Thursday, July 20, 2017

Growing & Harvesting Watermelon

Everybody needs a watermelon patch! The old fashioned varieties are definitely worth the effort. With hybridization, watermelons have become seedless and nearly rind-less. But our great grandparents had the right idea about melons with thick rinds for protection, watermelon pickles and lots of seeds for spitting. Watermelon flesh comes in a rainbow of colors from white, yellow, orange, light pink, to bright red. The patterns on the rinds are just as numerous. A variety of shapes and sizes and maturity dates means there are no excuses for not including this delicious summer treat.

My goats love watermelon!

Watermelon are heat loving plants and generally need a long growing season. I am in zone 5 and they do wonderful here. Date to maturity ranges from 70- 105 days. They thrive in a soil rich in organic matter. I direct seed my melons on Mother's Day which is our Last Average Frost Date.

First and Last Frost Dates

Blacktail Mountain (H) good for Northern growers because of early maturity but also heat and drought tolerant.
You want to plant when your soil temperature is 65-80 degrees. Just stick a thermometer a couple of inches down in the dirt to determine soil temperature. Do this in the afternoon. Here's some suggestions to ensure you have happy melon vines whether you direct seed or start seeds indoors.

Direct Seeding:

We are going to amend the soil before we plant the seed. As the plant matures it has a fertile compost rich soil for the roots to grow into. Start by digging a hole about 1'x1'. Fill the hole with compost and a large handful of dry organic fertilizer mix. I included a link to the fertilizer mix I make.

Dry Organic Fertilizer Mix

Prepare to get both hands dirty. Mix the compost, fertilizer, and regular soil together and pat it down. Immediately plant your seeds. I plant two or three. You can thin out to the best two plants. Leave lots of space between plants. Don't over crowd your melon patch. This is one plant I do not put in raised beds. It will take over the bed you plant it in and intrude on nearby neighbors.

Depending on your zone you may want to warm up your soil with black mulch cloth or a row cover. You could also start the melons under a low tunnel and remove the low tunnel as weather warms.

Tom Watson (H) large 20-40 lbs and very productive

Starting Seeds Indoors:

I do not recommend starting watermelon indoors. They have very sensitive roots; however, in some zones it may be necessary. If you start seeds indoors do so 2-3 weeks before the last frost date of your area. Watermelon roots aren't particularly fond of being transplanted. Never buy root bound watermelon. Before transplanting follow the above method to amend your soil.
Watermelon are frost sensitive so be sure to pick a variety that has time to mature. Look up the length of your growing season (number of days from first frost to last frost) and choose a variety whose maturity date is within that range.

Tendersweet Orange very delicious and a favorite with sweet orange flesh

Saving Seeds

Watermelon belongs to the genus Citrullus and the species lanatus. All varieties of watermelon will cross with each other. Muskmelons are a different genus and species so they don't cross with watermelons. You will have to hand pollinate if you plan on saving seeds. Watermelon seeds will remain viable for six years if stored properly. The seeds are ripe when the melon is ripe for eating.

Charleston Grey (H) good for those with warm long growing seasons

Jubilee (H) old time favorite with red flesh

How to tell if a watermelon is ripe?

I think the best indicator is to locate the tendril opposite the stem of the watermelon. When it changes from green to brown it is ripe. Look at the bottom of the melon. There is a light white patch. When it ripens, it turns a pale yellow. Knock on the melon and it should sound someone knocking on the door. Hopefully you have picked a ripe melon because once picked they do not continue to ripen.

Moon and Stars Yellow has incredibly sweet pale yellow fresh

Water the Watermelon:

As the name implies, watermelons need even moisture. How much you water will depend on the type of soil you have. When you poke your finger into the soil, it should feel cool and moist. Mulching around the plants helps keep the soil from drying out.

Moon and Stars red fleshed heirloom

My favorite way to enjoy watermelon is the slice it, cube it, chill it, and eat it fresh. Nothing is more refreshing after working hard in the garden or farm than sitting on the porch eating cold watermelon. We sit outside so my husband and spit his seeds out. Here are a few other refreshing ideas.

