Novelty, specialty or personalized melons are generally smaller and different from traditional Midwest watermelons, cantaloupes or muskmelons. A very successful example has been Sugar Cube, a smaller and sweeter cantaloupe now popular with some growers and consumers. In the summer of 2019, the Missouri Department of Agriculture funded a modest project by MU Extension, to evaluate four novelty melons on yield, quality and storage. Included in the evaluation were Brilliant (Canary), Honey Orange (crispy flesh Honeydew), Lambkin (Piel De Sapo), and Lilly (small & early Crenshaw). Each has an appearance and taste profile distinctly different from cantaloupe.
Sugar Cube (the standard or control), Brilliant, Honey Orange, Lambkin, and Lilly were seeded on April 29th in the research greenhouse range on the campus of the University of Missouri. Additionally, Eden's Gem and Snow Leopard were seeded on April 22nd to serve as border plants. All seeds were donated by Johnny's Selected Seeds (Winslow, ME). Plastic plug trays (32 cells per tray) filled with Pro-mix BX (a standard growing mix) received two seeds per cell and placed on a greenhouse bench to germinate. The seedlings were subsequently thinned to one per cell. Plants were hardened off for 2-3 days before planting which was by hand. Border rows were on May 20th and all others on May 22nd.
The plot was at University of Missouri's Bradford Research Center (4968 Rangeline Road, Columbia, MO 65201). The area used had a mix of grasses and forbs in 2018, which was terminated in August with glyphosate herbicide. It was then tilled and seeded to buckwheat, cowpeas, radish and wheat. On March 21st glyphosate herbicide was applied on the area and turnip seed was broadcast on March 28th. The plot was field cultivated on May 14, roto-tilled on May 16 and raised beds (6) covered with white on black plastic mulch were made on May 17. Pre-plant granular fertilizer was applied to the bed tops before covering with plastic mulch at the following (actual) rates per acre: N 54, P2O5 88, K2O 36. A soil test (University of Missouri Soil Lab) indicated the following additional fertilizers would benefit the crop during its growth: N 10; P2O5 40; K2O 50; Ca 20 (actual rates per acre) which were applied through drip irrigation.
Plants were set into white plastic-mulched raised beds and there was no need to water in (rained that evening). All plants were sprayed with Warrior the day before planting.. Dual Magnum (1 pint/ac) and Sandea (0.7 oz/ac) were applied to aisle rows on May 20. Prowl H2O (2 pts/ac), Sandea (0.7 oz/ac), Select (10 oz/ac), gramoxone (3 pts/ac) and crop oil concentrate (1 qt/ac) were applied on June 11. Following the latter, straw was distributed at the density of 2 bales per 1,000 sq feet.
Drip irrigation was used to provide water, when required, and the additional fertilizer recommended above. The fertigation dates were June 20 & 25 and July 9, 12,17, & 18. Plots were only watered two additional times after July 18. Field insecticide applications were as follows: Assail (May 24), Warrior (June 3), Assail (June 10). Additional insecticide applications were made on border plants only on June 20, 24, 25 and July 12. Foliar fungicide applications were made weekly (specific dates were May 28; June 3, 10, 19, 20, & 25; July 9, 16, & 22; Aug. 2 & 16). Fungicides used included Bravo, Copper Sulfate, Copper Octanoate, Mancozeb, and Rally. A beehive was placed adjacent to the plot on June 11 to facilitate pollination.
The research planting consisted in six rows 6ft apart (center to center) with four record rows bordered by one guard row on each side of the plot. The experiment was set up in a randomized block design with melon variety as the main effect (plots) and four replications (one in each record row). The experimental unit (plot) was 25ft long with 10 plants set 2.5ft apart within the row. Statistical analysis of yield variables were analyzed by Proc GLM in SAS 9.4 (SAS Institute Inc., Cary, NC 27513). Melon variety was treated as fixed factors and replication was considered the random factor.
Harvest began the week of July 22-26 and continued the following 4 weeks. Sufficiently ripened fruit were picked, weighed and sorted to marketable or cull, for every plot. Two harvests occurred for each week except for the 3rd week, which had three. Data were summarized per week.
Two representative fruits, of each variety, were selected from six different harvests and measured for soluble solids (Brix), exterior length and width and interior seed cavity length and width. Brix was determined using a hand-held refractometer.
One representative fruit for each variety was selected from the harvest on August 5th and 12th. These were stored in a CoolBot refrigerated room at 58-62 F until August 19th. Visual observations to the exterior and interior were made, soluble solids were measured, and the flesh was evaluated for taste. Photos of the melons before storage were taken. One melon each of Brilliant, Honey Orange and Lilly was selected and a photo taken at harvest and one week later at room temperature, to determine if any color change was notable.
Scorecards were made for each melon, asking taste-panelists to rate each entry from 1 (worst) to 5 (best) for (each) sweetness, flavor and texture. Then, the overall acceptance was determined by averaging all three variables. Six tastings were conducted in 6 different counties (locations) on six dates (July 23 & 31, August 1, 11, 15, & 28). Properly completed scorecards collected per variety ranged from 209 to 216. The experiment was set up in a split-plot design with melon variety as the main effect (plots), location as the secondary effect (subplots), and taste-panelists as replications. Data were analyzed by Proc Mixed in SAS 9.4. Melon variety and location were treated as fixed factors and replication (panelists) was the random factor.
