was often limited to what was available in the supermarket. Soft Cortland or Macoun apples can turn to pure mush at the site of a pie plate. Why not use the same apple that Benjamin Franklin used (Cox's Orange Pippen or Roxbury Russet) next time? History in a slice of pie.


With over 3000 heirloom apple and pear varieties hiding in old orchards around North America, it's our duty as plant people to seek out these forgotten fruits and re-introduce them into culture.

I am discovering even more history about apples in New England through my involvement with the Worcester County Horticultural Society, a society which was founded in 1840 and incorporated in 1842, mostly by industrialists and farmers who had close ties to apples. I've currently been obsessed with reading the proceedings of the WCHS meetings from the 19th century and their annual reports from the early archives which speak to the origins of many of these very apple varieties.

Ashmead's Kernel - can you say' hard 'cider'? At nearly 300 years old (perhaps older), this relic from the 1700's is noted for its distinctive pear-like flavor and russeted skin.


There seems to be no escaping historical cross-roads with apples, in my new role on the Board of Trustees at Tower Hill, for this is, indeed 'apple country', and most every bit of history with the 'society' it's history, it's very DNA has apples in it. The WCHS and Tower Hill Botanic Garden even maintains an important collection of old apple varieties at the botanic Garden in Boylson, MA, from which scion wood is shared with collectors (cuttings to graft with), each spring to those who are passionate about saving these living bits of our history.


Cox's Orange Pippin is often listed as the favorite eating apple by many plant people who know about it's charms. From around 1830 when this apple first appeared in literature in Buckinghamshire, England, it remains the classic English apple for both baking and hand eating - if one can find it!

 So why do we see so few antique or heirloom apples today? After all, one would think that with the current rise in popularity of heirloom-anything (apples, squash, flowers) that of all things, the common apple would rank right up there with a striped German or red Kale? The answer may be more about practicality than desire. Clearly, there is a market for interesting apples with a story and amazing taste, but the practical limiters might outweigh the benefits. Heirloom apples grow on trees, and not annual vines or plants which could be planted every year.


At Alyson's Orchard in Walpole, New Hampshire, many heirloom apples are now being boxed for sale alongside other autumnal treats such as pumpkins and squashes.

They are not as resistant to the multitude of diseases and blights so common today with apples (fire blight, scab), and to be honest, most are really not that tasty, being more beautiful than yummy (truth-be-told, a new 20th Century Honeycrisp trumps most any old apple variety with the contemporary, everyday  palette of most consumers - yet, in much the same way they also prefer the flavor of news, super-sweet corn varieties, the real connoisseurs argue otherwise.


Blue Pearmain is old, but we are not sure how old. There is literature which lists it gin the Boston area in 1822 (Kendrick). Old-timers referred to it as a 'keeper' apple (as in "It's a keepah."), with apples lasting in a store room until March. An all-American variety, some trees still exist in upstate New York, and in New England.



Pitmaston Pineapple from around 1785 combines russeted texture with a flavor that can only be described as 'honey and crispy  pineapple'. Insane,  right?  Or, maybe you just want a plain, 'white-bready' Mac?


I personally adore the look and story of most antique apples, and, I even enjoy the flavor and crispness of a Cox's Orange Pippin or a Baldwin over most any hard, 'modern' apple, but to be fair, most of these old apples were not created or selected because of their delicious, out-of-hand eating potential, these russeted, bumpy or sometimes even ugly fruits had a more serious purpose - hard cider. And who could argue with that!






Homer shared with his his crates of ruby red 'Winesaps' (my mom's favorite) and  bloomy, purple --black 'Black Oxfords', along side speckled 'Blue Pearmain' and Esopus Spitzenburg'. I'm discovering quickly that with most of these old apples it's the names themselves which are as romantic as the horse-drawn sleighs and carriages which transported them from orchard to root cellar or cider press. 

Homer showed us his reference book for those fascinating knobbed Russets. It's a difficult tree to grow well, and the fruit has been limited to only a few dozen, but he hopes to increase stock as the tree matures.


The story behind each one could each be a separate book or post. Scions carried back nestled in linen wraps from England on a sailing ship, preserved fruit saving a family from starvation during a cold and snowy winter, a favorite variety selected and shared with an entire community, almost lost forever in a hurricane but rescued by a single tree - these relics are living history books. They happen to taste pretty good, too.



My sister in-law Toni, visiting us from Vancouver, WA picks out some' Esopus Spitzenburg' apples at Allyson's Orchard in New Hampshire. These date from the late 1700's. We'll be using them for applesauce.