Watermelon, Strawberry Lemonade

8 cups cubed seedless watermelon
1 cup strawberries, halved or raspberries
½ cup fresh lemon juice
1 cup sugar or agave (I start with 1/4 to 1/2 cups of sugar; 1/4 would give a tarter drink)
2 cups water
Combine all the ingredients in a blender or mixer and blend until smooth.

Optional add a few mint leaves

This is also delicious frozen and eaten as a slush or add vanilla yogurt for a smoothie

Watermelon wagon

My ducks finishing off the rest of the melon.  Everybody enjoys watermelon!

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Melon Family: Cantaloupes, Muskmelons, and Honeydew

The melon family, (Cucumix melo) is a  much larger family than most people are familiar with.  And like many families, its members range from the ordinary, extraordinary, to  the odd. One melon missing from this family is the watermelon.  It belongs to an entirely different classification, (Citrullus lanatus), but both families thrive under the same growing conditions.  

Not all melons are sweet.  Melons are thought to originate in Africa and many melons are grown for pickling rather than eating or used as a summer squash in various dishes.  

Here in America we have fixated on the sweet melons which are definitely worth a gardeners attention because these juicy gems pack up the sugar during the final growing days.  This irresistible sweetness will be lacking in a store bought melon.

When a melon is ripe in the field you can actually smell it.  Interestingly in Europe before the luxury of daily bathing fragrance melons were grown. Ladies of the upper class carried a small pocket melon called Queen Anne's to mask the effects of no daily bath.

Types of Melons

All varieties of Cucumis melo will cross with each other.  They will not cross with watermelons or any members of the Cucurbitaceae family.

I mentioned this is a large family of many unfamiliar members, well there are 7 subspecies of recognized groups of melons.

True Cantaloupes

True cantaloupes are not the "cantaloupes" which Americans are familar with.  True canaloupes are grown in Europe.  They have rough scaled rinds with mature fruit that does not slip from the vine.  The skin is not nettled

Chito Group

Chito melons are small lemon sized melons used for pickling.  They include mango melon, garden lemon, and melon apple.

Conomon Group

Are oblong or club shaped fruits grown in Aisa.  They too are used for pickling

Queen Anne's pocket melon

These are also known as pomegranate or plum granny.  They are very fragrant and about the size of an orange.

Flexuosus Group

The popular Armenian cucumber is in this group.  They are also called Snake melons.  Armenians always have a place in my garden they are delicious eaten fresh or can be pickled.

Inodorus Group

This group includes honeydew, crenshaw, and casabas.  Their flesh is either white or green.

Reticulatus Group

The common muskmelon which Americans call the cantaloupe are in this group as well as Persian melons.  They have the familiar nettled rind and firm orange flesh.  As gardeners know, they slip from the vine when ripe.  

If learning of the many subspecies of melons has intrigued you, and you are already planning on planting some new exotic variety, then you will want to check out these seed sources.

Planting Guide

Melons love to bask in the sun and are heat loving so planting in the sunniest spot of the garden is helpful. In cooler climates putting down black or red plastic mulch will warm the soil more to their liking. Hot caps or low tunnels may be necessary in some zones.  I am in Zone 5 and plant the end of May up until mid June.

 Melons need a loose soil and rich in organic matter. Direct sowing in the garden seems to work best. 

 Dig a 1' x 1' hole and mix in a compost or aged manure along with a handful of dry organic fertilizer:  1 part blood meal, 2 parts bone meal, 1/4 part azomite or green sand. Mix the amendments well and pat down.

Plant 3 seeds 3x the width of the seed in each prepared area.

Be sure to leave plenty of room for the vines.  Space 6' apart and alternate plantings between closely placed rows.  Melons also do well in a raised bed with a short trellis nearby to grow on.  

As the plants begin to vine put down a thick layer of mulch to prevent drying out and protect leaves from soil borne disease.  

