Watermelons and cantaloupes are such a delectable part of picnics and barbecues on hot, steamy summer days. So, when reading the Book of Numbers in the Bible, it is easy to conjure up a picture of an ancient people wandering in the harsh Sinai desert, crying out despairingly for a taste of sweet melons from home.
Numbers 11:5 paints such a scene for us of people who were exhausted and hungry, longing for the sweet melons of Egypt that they used to eat at no cost. "We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons" (KJV). Numbers 11:10 records how Moses heard his people weeping from despair and hunger, rebuking Moses' leadership. "Then Moses heard the people weep throughout their families," which angered the Lord and Moses.
The Hebrew title for the Book of Numbers, "In the Wilderness," is very apt, since Numbers traces the divinely guided journey of the Israelites from the wilderness of the Sinai desert to the plains of Moab. The complaints about the lack of clean water and fresh food, detailed in Exodus and in Numbers, are referred to as "the murmuring stories." These stories foretold the shattering rebellion of the Israelites and the break between God and His people, which would eventually be healed.
Experts suggest that the melons referred to in Numbers were either Cucumis melo (muskmelons, which we call cantaloupes), or Citrullus lanatus or Citrullus vulgaris (watermelons). Both types of melons were grown in ancient Egypt and in the Middle East in Bible days, and are widely depicted in the tomb art of the Pharaohs. Watermelons were grown as a crop in the Nile Valley 4,000 years ago.
From our Bible readings, it is clear that melons developed in hot arid lands, but don't despair if your climate doesn't match that of Egypt. Today, thanks to the creation of new varieties, you can find a type of melon that will thrive in your garden, even in northern areas and in small gardens. Start the seeds as early as you can. For areas with short growing seasons, plant them indoors in peat pots for a fast start. Plant the seedlings outdoors in a hot sunny spot, and provide a deep watering at least once a week. When you consider how juicy melons are, it is clear why they need large amounts of water. Rich fertilizer is essential, too.
To increase heat and boost production for all melons, I suggest that you lay black plastic on the ground; cut a hole or slit in it before planting each plant. This will cut down on weeds and conserve water by limiting evaporation.
Some cantaloupe hybrids, like Mainerock (75 days) and Minnesota Midget (65 to 70 days), have been developed for northern gardens. Minnesota Midget produces small fruit--5 to 6 inches in diameter and weighing 13 to 24 ounces--with a delicious flavor. Sweet'n Early hybrid, which is ideal for short-season areas, bears six to eight melons per vine and matures early (66 days).
The Charleston Gray hybrid, with its gray-green rind and red fruit, is very similar to the watermelons grown in ancient Egypt, which the Israelites longed for on their desert travels. The Charleston Gray was developed by C. Fred Andrus in Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1940s, and is a classic plant-breeding success story, accounting for 95 percent of the American watermelon crop in the 1960s; it is still widely grown.
The shape and hard rind of the Charleston Gray make it easy to ship. It is resistant to the two main diseases afflicting watermelons, and it tastes delicious. This plant takes up a lot of room for its sprawling vines, and yields oblong, delicious melons that average 20 to 30 pounds (80 to 85 days).
The Sugar Baby Watermelon is very popular because it takes up little garden space, with compact vines producing 6- to 10-pound melons (85 days.) For a melon that grows widely in Israel, both cultivated and wild, try the Malili Watermelon, which produces in dry conditions and yields 10-pound melons, with deep red fruit (90 days).
For seeds of some of the less common melons, such as the Malili and Minnesota Midget, do a bit of planning and order seeds from catalogs or online.