If you are looking for something different and perhaps, even a culinary adventure (as many of the old apples are also known as 'cooking apples', search on-line in your area for orchards that have then (you may have to call and ask, for more often than not, only the orchard manager knows, or cares, about these trees). At out favorite orchard (Alyson's Orchard in Walpole, New Hampshire), we call Homer Dunn ( I know, right? As if a Hollywood script writer invented his character). Homer is not only knowledgeable and gnarly, as a seasoned, orchard manager must be, he is also passionate about his apples - he even shared some rarer varieties with us this time, I think excited that some people actually cared enough to ask about them.


Black Oxford  apples are so beautiful! They almost loom like plums



Unlike heirloom tomatoes,  apples don't come true from seed (actually, no edible apple comes trues from seed, so if you are raising a treasured Honeycrisp or Red Gala from seed, expect a a strange, thorny back-cross which will only disappoint). Apples themselves have an amazing story with humanity, many coming from Europe in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to North America. Our garden is only a few towns away from where Johnn Appleseed (John Chapman) lived (Leominster, MA), and most every town and village around here has an apple named after it (Sutton Sweeting, Millbury Sweeting, Roxbury Russet to name a few). 

This Blue Pearmain is more colorful than some of the other fruit from the same tree.


My favorite apple to eat? It's a variety named Spencer, but I do enjoy a hard, crispy Winter Banana apple for taste as well as for nostalgia - My sister and I knew of a Winter Banana tree at one nearby orchard when we were kids. Another old apple, it dates from around 1876 and to a child, the name itself conjured up fantastical flavors. My sister and I would sneak away from the trees that my parents were working on, to a row of a few Winter Banana's at the far end of the orchard. Filling our shirts with the giant, yellow, waxy fruits we proceeded to hide them in a 'secret' compartment in my dad's station wagon ( as if they could not see us!).

At home, we laid all of our apples out on the dining table to study the differences. A few quinces were added to the mix along with some lady apples - when consumed fresh from the farm, they are surprisingly crisp and sweet.

These apple picking trips were common for us, and he would drive our old Country Squire Ford station wagon into the orchard during 'drops season', when we could pick 'drops' to make applesauce with in late October.  Our secret stash of apples was seen as 'frivolous' to my dad, who was quite serious about both his apples. Our store room in the cellar had a cork door and galvanized barrels where we should store apples for the winter. Picking apple with wire grabbers and long bamboo poles allowed us to gather the highest apples on the trees, which were by this point in the season, nearly frozen and offered at a discounted price. 

Another russeted apple, Hudson Golden Gem isn't that old after all, it was discovered in 1931 by the Hudson Wholesale Nurseries. It's a good choice for organic gardeners since it is resistant to many common apple diseases and apple scab.



Joe packs a box of colorful, mixed heirloom apples to take home. We used tape on which we wrote the names on.
We still picked a bushel of Honeycrisps!















October 18, 2011

The Antique Apples of New England


Antique apples are suddenly back in style, which is no surprise given that heirloom tomatoes and other vintage vegetables are getting a lot of attention lately, but just try and find some in your local market. Like many things, antique apples will simply remain rare, since the market dictates availabilty based on demand,  the high cost of producing and delievering such treats will always keep the antique apple on the specialty produce list, whic too, is not surprising in our mass-market world. ,The number game will keep our Walmart shelves packed with Macintosh and Cortland, so we can jsut forget about convincing ‘Granny Smith’ to try a ‘Fameuse’ snow apple for three times the cost. If you don’t believe me, just try to convince your little daughter to take a big bite out of  brown, corky colored ‘Esopus Sptizenburg’.



The truth is, once you bite into that Spitzenburg, your life will never be the same again; (not that all antique apples taste better than modern ones, some, indeed, suck), but many are quite yummy, a few, even could be food for the Gods- that is, if the Gods don’t mind a few blemishes. Like fine wine and cheese, antique apple varieties are best appreciated by the connoisseur - those who can appreciate the subtle nuances between the hundreds of varieties that are being grown, today. 




Most antique apples are classified as ‘winter storage apples’, which simply means that tthey have a higher starch content than modern selections. Many of the storage types though, are tasty, but one must have patience -  with time in storage, they can develop a sweetness which one may miss when chomping on the pomme, right from the tree.  There are also varieties primarily grown for baking, or for cooking into sauces and stews, and then of course, there are the cider apples, (which, let’s face it - is what old apple varieties generally were used for - alcohol). 