Water generously especially when fruiting. Drought stressed plants will not be as productive nor as sweet.


The male flowers are the first to appear.  Perhaps it's an ego thing. They appear at the leaf joint on the main stem and on large side shoots.  Female flowers form later on secondary side shoots.  Melons produce many flowers but each vine will probably only mature 3-4 fruits.  Melons abort a large majority of female blossoms.  Gardeners get concerned when they see an egg sized melon shrivel up and die.  This too is normal.  The energy from that fruit is absorbed into the vine.  Remember only 3-4 fruits mature per vine.


Melons benefit from additional fertilizer.  Fertilize with fish emulsion and sea kelp when the true leaves appear, blossoms appear and fruit sets.  A manure tea is also beneficial.

Handle with Care!

The vines are very fragile and do not like rough handling.  If you have to redirect them do so gently.

Disease and Pests

  Prevention the best option.  Do not over crowd plants so the leaves dry out during the day.  Overhead watering is not recommended. Be sure to rotate each year where you plant melons. In between your plantings of melons you can plant dried beans to better utilize space. 

Disease Prevention Spray

I have found it beneficial to spray mature vines periodically with Neem, Serenade, and sea kelp .  Serenade is a bacteria used to prevent or stop colonization of fungus.  Neem is a systemic fungicide and pesticide.  Both are safe for beneficial insects.

Striped and Spotted Cucumber Beetle

As the beetle feeds on your plants it not only damages leaves but can spread bacterial wilt.  Bacterial wilt causes leaves to wilt.  To determine if it is bacterial wilt pull a stem apart.  If it has a sticky white substance inside, it is probably bacterial wilt and the entire plant should be removed.

Row covers can be used to protect plants until the female flowers develop.  Bees and small flies are necessary for pollination so covers need to be removed at that time.

Powdery Mildew 

Appears as white areas on leaves.  The fungus will use some of the vine's sugars to fuel its growth which may result in less sweet melons.  Prune off newly infected leaves.  Neem oil, Serenade,or a homemade mixture of 1 tsp baking soda to 1 qt of water can be used to stop the spread.

Routine Prevention Spray

I have found it helpful to spray periodically with the following combination in a one gallon sprayer:

Neem is both a systemic pesticide and fungicide.  Serenade is a fungicide. Sea Kelp a foliar fertilizer and Kaolin Clay (Surround) a deterrent.


When a muskmelon is ripe is smells ripe and will slip from the vine when you press where the vine connects to the fruit.  The skin between the netting also turns from green to tan or yellow.  The netting becomes very rough.

Honeydew are very smooth when immature.  As the mature they develop what looks like stretch marks and a sticky surface.

Enjoying Your Melons

Be sure that you plant a variety you actually want.  Remember not all melons are the sweet fresh eating type so choose a variety to suit your purpose.

Fresh eating is the best way to enjoy melons.  If I have too many ripen at once I cube and freeze them for smoothies or juicing.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Rotate, Rotate For Healthy Soil


 Cultural practices are important to successful organic gardening.  Sometimes we are our own worst enemy, creating both pest and disease problems because of bad cultural practices.  We may not even be aware we are the source of the problem.  If you plant the same crop in the same spot in the garden every year you are asking for trouble.  Crop rotation will not only reduce the risk of pests and disease but will result in healthy soil and better harvests.

Crop rotation deals with rotational plans that encourage healthy soil.  Just as weeds and plants in nature follow a natural succession it is wise to rotate the planting of your crops instead of planting the same crop in the same garden spot each year. 

Benefits of Crop Rotation

  • Maintains and improves soil fertility
  • Prevents build up of soil borne diseases that have a narrow host range and overwinter in soil.  Crop rotation can decrease the inoculum build up in the soil.  By introducing a crop that is not a host it cannot reproduce, gradually dies, and over time inoculum levels are reduced.
  • Prevents build up of pests that are relatively immobile,  feed on one crop, and overwinter in the soil.  Insects it helps to manage are wire worm, cutworms, corn root worms and white grubs.
  • Improves the physical, chemical, and biological composition of the soil.  Alternating plants with taproots and those with fibers roots will improve soil structure especially in a no till system. 
  • Helps establish diverse soil microbes  and soil tilth

With so many benefits it is essential to develop and rotation plan for your garden.  There are a couple of options you can consider when rotating crops.

