Melons: made in Kent

Chris Atkinson, Graham Caspell and James Cackett

Horticultural experts are predicting that thanks to the changing growing conditions, melons could become a significant crop in Kent alongside strawberries, apples and cherries, following the first harvest of a commercial trail at East Malling.

The melon crop is the result of collaboration between East Malling Ltd, the farm which is home to East Malling Research, and Mack Multiples, which sources fresh fruits, salads and vegetables from over 60 countries and supplies the UK’s major multiple retailers.

Graham Caspell, Commercial Farm Manager at East Malling Ltd, said: “This varietal trial has produced results which far exceeded the expectations of ourselves, the scientists and food technologists. We are delighted not only with the quality of the melons produced, but also the quantity, with a harvest of 9,000 to 10,000 expected.

“Importantly we have taken 77 days to get from a transplanted plant from the greenhouse to ripe fruit, which is about two weeks ahead of what we expected, thanks in part to the uncharacteristically warm Spring. This has been a trial, not only in varieties, but also in terms of the planting distances, plant husbandry, irrigation and fertigation methods that we have used.”

While it is not the first time that melons have been grown in the country, the trial has shown that it is possible to grow a commercial harvest of melons. The trial, which included Charentais, Cantaloupe, Galia, Yellow Honeydew, Turkish, Persian, Heirloom and Piel de Sapo varieties, was undertaken using polytunnels in Kent. The melons, once tested and graded for quality, will be sent by Mack Multiples to Sainsbury’s stores across the South East.

As a crop, melons do require careful nurturing and it is standard for them to be grown under polytunnel and drip irrigated. The team at EMR believe that its expertise in water management could be apply the techniques it has developed for growing strawberries to melons, which would improve the efficiency of production while at the same time producing high quality fruit.

James Cackett, Melon Technologist at Mack Multiples, said: “It’s still a learning curve, but we have demonstrated here that it is possible to produce any kind of melon, in particular Charentais and Cantaloupe, in a commercial size as you would see grown in either open or protected environment in much hotter climates. Melons could become a commercial crop in Kent on north-south facing slopes.”

Chris Atkinson, Head of Science at East Malling Research, added: “Kent’s southerly warm location and summer climate this year in particular has closely mimicked Spain in the spring. As a result Kent’s produced melons would hit the market as the volume and quality of Spanish ones is declining.

“This is a great example of a grower seizing the opportunity that climate change provides by trying something different; approaches like this will enable Kent and the UK to reduce the requirement for imported fruit. It also gives us a glimpse of the future for what Kent may be growing commercially in 10-15 year.”

Melons are also prone to Verticillium Wilt, a soil borne fungus, which damages the crop. With the removal of certain sprays under recent EU Pesticide Directives, a team at EMR has been developing way of tackling the wilt on strawberries, and these techniques may be transferable to melon production.

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