Antique apple varieties have been shared among those who have been in-the-know for at least 150 years. Most are shared between enthusiasts as grafts, and are not started from seed. So sharing these old apples with friends is a little harder than it is with those plants which come true-from-seed (like heirloom tomatoes). Apples are open pollinated, and seed will revert back to whatever parents where used to create the original selection.


My friend Glen Lord sings his praises about a variety called ASHMEADS KERNEL, a russety, misshapen yet tasty variety from the 1700's, and if anyone knows apples, he does - after apprenticing at a well known orchard and winery here in Massachusetts. Glen is practically  J. Appleseed incarnate - he even lives in the town where Mr. Appleseed was raised.  I prefer HUDSON'S GOLDEN GEM, a crispy yellowish russeted variety that tastes a bit like an Asian Pear with a dash of lemon. I prefer hard, crispy apples, but I can sometimes get down a few bites of a store bought Mac or a Rome, if I was tied up and force fed. 

The apples seen here were all picked last Saturday in Walpole, New Hampshire at Alyson's Orchard. They do not allow their antique varieties to be hand picked, but I asked if I could get some of these rare apples to photograph, and they sent me down to the cider house to speak to Homer ( I just can't make this crap up!). Thus begins my Cider House Rules moment - Homer lead me to some crates behind the barns, where they had a few old varieties waiting to be washed and packed for markets ( I'm guessing that they must send the choicest apples to fancy markets in New York - and it's not as if I ever expect to find a nice ORANGE PIPPIN at my local Price Chopper - they are still selling the mealy Braeburn's  that were in cold storage from last year, I can tell).


BLUE PEARMAIN  is not blue, ( and I am too lazy to revise the error in the name above - the blue comes from the bloom that give it a pale tint. Some date this old apple back to 1833,  others, from 1890's, but most are certain that this variety came from to the US from England.  FYI - The dots are called lenticel's, and they are used in identifying many apple varieties, as well as the shoulders, the base, the stem end shape, the color, the russeting, and the taste. Most sources romanticize this apple, but I think that it's like biting into a raw potato. Really?

I know a Blue-Pearmain tree, growing within the edge of a swamp, almost as good as wild. You would not suppose that there was any fruit left there, on the first survey, but you must look according to system.... If I am sharp-set, for I do not refuse the Blue-Pearmain, I fill my pockets on each side; and as I retrace my steps in the frosty eve, being perhaps four or five miles from home, I eat one first from this side, and then from that, to keep my balance.

                                                                                 Henry David Thoreau


On this tasting trip, our favorite apple by far was Hudson's Golden Gem. This russeted conical apple was as hard and crispy as an Asian pear, but was so sweet and juicy that I found myself stashing away a private stash in a secret spot on one of the porches of the house. If there is one tree that I want to plant next year, it will be this one. There seems to be some disagreement on when this variety was introduced, but that is not uncommon with any old variety be it apples, tomatoes or squash. Hudson's Golden Gem is a great duel purpose apple,  a great cider variety and a crispy, firm-fleshed eating out of hand, variety.

SOME SAY THIS VARIETY DATES BACK T0 THE EARLY 1800's, OTHERS, SAY IT WAS DISCOVERED IN NEW HAMPSHIRE IN 1900, OR AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA IN 1923, BUT THE BEST STORY DATES IT TO HUDSON'S WHOLESALE NURSERY IN OREGON IN 1831.



BELLE DU BOSKOOP is a Dutch variety, introduced in 1856. A popular cooking apple, it contains two times the amount of vitamin C than Golden Delicious.

Read on for more.........

September 20, 2011

My 1802 Melon Project

This little project began last May, after purchasing a rare 1802 gardening book. It was then, when I discovered that in the early Nineteenth Century, the first glasshouses and 'stoves' in America were used not for flowers, but  mainly for fancy food crops - particularly the new 'Pine Apples' and citrus, that arrived home with sailors on their whaling ships. These plant crops, collected from exotic ports in the south seas, also included fancy table grapes from Europe,  that could ripen in the forced coal heated grapery for early winter table fruit, Muscadine grapes, nectarines and yes, melons.