Feeding Habits
This sequence divides garden crops according to feeding habits or nutritional needs.  Heavy feeders require  fresh compost and plenty of nitrogen. At the other end of the spectrum light feeders are satisfied with a mature compost and don't need extra fertilizing.

Heavy Feeders:  cauliflower, broccoli cabbage, lettuce, Swiss chard, spinach, celery leeks, corn, cucumber, squash, tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers. Includes leaf crops and nightshades.

Soil Builders:  Includes nitrogen fixing legumes of peas and beans.  If the roots of these crops are left in the soil they add organic matter and some nitrogen.

Light Feeders:  Mostly root crops like carrots, beets. parsnips, rutabaga, turnips, onions.

This method involves a 3 stage rotation that can be completed in 3 years or done within one growing season as you go from cool to warm season crops.  

Stage I:  Heavy feeders are planted in beds freshly fertilized with a compost.

Stage II:  After they are harvested, follow with soil building legumes.  Legumes build soil structure and add some nitrogen back to the soil.

Stage III:  Following this light feeders are planted with a very mature compost added.  

Add A Cover Crop Rotation: A fourth stage or cover crops can be planted in late summer or early fall which will winter kill and be incorporated into the soil to add organic matter.

Rotate According to Plant Families 
A different approach would be to begin with leaf crops which are heavy feeders, followed by seed and fruit crops include legumes in this, and finally root crops.  This rotation is nice in my area because the leaf crops do well in early spring and are replaced by warm season seed and fruit crops and then finally fall root crops are planted.

Rules To Consider:
Do not plant or follow planting with members of the same family.  For example if you plant potatoes do not follow them with tomatoes.  Both are in the night shade family.  Plants in the same family have the same nutritional needs, pest, and disease issues.  

Families of Vegetable Crops


Grasses include all grain staples and corn

This is a flour corn Bloody Butcher

Burgundy Amaranth

The lily family includes onions, garlic, leeks, chives, and asparagus.  Leeks and asparagus are heavy feeders.  This family can take cold weather.


Mustard or Cross Bearers (Cruciferae)
Named because the petals are arranged in a cross.  They are cold hardy, heavy feeders, and require plenty of moisture.
Cabbage, kale, collards, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, turnips, and rutabagas or swedes are in this family.  Asian greens are also in this family including pac choi, mizuna, and mustards.

Savoy Cabbage

Lacinato Kale

Peas or the Butterfly-flower Family (leguminasae)

Includes all beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, chickpeas, and vetch which is used as a cover crop

The Carrot Family (umxbelliferae)

These plants possess slender hollow stems with lacy leaves and branching flowers or umbels.

 Plants in this family includes carrots, parsnips, parsley, celeriac or celery root, turnip, fennel, dill, celery, chervil, coriander, anise, caraway, and angelica.  


The Goosefoot Family (Chenopodiacea)

This family provides both leaf and root crops including beets, Swiss chard, sugar beets, spinach, and orach.

Fordhook Chard

Cardinal Swiss Chard

The Nightshade Family (Solanaceae)

Includes warm loving crops like tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, ground cherries, tomatillos, and potatoes.  They are heavy feeders.

The Gourd family (cucurbitaceae) 

Plants in this family prefer warmth, moisture, and rich soil.  Gourds, melons, cucumbers, pumpkins, and watermelon are in this family.

The Composite Family or Sunflower family

This family includes food, flowers, and medicines. Lettuces, endive, sunflowers, dahlias, Jerusalem artichoke, artichoke, cardoon, chamomile, yarrow, tarragon, wormwood, marigold and many others.