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May is for Cantaloupe & more Melons! Honeydew Fruit Bowl Flowers

Melons are total beauty queens! Their outsides are marvelous, no two alike! You can grow minis to monsters! The insides are beautiful colors! If you couldn’t see in color, their tastes would make up for it! Textures are plentiful! Some of them slither, others crunch! Warm and drizzly down your chin at the garden, ice cold on a hot day! Fruit salsa! You can cut them in a thousand ways, from cubes to balls, slices, astonishing intricate veggie art! They can be eaten with your fingers, put in smoothies, as part of creamy ambrosia. Sprinkle with spices, toss with mint. Add coconut or walnuts!

Besides all these delightful features, Melons are good for you!
CANTALOUPE (American) – 100% of Vitamin A, and 24% of Vitamin C
HONEYDEW – 53% of Vitamin C

Melons, like pumpkins, need heat! Melons are native to Africa, and the trick to getting the best-quality fruit in cooler climates is to duplicate the continent’s hot sun and sandy soil as best you can. Light, fluffy soils warm faster than do clay ones, and melons love loose, well-drained dirt! Amend with compost or leaf mold. Ideally, you would wait to sow seed until the soil has warmed to 70°F before planting squash and melons, but SoCal hits 60+ degree soil in April and you can plant transplants successfully then! Start seedlings indoors to get the soonest start, but don’t start the seedlings too soon! They grow quickly!

You in cooler coastal areas really need the heat. Naked unmulched soil heated by hot sun does the job!

Put your melons in an area where they are sheltered or there is a windbreak so they get good and hot! Remember the tricks about windbreaks. A porous windbreak works best. In a cooler climate, a wall, maybe of berry producing shrubs with dwarf fruit trees behind, can reduce cooling and drying winds, allowing the warmth of a food forest!Windbreak Effectiveness Diagram Porous

Use clear or black plastic to heat up the ground. They absorb heat, warm the soil early, conserve moisture, control weeds, keep some pests and diseases away, and make harvesting a whole lot easier and cleaner. Or, use black landscape cloth instead of black plastic! The cloth allows the soil to breathe and water to pass through. Combine that with spun polyester row covers over transplants to give them a fast start. They increase the temperature by 5 to 8 degrees, and conserve moisture. Spun polyester is also handy because you can water straight through it. Or you can use a clear plastic film over seeds or young plants to generate more heat, and late melons can be ripened under plastic, too. Row covers must be removed when plants start to bloom so pollinating insects can reach the flowers.

If you choose the black plastic, and you don’t garden over winter, lay it over the future melon garden in late winter to start warming the soil. Weigh down the edges so it doesn’t take flight. When you are ready to plant, make five-inch, x-line cuts at least four feet apart on 6 to 8 foot centers depending on the size of the melon you are growing – if you are growing several plants in rows. If you commingle edibles and ornamentals, allow at least three feet in all directions around the cut-plastic x. Pull the plastic back and create a hill of soil (amended with lots of organic matter).

Green plastic film mulch For your consideration, green mulch is to melons, cucumbers, peppers, pumpkins and squash what red plastic film mulch is to tomatoes. According to reports of research trials in the Northeast and Oregon, cooler areas, it stimulates earlier and heavier yields of fruits. One person reported the green film was very thin. As a deterrent to weeds, it didn’t come close to black plastic. And at the end of the season it wasn’t reusable, so they had to discard it. Maybe things have changed since then or it comes in different weights.

If you have super good heat, keep your melons off the ground with super thick mulch and even then, put them up on sturdy upside down containers. You want them out of the munching bug and soil diseases zone. They will color up more evenly, consistently, and you can save space, if grown on trellises, making little slings to hold the fruits up. But if your area doesn’t get super hot, on the ground is better than up on a cooling wind exposed trellis.

If you mulch, put a stake where the center of the planting basin is so when you water, the water goes where the central roots are. Save water by not watering the rest of the area that doesn’t need it and that would cool the ground. Make your basin large enough that tiny lateral feeder roots get water too. Melons like to be kept moist.

Fabulous varieties!

In cooler coastal areas consider growing mini melons that don’t take as long to mature, or early melons, container varieties, that mature in 85 days or less. Consider growing spicy sweet Green Nutmeg, which has been around more than 150 years. Jenny Lind is another green-fleshed cantaloupe that weighs about a pound, 70 days. Early varieties have compact foliage. Vines and the distance between leaves (nodes) are shorter than larger, long-season melons. They flower early and have smaller fruits.

