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Magnificent melons.

Magnificent melons

Growing melons used to depend on heat and a long growing season--if you didn't have both, you passed up this crop.

It's still easier with long, hot summers. But with new varieties and techniques, many coastal and high-elevation gardeners --even in the Northwest--can now grow them successfully.

The fruit itself has changed. New kinds are flowing into the market from France, Israel, and Iran, and hybridizers are expanding the range and quality of the old standbys. Cut one open and you may find the startling lime green flesh of 'HaOgen', the cucumber-crunchy texture of 'Crispy Sweet Hybrid', or the melting softness of 'Honeyshaw'.

Under ideal growing conditions, new varieties mature in as little as 80 to 90 days. In marginal melon-growing climates, such as the San Francisco Peninsula, they often take longer, but even there we found the quality of the best kinds still far surpasses that of most market fruit.

Not all are equally popular. On page 124, we list seven that won top ranking both at public tastings--set up by UC Cooperative Extension advisor Nancy Garrison in Santa Clara County, California--and from extension advisors and home gardeners throughout the West, particularly in somewhat cool climates.

Inland where nights and days are warm all summer, you can grow almost any melon, but these short-season varieties will produce faster. The cooler and shorter your summers, the more challenging growing good melons will be; in coolest areas with little heat to trap, growing melons may not be a worthwhile gamble even with new techniques and varieties.

To find the best growing methods, we grew melons in several test gardens in Menlo Park, California--comparing results of different timing and techniques. Here's what we recommend.

What works, what doesn't

Presoaking seeds. Both in the greenhouse and in the ground, we sowed clusters of dry and soaked seeds at the same time. Both spurted up simultaneously, usually three to five days after sowing. If your soil is as warm and moist as it should be, you'll get no real benefit by soaking melon seeds. If soil is too cold, seeds often rot either way.

Prestarting seedlings. In our test plot, 39 days after planting outdoors, prestarted plants had fruit--some tennis ball--size, some full-size--while plants from seeds sown in place in the same beds on the same day were just starting to bloom.

If you schedule, cold weather, or wet soil makes planting outdoors in the ground this month impractical, and if you have good conditions for sowing indoors (information follows), doing so can bring harvests two to four weeks sooner. If you have a long growing season, you can stagger crops by also sowing seeds in the ground the same day you transplant seedlings from indoors.

But if your weather is already frost-free and warming, and you can prepare beds outside soon, then the combination of black plastic and row covers can enable plants outdoors to grow as fast as ones indoors--and with less effort.

Full sun all day is best. Choose the warmest site you have. Fruit on the sunnier west side of our plot ripened first; heat reflected from paths and walls also helped.

Soil--the fluffier and deeper, the better. Pure, well-rotted compost is not too rich for these rampant growers. We rotarytilled the entire area, then poured a 3-inch-thick layer of bagged organic soil amendments over roughly shaped beds and forked it in.

For easy watering. We recommend a drip system or a soaker hose with a quick-connect attachment so you can leave it in place throughout the growing season. This keeps fruit and foliage dry (inhibiting rot and mildew). Water amply and often until fruit is full-size; then, for a sweeter crop, stop entirely or water barely enough to keep vines healthy.

One heat holder underneath. Covering soil with black plastic heats soil about 3|, speeding crops by several weeks, as shown at far right. Clear plastic heats soil 7| to 12|--preferable in cool areas, but risky this late in the desert; it also won't suppress weeds. Both keep fruit off wet soil.

And another on top. A tent of one of the new row-cover fabrics can start harvests a month sooner and increase production. For more on row covers, see page 86 of the February 1987 Sunset.

Leave the cover in place for four to five weeks (plants usually have outgrown it by this time). When temperatures rise into the 80s or plants begin to bloom, remove it or lift sides to allow pollination and for ventilation (temperatures underneath can be 30| hotter). When nights stay warm (40| and up), take it off permanently.

What you need for indoor seedlings

Melons don't recover well from setbacks, so sow seeds early indoors only if you can give them ideal care. If plants do get badly rootbound or unhealthy, start over with seeds sown directly in the ground.

