The Watermelon Experiment -- SUCCESS!!!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Growing watermelons can be a real chore. A lot of it is trial and error, especially that "error" part. But the payoff is special indeed. This summer's sweet payoff comes in the form of the Sweet Diane watermelon. This is the largest melon I've ever grown, and this is small for Sweet Diane standards. But when the top of the striped green rind began to turn yellow, I knew it was time to bring it out of the garden.

This is not the first time that I've grown melons in the garden. However, it is the first time that I've started melons like this from seed. Most previous melon experiences involved starter plants purchased from nearby nurseries and those efforts yielded melons that were no bigger than the size of an average softball. While it was nice to get ripened fruit, I was hoping for something a tad larger.

And, past melon patches also brought rather unwelcome surprises. That includes that "weeding" incident in the Madera Ranchos, where that patch of weeds I pulled up from my backyard melon patch also brought forth a three foot long King Snake (I came to find out much later that snakes just LOVE watermelons patches). There's nothing quite like grabbing a big weed, only to discover that you've also grabbed a snake as well, and suddenly "you and the big guy" are face-to-face. King snakes might not be dangerous, but who am I kidding? Snakes are snakes....Coming face-to-face with one is no great joy, plus it's hard on the ticker....

This year, however, the situation was slightly different. I had the land. I had ways to control weeds. More importantly however, NO SNAKES. I might get buzzed by the occassional hornet or have a run in with a slightly agitated wolf spider, but that's nothing compared to sharing garden space with King or Garter snakes.

The first order of busines however, was choosing the melon I would grow. I didn't want the normal starter plant from your neighborhood nursery. I've been there. I've done that. I didn't want softball sized watermelons. I wanted WATERMELON SIZED watermelons. Melons that said "I can feed an army!" And I found that watermelon in the form of seeds from Pine Tree seeds. It was called the Sweet Diane, and it promised a "watermelon-sized" watermelon. Perfect. It's exactly what I wanted.

But, I had never grown watermelons from seed before. How does this work? When my packet of seeds arrived in February, I decided to get to an early start and planted those seeds with my tomato and cucumber seeds.


Oh sure -- those seeds took off sure enough. They literally jumped out of those peat moss starter pods. And they continued to grow after transplanting. But it soon became apparent that watermelons do not do well indoors. Watermelons want sunshine -- not some cramped grow room. Watermelons want HEAT -- far more heat than a space heater can provide. Soon, each of my six starters wilted and then died.

I was disappointed, but not ready to give up. I again started seeds indoors and they again jumped out of starter cups, only to wilt and meet the same fate that the first set of starter plants met -- an early death. I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out what I was doing wrong.

Actually, it was very simple. Unlike tomatoes or peppers, watermelons are not good performers inside a room or in a greenhouse. The best way to plant melons? Wait until the weather warms up, drop some seeds in the ground and water. It was that simple. And with the six remaining seeds I had left, I did just that. Sure enough, the plants jumped out of the starter bed I had created for them and started growing just fine in that warm, spring sunshine.

Unfortunately, the new housing development I live in doesn't contain all the features that you find in more established neighborhoods. One of the disadvantages is there are no mature trees. There is no mature landscaping. And that means there is precious little room or space for things like a colony of bees, which is absolutely essential for pollination of watermelon vines. I did have hornets -- by the dozen -- but they just don't scratch after that pollen like normal honeybees do.

After waiting several weeks for the bees and the first fruits of my labor to appear I finally took devices into my own hands. If Mother Nature wasn't going to pollinate my Sweet Diane watermelon -- I was. And I did just that -- using a small paintbrush. It wasn't difficult, however it was time consuming. I scratched as many male flowers as I could with that brush, and then deposited what pollen I had into the open female flowers.

Not every pollination attempt was a success mind you. But, in some cases, it worked. Soon there was one melon. Then two. Then three more. And soon I had a garden full of Sweet Diane melons.

Although I had been told that Sweet Diane was an heirloom melon out of South Carolina, I appear to have been given the wrong information. Sweet Diane is a hybrid and a recent introduction to the melon market. No matter, because the taste is still outstanding. And these "melon-sized" watermelons provided fruit that was cotton-candy, out-of-this-world sweet.

Despite my success in the garden this year, I did make some mistakes. I planted corn in the same bed as my melon seeds. The wife also planted sunflowers. Those were big mistakes. The sunflowers grew quickly, cutting off sunshine to the melon patch and the corn wasn't much of a help either. I did get lots of melons out of the Sweet Diane, but I could have received that much more with smarter planting practices.