NOIR DE CARMES and VERT GRIMMPANT - RARE HEIRLOOMS FROM NINETEENTH C. FRANCE

I was inspired to consider optional uses for my glass greenhouse, which say unused for most of the summer, which brings me to my experiment in growing these melons. Not ordinary melons mind you, but vintage varieties that might have been grown in an 1802 greenhouse.  I chose to grow these period fruit for a few reasons, their authenticity- living legends that anyone can grow thanks to a growing group of seed savers who search the planet for vintage or heirloom varieties that might have been lost, their romance, because come on, what could be more desirable than tasting a fruit that is a clone of what Marie Antoinette may have enjoyed, but mostly, for the flavor, which had proven to be unbelievably delicious in a honey-meets-nectar-of-the-Gods, way.
A CHARENTAIS TYPE FROM THE 1700's



TENDRAL VERDE TARDE MELON - A HARD, WINTER STORAGE MELON, THAT MAY NOT BE READY TO EAT UNTIL THANKSGIVING.


BOULE D'OR MELON, REPORTEDLY GROWN IN VILMORIN'S BOOK, THE VEGETABLE GARDEN IN 1885. NOW VERY RARE, THE PALE GREEN FLESH IS EXTREMELY SWEET.



Now that I harvested 'my melons' my friends at work can stop teasing me about having to go home and "water my melons".





July 5, 2011

Cherries!


SWEET CHERRIES ARE A HOME CROP MANY SEEM TO AVOID BELIEVING THAT THEY ARE TOO DIFFICULT, ALTHOUGH NOT EASY, ONE CAN HARVEST A REASONABLE AMOUNT FOR JAMS AND PIE, IF YOU SIMPLY NET YOUR TREES TO KEEP BIRDS OFF, AND THEN SHADE THEM TO AVOID RAIN CRACKS.
Cherries just might be the most challenging yet most rewarding home fruit crop. But don't expect those dark, black red cherries one gets from Washington State, most North American crops will be limited to sweet, red cherries, still large, but more flavorless until cooked. I adore cherries of all kinds, sour, sweet, pie cherries - the flavor reminds me of my mom when she would cook pies and jams from the sour cherries that grew in a small orchard in the field behind our home. We even had a yellow cherry that had died before I was born, but I remember the glass canning jars in the storeroom in the cellar with handwritten labels on them saying "yellow cherries" and I would always ask when we might try them. ( we never did, I think she was just saving them for a special event, and eventually they we're thrown away). I still feel the desire to taste them. I think next spring I will plant some yellow cherries out back for this very reason.
June and Early July is cherry season in zones 6 - 3, and if you do not have any cherry trees on your property, you can go to a pick-your-own fruit farm ( just be sure to check if they have cherries, for the season is extremely short - 4 days at our local farm, Tougas Family Fruit Farm in Northboro, MA.

The biggest challenge to overcome with cherries is bird damage, since losses can reach 100% even on home crops. Commercial growers take all precautions, such as constructing elaborate structures of green netting over their entire field. At home, one must cover their tree just after pollination, since even unripe young fruit is far too tempting to many birds.
LAYING ON THE GROUND, IN THE DAMP GRASS, YOU CAN LOOK UP AND SEE THE LARGEST CHERRIES THAT SEEM TO COME RIGHT FROM THE BRANCH. ONE MUST LOOK FOR THE DARKEST RED, EVEN THOUGH THESE LOOK RIPE, THE BEST FLAVOR IS DEVELOPED IN THE BLACKEST CHERRIES, SO PICK ONE-BY-ONE, NOT IT CLUSTERS.

Many home gardener dream of growing cherries, but either avoid purchasing trees believing that they are ungrowable in their area, or they have tried growing cherries, but gave up. But one you understand the challenges, and address them, cherries are relatively easy as long as you cover the plants.


There are three challenges to master finding solutions to when growing cherries. 1.   Birds, 2. Rain Cracking, and 3. Pollination. Of course the site must be right, with full sun and rick soil, and pruning must be mastered, but between the Internet and on-line documents, you should be able to attempt simple pruning.
'RAINIER' IS A CLASSIC QUEEN ANNE WHITE CHERRY THAT HAS A MUCH HIGHER SUGAR CONTENT THAN MOST RED VARIETIES. IT IS SURPRISINGLY GROWABLE IN MANY NORTHERN HOME GARDENS. NOT A PERFECT AS STORE BOUGHT FRUIT, YOU CAN BE ASSURED THAT YOUR OWN FRUIT WILL BE MORE ORGANIC.

Then there is the whole issue of what type of cherry to grow. There are tart cherries, for pie and juice, which are hardier than sweet cherries, but sweet cherries can be successfully grown in zone 5, as long as winter temperatures don’t fall lower than -25 degrees F.