Fill 4-inch containers with potting mix, water thoroughly, and sow two seeds 1/2 inch deep in each container. (In smaller containers, melons tend to become root-bound and fail.) Cluster the containers on a tray, and put the whole group in a plastic bag to keep it moist. Put in a warm, draft-free place (on top of the refrigerator usually works well).

Check daily. When seeds sprout (three to seven days), put pots under grow lights about 5 inches away (windowsills are usually too drafty and not bright enough). Give plants 8 to 12 hours of light a day, then darkness.

After four to six weeks, they'll be ready to plant outside. The week before planting, gradually adjust them to outdoor conditions: put them outside in a place protected from wind and direct sun. Each day, increase the amount of light they get until they can take sun all day. Bring them in at night unless it's quite warm.

The day before transplanting, thoroughly water the bed and seedlings. In the plastic, cut an X large enough to let the rootball through, open a hole in the soil with a trowel, and gently tip the rootball out of the container. Tuck roots promptly into the ground without disturbing them, burying stems a little deeper than the old soil level. Water promptly to settle soil.

Official advice is to pinch off all but the strongest seedling, but we kept both plants from each pot with good results, planting them together in clumps spaced 4 to 5 feet apart.

Photo: Melon bounty: 19 of 83 kinds grown by UC extension service. Ones ranked highest at tastings are marked with*, described on page 124

'HEARTS OF GOLD' Low ratings

'HONEYSHAW'* When it's sweet it gets rave reviews

'CHARENTAIS' From excellent to awful

'EARLY HYBRID CRENSHAW'* Sweet, aromatic crowd pleaser

'BURPEE HYBRID' Early; firm flesh; good taste

'IROQUOIS' Vigorous producer; good flavor

'MINNESOTA MIDGET' Variable size fruit on 3-foot vines; fair flavor

'HARPER HYBRID' Sweet and full-bodied

'HA-OGEN'* Sweet surprise inside; an all-around favorite

'GOLD KING HYBRID'* Exceptional flavor and drought tolerance

'GOLDEN CRISPY HYBRID' Sweet crunch you love or hate

'FRUIT PUNCH HYBRID'* Tender green flesh; medley of flavors

'EARLI-DEW' Sweet, firm, green flesh

'EARLISWEET' Prolific and very, very sweet

'HALES BEST JUMBO' Honey sweet

'AMBROSIA HYBRID'* Distinctive flavor vies for first place

MYSTERY MELON Not yet on market

'GIANT PERFECTION' Size was its greatest asset

'GOLDEN BEAUTY' CASABA Low heat won't do it justice

Photo: Twelve-pound 'Honeyshaw' melons ripened 12 weeks after planting outdoors in San Jose. Three plants produced 25 fruits

Photo: Choose an early variety, then follow our five planting steps to melon success

1. For earliest harvests, start indoors in 4-inch pots now, four to six weeks before nights get warm. For late crops, also sow seeds in beds at transplanting time

2. Work in quantities of organic material such as compost or manure 8 to 12 inches deep to build loose, spongy soil. Optional: shape soil into mounds 1 1/2 to 3 feet wide to make beds deeper

3. Make watering easy, steady, and ample. We buried a drip-irrigation soaker line 3 inches deep down the center of each bed, and connected it to an automatic timer

4. To heat up soil, cover it with clear or black plastic two to four weeks before planting (4-to 6-mil lasts longer than thinner sheets). Anchor edges with soil

5. To speed ripening, spread row cover over bed before planting and cut to fit. Remove and set in plants. Replace cover, gathering excess in middle to give plants room; anchor edges with soil or 2-by-4s

Photo: Plastic makes a difference: plants in back look similar from a distance (right), but up close, those with black plastic (above) had many melons. Best same-age plant in bare soil (below) had one fruit and flowers

Photo: Compare results: after 5 1/2 weeks, transplanted seedlings (rear) cover beds and paths. Seeds sown the same day (foreground) are far behind; without row cover, cold weather arrived before their crop matured
COPYRIGHT 1988 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Apr 1, 1988
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