So, this is the first year for Sweet Diane, but it won't be the last when it comes to melons in the garden. There's a lot more to try and the lesson has been learned. Next year's melons will get a little more space, they won't have to share that space and they'll get a little more water as well.

And that's what gardening is all about, isn't it? Trial and error......

New Uses for Heirloom Tomatoes!!!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

If your heirloom tomato garden is anything like mine, it's probably getting to the point where it's starting to produce far more than you need. This is when experiened growers unlike myself turn to various canning and sauce efforts in an attempt to save this wonderful harvest for winter uses such as stews, chili, soups, etc.

In short, there are a million things you can do with your heirloom tomato crop.

Check that! Make that one million and ONE. And this use has found a HOME, in the HOME of Venus and Bill Bird. I first spotted this recipe on the Yahoo Group TomatoMania (thanks Mary-Anne). And, it immediately caught my interest. It looked good. It sounded good. But I would have to wait six months before I could try it.

The photo that you see to your immediate left? That's the result of our heirloom tomato growing efforts and a wonderful concoction called Manny Hinojosa's Heirloom Tomato Martini. Yes, Virginia. Heirloom tomatoes aren't just for salads anymore. And this is one of the best uses I've found for heirloom tomatoes yet.

Keep in mind, I'm not a big, big fan of martinis. Should one appear before me, I'll drink it of course. But it's not the standard fare that Bill or Venus Bird will order at your average dive bar. Most of the time, we're content with less-lavish fare such as a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon. On those "extra-special" occassions, we might even dabble in a shot of fine whiskey. But, those occassions are rare.

I think the last time I had a martini was five, maybe six years ago. Based upon this recipe, I'm probably going to be mixing a few more. This is one lucious, incredible
drink. And, interestly enough, it changes colors depending on which heirloom tomato you use for each drink. For example, the drink to the right? It's the exact same yellow-looking concoction you saw above, with one little difference. The drink above was used with Lemon Boy heirloom tomatoes. The drink to your right contains about 10-12 crushed Sungold Sweet cherry tomatoes. And this was, by far, the best one of the bunch.

A bit of a warning here if you're going to try this recipe (which I highly encourage by the way). Even without the use of an heirloom tomato, this martini is slightly sour and very acidic. It's much like a Lemon Drop, due to the use of an entire lemon. If you use an heirloom tomato that is also high in acid content (we used a Green Zebra in one creation last night), you're going to get a martini that is extremely acidic. And, unless you have a cast-iron stomach, it can cause a bit of indigestion.

But not enough to put the kabosh on plans to make a third drink! The third experiment used an heirloom tomato that became an absolute favorite in our garden last year. As you can tell by the photo -- there is a bit of a red tinge to this drink. And, if you're thinking that we used red tomatoes, BINGO!! This drink is the result of two and a half small, crushed Costaluto Genovese tomatoes.

Second warning: This drink works best with vine-ripened tomatoes that you pull out of your own backyard garden, or you're fortunate enough to obtain from a neighbor's garden. Heirloom tomatoes purchased at conventional supermarkets are NOT acceptable substitutes. Heirloom tomatoes purchased at Farmer's Markets are a tad better. But there's nothing better than an heirloom tomato straight from the backyard.

Finally, although the recipe for this drink calls for "half of a small heirloom tomato," that is really hard to quantify. There is no standard size for "small heirloom tomatoes." That's the magic invovling heirlooms. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are as big as three pounds! Some are pea sized. This recipe works best with sweeter heirloom tomatoes. And, for the drink that utilized Sungold Sweet Cherry tomatoes, I used about ten of them, and also popped in a few West Sac Crack cherry tomatoes just to see "what happened."

The taste was simply out of this world good. Once you try this drink, I promise you, you will be hooked for good.

And now -- without fail -- the recipe for Manny Hinojosa's Heirloom Tomato Martini!

2 ounces Bombay Sapphire gin
3/4 ounce tripl sec
1 whole lemon
1/2 small heirloom tomato
4 leaves fresh basil (if you can get this out of the garden like we did -- wonderful!)

1. Muddle tomato with fresh basil in a shaker. Muddle means "grind it up." And I would suggest that you tear the basil leaves into two or three pieces and really grind all the juice possible out of that tomato at the bottom of the glass.
2. Add ice, fresh lemon juice, gin and triple sec.
3. Shake 10 times (making sure to dislodge that crushed tomato from the bottom of the mixing glass), strain and pour into martini glass.

This is an easy drink to make once you get the hang of it. Venus just loves it. And, I must admit, that wonderful wife has great taste.

I love it too.