There are many varieties, but I recommend growing trees that are grafted onto dwarf rootstock, or dwarf varieties. You may think that you would want a large tree to get a decent harvest, but three or four dwarf trees in a row can give you a bushel of cherries, far more than you would need for jam or pies, since most recipes call for 2 or 3 pounds per batch..

June 26, 2011

Viva la Fraises - Because it's June

SEASONAL LOCAL VARIETIES OF STRAWBERRIES ARE READY TO PICK. EVEN WITH DAMAGE FROM THE RAIN, HAIL AND MICE, THESE TENDER, FRAGRANT AND SWEET VARIETIES ARE FAR BETTER THAN ANY COMMERICIAL BRAND FOUND IN A PLASTIC CLAMSHELL.

NATIVE STRAWBERRIES ARE DIFFERENT THAN STORE BOUGHT VARIETIES, WHICH ARE BRED TO BE RESISTANT TO BRUISES, AND CAN HANDLE LONG SHIPPING WELL. LOCAL BERRIES ARE EXTREMELY FRAGILE, BUT OH SO MUCH MORE FLAVORFUL.
 I can't help but to associate June with strawberries. For this is the month for the world's most popular berry. It doesn't matter if you are in Germany, Switzerland, Seattle, Tokyo or New York - this month is THE season. You may prefer those Driscoll branded varieties, that are bred to retail intense flavor but even they don't compare to the intense fragrance of garden-grown sweet strawberries. Many people don'e realize that that there are nearly a hundred varieties of strawberries, and like tomatoes, those found in markets are bred for color, shelflife and firmness. Garden varieties are extremely tender, and bruise too easily, but their flavor is incredible. Intensely strayberry-ish,  juicy and sweet, full of rainwater and sunshine.

AT THIS TIME OF YEAR, BERRIES HAVE SO MUCH WATER IN THEM, THAT JUST SUGAR IS ADDED. BOIL UNTIL FOAM BEGINS TO FORM. THE ENTIRE KITCHEN WILL SMELL LIKE A CANDY FACTORY!

PREPARE IN SMALL BATCHES USING NO MORE THAN 4 LBS OF FRUIT AT A TIME. NEVER LET THE TEMPERATURE OF THE PRESERVES RISE HIGHER THAN 220 DEG. F, OR IT WILL SET TOO TIGHTLY. (I LEARNED THE HARD WAY!).

 I have many fond memories of picking strawberries with my parents. We grew a few rows in the gardens, and the rest were picked a local farms which my mom would freeze for later use, or to make jam with. If you remember back in December, I decided that this year I would start making jams and jellies again, as well as pickles. I miss the smells in the kitchen, and the entire process. It's a little funny to think that I have about 20 years experience as being an apprentice to my mother as she made pickles, james and jellies in many, many flavors, from currant to sour cherry, and wild concord grapes. Each fruit marks a season for me, with its scent, flavor or the entire process of picking them.
STERILIZED WECK JARS  FROM GERMANY ARE READY FOR FILLING. I STERILIZE THEM IN THE OVEN. WECK JARS ARE BEAUTIFULY DESIGNED, BUT PROBLEMATIC FOR MORE MORE SERIOUS CANNING, SUCH AS FOR BEANS, MUSHROOMS, MEATS, BUT FOR ANYTHING REQUIRING A HOT WATER BATH OR FOR PICKES, JAMS AND JELLIES, THEY MAKE THE RESULTING PRODUCT LOOK SO MUCH NICER. THERE IS NO JAR MORE ATTRACTIVE THAN A WECK, I THINK.

Why not take your family and pick some strawberries or blueberries at a local farm this year.  Enjoy your Saturday or Sunday making some fresh Jam ( I highly reccomend the Blue Chair Cookbook). Get the proper equipment, since there is really no room for experimenting or taking corners when it comes to home processing or jam making, but the results are incredible, and with a good jar of White Cherry Peach Jam going for around $14. at your local Whole Foods, why not make some yourself at less than half the price!

IT TAKES ABOUT AN HOUR FOR THIS PECTIN-FREE RECIPE TO REDUCE. ONLY 3 INGREDIENTS, BERRIES, LEMON JUICE AND CANE SUGAR. THE TRICK, IS TO USE THE RIGHT POT, SUCH AS THE WIDE COPPER CONFITURE PAN FROM MAUVIEL.  THE WIDE SURFACE ALLOWS FOR A FAST REDUCTION. IT'S A BIT OF AN INVESTMENT, BUT A NICE ADDITION FOR ANY KITCHEN.