Crop growth was excellent, no diseases were seen, cucumber beetle numbers remained less than one per plant and few weeds broke through (which were hand eliminated until mid-July). See Figs. 1 and 2.
Key yield data are presented in Table 1. Yields were very high for all varieties near or exceeding 500 cwt (100 lb) per acre. For comparison, in a 2017 production trial conducted by Purdue University, Sugar Cube produced 433 cwt (100 lb) per acre. Our only explanation for the superior yields is the weather was generally sunny, not overly hot and the pest control was excellent.
The average fruit weight was as expected for Brilliant, Lilly, and Sugar Cube. Fruits for Lambkin and Honey Orange were larger than expected from their seed catalog descriptions (3 lb fruit). The peak week for fruit maturation was July 28-Aug.3 (2nd week). For Sugar Cube and Lilly it was notable the percentage of total yield in the first two harvest weeks was more than that of the other varieties trialed (80% compared to about 50% for others). All varieties except Lilly had similar culls rates. A rain event of 1.14 inches on July 29 triggered much of the cracking on Lily that resulted in the higher cull percentage. Some cracking on other varieties also occurred with this rain event, but seemed a normal or expected amount. Lilly would have yielded higher if its cull rate were similar to the others. Some varmint damage occurred, but the majority of the latter was to the border row melons.
The storage temperature was selected that is commonly used by growers to partially chill (but not refrigerate) for a short time some warm season vegetables like melons, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and summer squash. Alternatively, melons sometimes are also moved by growers to an air-conditioned room (about 70 degrees F) or just put in a farm shed. One week at the CoolBot temperature would be the equivalent of 2 to 3 days in a farm shed with no cooling or 4-5 days at room temperature.
There was no decline with any of the varieties after one week, as indicated by rind surface spots or other discoloration and interior rotting, softness or poor taste. Thus, that information is not presented. Soluble solids for all melons were of expected range (data not presented). After 2 weeks, Sugar Cube stored the poorest and Lilly had notable decline on the exterior. The others held up remarkably well (Table 3 and Figs. 3-6).
A question arose on whether storing certain melons would influence their coloration, especially noticeable greening of the rind or a greenish hue. After one week at room temperature, the rind of Lilly notably lost its green coloring. For Honey Orange and Brilliant the change in greenish hue was subtle, but reduced to the point that the former appeared whiter and the latter a deeper yellow. See photos below of the exteriors of Brilliant, Honey Orange and Lilly.
Consumer tasting was extensive, occurring on 6 dates spaced over 2 months, in 6 counties /(locations) in Missouri. A total of over 200 scorecards successfully filled out for each of the 5 different novelty melons. The types of events or situations at tastings conducted included - the Missouri State Fair, a research farm field day, the University of Missouri campus, a vegetable farm field tour, and a Master Gardener meeting.
Based on the results of taste-testing, it was apparent that little difference for consumer acceptance existed between the melons tested. The exception was Lilly which ranked significantly lower in consumer acceptance when compared with Brilliant, Lambkin and Sugar Cube (Table 4). Between the article authors own tasting of the melons, others close to the project and consumer responses at tastings, a comments section was developed and is presented.
Sugar Cube is excellent for the indicators it displays upon ripening. The netting turns tan and the ribbing stays greenish, lightening to tan when fully ripe. The stem easily slips when the ribbing is still greenish. All the other melons were more challenging to access ripeness. The maturity cues and additional comments are presented for each below. Harvesting three times per week, versus two, would assist with full ripening before splitting.
The results of this project should give confidence to growers interested in novelty melons, especially for Brilliant (Canary type) and Lambkin (Piel De Sapo). Both had excellent yields compared to Sugar Cube, stored better than it, and were well received by consumers. Lambkin should be marketed under a more interesting or descriptive name.
Honey Orange and Lilly should be considered more cautiously for production, although yields for both were excellent. Regarding Lilly's tendency to crack when ripe, this might be lessened by restricting irrigation. Lilly may also develop a following from consumers who feel a ripe fruit should be soft. To them the creamy texture is a real selling point.
When Honey Orange was at peak ripeness, it was enthusiastically received. Unfortunately, if not fully ripe, the flavor was less acceptable even with melons having Brix levels of 12 or 13. If a grower can't ensure his harvesters can determine ripeness, it could be challenging to market or generate consumer enthusiasm.
What's in a name? A lot, especially to the consumer.
What's a consumer willing to pay for a premium melon? Sugar Cube is a great size at around 2 lb, it often sells for $3 to $5. The average weights for Brilliant, Honey Orange and Lambkin are at least twice that, so would need to be sold for $6 to $10 (or more) to return the same revenue per area. Would the consumer pay this amount? For a typical sized Lilly, it would need to be priced (on average) at $11 to $18.
How to market wholesale? Cantaloupes are often marketed in bins. Sugar Cube is small enough to be marketed in standard produce boxes holding 20 or 25 pounds. These melons are too large for that and big enough for a bin. Would a wholesale buyer want to purchase that many? An easy solution, if growing Brilliant, Lambkin, and Honey Orange, would be to sell mixed in a bin as they are quite similar in weight. The appearance of the three together is attractive and would provide some flexibility if their harvests are unequal.
REVISED: December 20, 2019