I see them peeking up out of the moist soil and spreading their many-fingered leaves out, inviting sunlight……there in the secluded orchard behind adobe walls at the base of A-Mountain. Hooray, the Tohono O’odham watermelons are rising again in the living history huerta at Mission Garden!…….
Ah, these monsoon rains have made it happen again—they thrill soul and body, triggering seeds to sprout and bringing the desert to life all around us. I can hear all the little stomates letting out their, “Whoopee! Whoopee at last! We didn’t know if we could hang in there much longer!”
Tia Marta here, wishing you joy with the renewing humidity and moisture blessing the earth—mat o sha ju:–when it rains. It seems all people know deep in their hearts that we need to, and want to, be singing in the rain. In the poetry of wordsmith Ofelia Zepeda, “Wa nt o m-ne’i g ju:kĭ ne’i. I would sing for you rain songs….” What higher compliment or loving expression could one hear in the desert than that? [For more tastes of her poetry, find Zepeda’s book Ocean Power (1995) and other works at University of Arizona Press.]
One of my most admired traditional Tohono O’odham gardening mentors, Laura Kerman, used to watch the southeastern sky as the clouds were building. When she knew rain was close and her skin was getting softer, that meant it was planting time again. To gardeners steeped in more temperate biomes, it’s a different yet palpable signal for planting time, the feeling of the sap rising. Here in the desert it is the reconstituting of our very integumen that we feel—then we know…(and yes some of us truly feel it in our bones too.) It brings a deep urge to plant seed in the ground, an urge imbedded in our physical being, deep in our psyche, somehow in our genetic memory.
At this very moment I can sense that the seed racks at every hardware store are getting lighter. The Native Seeds/SEARCH store and webstore are restocking seed packets at a fast pace to keep up with the monsoon pulse of gardeners.
My tastebuds think ahead as I scan the racks and webcatalogs. What flavorful squashes will I try this season? What fragrant and refreshing melons? What healthier grain, heirloom bean, ancient corn variety? Delicious and appropriate ideas are sprouting at the Mission Garden living history orchard. You can plan a tour any Saturday morning to inspire your own gardening bug. [www.tucsonsbirthplace.org]
I think the plant that loves rain most is Amaranth. (Such an insult to call our wild native amaranth a “careless weed” or “pigweed”! Better, the Tohono O’odham moniker which translates “rain spinach,” ju:hukia i:wagi. Within a week after a rain the tender young greens that pop up uninvited in your garden can be plucked to make a most healthy dish.) For planting delightful color and beta-carotene-rich greens, try Guarijio Grain Amaranth, originally from the little-known tribe from southern Sonora and saved by Native Seeds/SEARCHers (Amaranthus hypochondriachus x A.hybridus or “guegui” in the Mayo and Guarijio tongue). Guegui gives extra bonuses beyond greens: after showy red flower plumes grace your garden, you can bag seedheads to retrieve a plentiful grain that is 15-18% protein. Cooked amaranth seeds make a fine pilaf or rich hot cereal. Try popping amaranth seed in a hot dry skillet then add them to salads or to lighten up biscuit dough.
As I plant melon seeds I am thinking of the delectable future they promise. Native Mayo People of coastal Sonora and Sinaloa have perfected Mayo Minol Grande , a canteloup-like melon adapted to the heat that can perform well in Baja Arizona gardens. It makes a beautiful breakfast complement or a summer dessert served à la mode on a generous wedge of the orange fruit.
Similar in color to Mayo Minol but with smoother outer skin is the Melon de Castille which grew successfully in last summer’s Mission Garden. [Seeds of all of these can be found at the Native Seeds/SEARCH store or in the online catalog http://www.nativeseeds.org.]
At harvest time last summer, Mission Garden volunteers enjoyed an orgy when the rich red-fleshed Mayo watermelons were ripe, in an effort to save seeds to return to NSS. Good duty—such a forward thinking and benevolent activity is seed saving—and someone’s gotta do it.
Melons in your garden will indeed need water so plan on a reliable drip system and some form of water-harvesting berms to direct any rainfall runoff. Plant your melon seeds at the lowest part of your garden where water tends to accumulate. Give the vines room to sprawl out, even over not-so-good ground, so long as the roots are in rich soil.
Traditions of Desert People—the Tohono O’odham—provide a model of truly sustainable living in the Sonoran Desert. From them we have been given seeds of two of the best-adapted and tasty melons of all: a honeydew-like cushaw melon known as keli ba:so (pronounced gurli-bahsho), and the Tohono O’odham yellow-meated watermelon. Open up a keli ba:so for a sweet treat to use in a refreshing liquado or smoothie, or in a melon-ball salad perhaps laced with mint-agave nectar sauce. Translating the name keli ba:so opens up another dimension—the wonderful humor of the Desert People. The name (used especially by women) refers to the super-wrinkly texture of the outer melon skin and means “old man’s chest.” In retaliation, men have a different name for the same melon, “ohks tohn.” You might guess where this is going—it translates “old lady’s knees.”
Watermelons must have had an exciting ride to the New World some 400 years ago, arriving in what is now central Mexico from Africa with the first Europeans. Apparently the flavor and plant-ability of watermelon, and indeed its transport-ability, were so appealing to Native Peoples of Mexico that the fruit spread from its introductory source like wildfire. By the time the Spanish explorer Alarçon arrived at the northern end of El Mar de Cortes meeting Yuman people for the first time at the Colorado River’s mouth, watermelon was already part of their agriculture and diet! This fact stumped historians and ethnobotanists for years—(like how could the same watermelon have been cultivated in both hemispheres?)—until they finally figured out the speed with which a favored food can migrate. Watermelon–the original fast food.
Prepare yourself for a whole new flavor experience with Tohono O’odham yellow-meated watermelon. Its sweetness is non-cloying and gentle with an almost musky rich bouquet—a different taste realm from any red watermelon you’ve ever tasted. Put slices of this luscious watermelon on an hors d’oeuvres tray, or slice it alternating with red watermelon for a colorful picnic buffet. Joining orange Mayo Minol, cubes of lime-green keli ba:ṣo, red Mayo watermelon, and T.O. yellow watermelon completes a rainbow of color and flavor to create the ultimate Southwest fruit salad.
Happy monsoon planting and gardening to you as you practice sustainable agriculture in your own backyard! With the term introduced by Wendall Berry, may your “slow knowledge” grow as you tend your melon vines and cheer on the pollinators in anticipation of summer’s sweet and nutritious bounty of melons and amaranths!
As the monsoon season progresses, watch for the San Xavier Coop Association’s T.O. yellow watermelons for sale at the Thursday Santa Cruz farmers’ market at Mercado San Augustin. For more ideas, advice and seeds for monsoon garden heirlooms, visit the NSS store on North Campbell Ave. Also, come by our Flor de Mayo booth at the new St Phillips Sunday farmers’ market in its charming, refreshing oasis setting. Rod and Tia Marta of Flor de Mayo have experience, recommendations, and stories to share, and perfect monsoon seeds for the season. See you Sunday at St. Phillips!