FRESH STRAWBERRY JAM IS SUMMER IN A JAR, WHEN EATEN IN THE MIDDLE OF WINTER


Why not take your family and pick some strawberries or blueberries at a local farm this year.  Enjoy your Saturday or Sunday making some fresh Jam ( I suggest that you get the the Blue Chair Jam Cookbook by Rachel Saunders, it's just about the best jam cookbook I have ever read, besides being a beautiful addition to any library). Get the proper equipment, since there is really no room for experimenting or taking corners when it comes to home processing or jam making, but the results are incredible, and with a good jar of White Cherry Peach Jam going for around $14. at your local Whole Foods, why not make some yourself at less than half the price!
NEXT WEEK, IT'S CHERRY SEASON!!!

June 23, 2011

My 1806 Experiment - Greenhouse Melons

Petit Gris de Rennes Melons planted in a mesh bag in the greenhouse. These will have to be thinned to three or four vines per bag. I plan on allowing the vines to wander over the mesh shelving (once the succulent collection is moved outdoors!).
This is about using wasted space (OK, and it's a little about growing tasty garden-fresh melons!). When I was a kid, I used to exhibit vegetables and flowers at the local Horticultural society summer exhibitions, and I can remember an elderly couple who at the time, seemed to grow every dry bean and giant onion variety, winning all of the ribbons. One year they exhibited a large table of melons - all sorts, and watermelons in every color, pink, lime, golden yellow, red, all cut in half with pretty back specs of seeds, presented on white, rectangular exhibition plates. My mouth would water, and I dreamed of someday growing my own rainbow of fruit flavors. Maybe it was my inner Brony coming out, but I never forgot that amazing display of melons. One day at an awards banquet, I told them about how I admired their entries. The woman told me that they grew their melons in an old wooden greenhouse, and that they sowed the seeds after their tomato plants and geraniums were all planted. "the vine grew all over the benches, and they never had to weed!" she said, "they just took care of themselves because the rain would fall in through the broken glass".

I don't know why I have waited so long to try this.

My greenhouse is full many collections of plants, but most are either summer dormant, or they are ornamental potted plants, or trees and shrubs grown in large tubs, that are dragged outdoors for the summer. What I am left with is a greenhouse that is about 80% empty space, every square foot unused. It is hot, dry, and basically, unused until late summer when I start the bulb cycle growing again. So I began thinking....what if I grew something that was a little more practical ( and sustainable) than tender rare orchids or summer-blooming gesneriads that have fuzzy leaves that hate the rain? After all, ten years ago, this entire side of the property was a high-producing vegetable garden, all of which has been reduced down to 6 raised beds. I miss the volumes of fresh vegetables, and the 60 foot rows of beans, ( I don't miss weeding them, however!).

The answer, I think, is to use space wisely, and the greenhouse is a place where I can plant crops that might enjoy the extra summer heat ( it can reach 100 - 110 degrees F. on a typical day without the fans on. So I am going to try melons, bottle gourds and some Japanese cucumbers. A few years ago a squirrel chewed a hole in an old birdhouse gourds that I had storred under a bench for the summer, and the vine grew into a giant with at least 6 large gourds on it, so I think they can handle the heat. I will need to pollinate the flowers since I feel that most of our bees will not make it in through the roof vents, but it's worth trying.

This is not a new idea, for in a rare book that I purchased a month ago about month-by-month gardening which was written in 1806, the author speaks about the many greenhouse melons that he was growing in his glasshouse, which was in Philadelphia. In the 1800's. most greenhouses in America were used for what they called 'Pine Apples', and for table grapes, cucumbers and melons. I was so surprised to have read this, for the greenhouse was still a new invention. Surely, I, in the year 2011 more than 200 years later, should be able to manage this!

I ordered 10 extra large fiber mesh gro bags, a few bales of soiless professional potting mix, and ten packets of heirloom melons. The heirloom varieties include the fancy market melons one sees in the south of France in the summer markets, the striped orange-fleshed Noir de Carmes, and Petit Gris de Rennes, another French variety from the 1800's. A few modern varieties sounded interesting, a mini watermelon with yellow and pinkish flesh named Sorbet Swirl, and some bottle gourds. A few varieties of Galia melons that are popular in Europe and the Middle East, and  a classic Chanterais.


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