If you were holding a dinner party in Tudor England and really wanted to show off, you would include a melon at the centrepiece of your table. Growing a melon is a fiddly process but they were being grown in the UK as early as the 14th century – impressive in the days before glasshouses and electric heating. Consequently, being able to produce a homegrown melon was a sign that you could afford lots of skilled gardeners.
A fine art
They are tender fruit that need a lot of heat and humidity to thrive. Because of this, the raising of melons was refined to a fine art, with numerous treatise written on the finer points of their cultivation. When the only method of creating more heat to bring on these tender fruit was to build up layers of fresh manure, which would release heat as it rots, you get the idea that this was a serious undertaking.
Special raised beds to contain the manure were made out of woven hazel poles and these were fenced off in an enclosure separate to the main vegetable garden. This creates a more agreeable microclimate by slowing down winds and by capturing and reflecting the heat from the sun. As well as these very real considerations, the fence was also there to keep out wild animals and menstruating women, whose presence was actually thought to ruin a crop of melons.
Before greenhouse glass
This was also in a time before you get panes of glass large enough to make a proper greenhouse, so when extra protection was required from frosts, straw and rush mats would be used to cover the young plants at night.
All of these techniques were employed by the gardener and writer Stephen Switzer. In the early 1700s, he claimed that a gardener should be able to provide the table with melons from May. That’s a pretty impressive feat when you consider that we struggle to get them ripe in August some years.
The melon obsession continued into the Victorian era, with special melon houses being built and every grand house had its own strain of melon, selected and bred by the head gardener for the particular requirements of the house. Though most of these were lost when the great estates fell into disrepair following the First World War, a few still survive today – ‘Blenheim Orange’ is a delicious, orange fleshed fruit and the smaller, yellow ‘Hero of Lockinge’ were both bred their respective Oxfordshire estates in the late 1800s.
Melon growing tips
If you want to have a go at growing melons yourself, be prepared for disappointment, but there are a few tips which can tip the balance towards success. It’s best to go for the smaller varieties as they are more likely to ripen in our cool climate without any extra heat. ‘Minnesota Midget’ from the Real Seeds catalogue is about the size of a man’s fist and is always the first of our varieties to ripen.
In a recent trial, the modern F1 varieties ‘Alvaro’ and ‘Magenta’ were both found to ripen outdoors in the UK, even in a cool summer. If you can spare any space in a glasshouse that will definitely improve your chances. They will all need a rich soil, lots of space to ramble, loads of sunshine and regular watering once they have set fruit to stop them from splitting. And if after all this you still don’t get ripe melons…when it comes to showing off your unripe fruit at a dinner party, cheat and sprinkle the cut flesh with sugar about an hour before serving!