Heat and drought tolerant varieties per Southern Exposure Seed Exchange are:

Melons: Top Mark, Sweet Passion, and Kansas all have extra disease and/or pest tolerances. Edisto 47 is particularly recommended for hot, humid summers where fungal disease is an issue. Missouri Gold produces well through droughty conditions. [If you live in SoCal coastal foothills, plant away. If you are in the cooler beach areas, if you think we will have a HOT summer, take a chance, plant if you have room! It’s recommended to wait until May to plant cantaloupe.]

Watermelon: Crimson Sweet and Strawberry watermelon are good choices where heat and humidity make fungal diseases a problem.

A clever strategy for instant succession planting, if you have space, is to plant melons that mature at different times. Growing small fast maturing melons AND late large melons = 2 harvests!

Soil  Slightly acid light, sandy loam with a pH between 6.0 and 6.5 is preferred. You might guess melons are very heavy feeders, they are making a lot of plant and a large fruit! Before planting, add in a little extra compost, and leaf mold, some well rotted manure, cow manure if you can get it.

Water! You are going to see a lot of recommendations to plant on mounds. Here in California, and other places, we are in drought conditions so I am recommending to plant in basins like the Zuni desert waffle gardens techniques. All the water goes to your plant, less is lost to evaporative wind across a mound top, less water is needed. If in a cooler coastal area, your plant is sheltered from cooling wind, produces more in the heat.

Melons need plenty of water to support quick vine growth in early summer! The rule of thumb is a minimum of 1-inch of water a week, 2 inches is likely better. If you use plastic mulch, it will retain moisture so check the soil under the plastic to see when watering is really required. Once the first fruit ripens, stop all watering. Too much water at ripening time dilutes the fruit’s sugars and ruins the sweet flavor. The melons don’t need the water because they develop a deep root system soon after they start to flower.

Plant! Seed soaking and presprouting definitely speed up germination! Plant three to five seeds two inches apart and about one inch deep. Keep them moist and watch them grow! Once the vines have two sets of true leaves, thin out the smaller or weaker vines, leaving the two strongest to grow on.

Valuable Companions  At the same time you plant your melons, put in radish, marigold, maybe nasturtium to repel Cucumber and flea beetles, squash bugs. Nasturtium harbors snails, so you are warned….

Male flowers come first so they can pollinate the females when they arrive! Not to worry if you don’t get fruit set at first.

Sidedressing Melons are a lot of plant and hungry! Fertilize every two to three weeks before blooming starts, using an all-purpose 5-5-5 fertilizer. In the root zone, put some spade fork holes around your plant. If you are using mulch, pull it back and add several inches of compost to root areas monthly. Put the mulch back and water it in. It’s like giving your plant compost tea as the water and compost drizzle down in the holes! Especially sidedress melons when blooming starts and every 6 weeks after.

Diseases

  • Fungus diseases, include Alternaria leaf spot, powdery mildew, anthracnose, and downy mildew.
  • Water melons in the morning, ideally at soil level, so leaves dry before evening, preventing fungal diseases.
  • Apply the home remedy Mildew mix! As soon as your little plants are up about 3″ or you put transplants in the ground, mix a heaping tablespoon of Baking Soda, 1/4 cup non-fat powdered milk, 1 regular aspirin, 1 teaspoon liquid dish soap in a watering can. Apply foliarly, both under and on top of leaves. The main ingredient is the bicarbonate of soda! It makes the leaf surface alkaline and this inhibits the germination of fungal spores. Baking soda prevents and reduces Powdery Mildew, and many other diseases on veggies, roses, and other plants! It kills PM within minutes. It can be used on roses every 3 to 4 days, but do your veggie plants every 5 to 10 days, or after significant rains, as the plant grows, because new plant tissues are not yet protected by your fungicide. See more details!
  • To prevent powdery mildew, spray the leaves with wettable sulphur during late summer when the nights begin to cool down.
  • At the first sign of disease, remove infected parts; remove and discard the mulch around the plant and replace it with fresh, clean mulch.

Pests  Spun polyester row covers are excellent for controlling cucumber beetles and vine borers. Vine borers are the worst melon pest in some states, but not in California. Additional practical info on vine borers from U of Georgia. Though written with squash in mind, just think melon, another cucurbit, as you read it. Remember, row covers must be removed when plants start to bloom so pollinating insects can reach the flowers. Once the row covers are removed, sprinkle diatomaceous earth on the leaves to protect the plants from cucumber beetles. Plant Radish with eggplant, cukes & zukes, and melons to repel wilt-carrying striped cucumber beetles.

Maturity, When and How to Harvest

On very hot days melons can over ripen on the vine, giving them a waterlogged appearance. Most summer melons are fragrant when ripe. Sniff the skin; if you smell the flavor of the melon (the senses of smell and taste are interrelated), it is ripe for the picking. Another indicator for ripeness is when the stem separates (slips) easily where the vine attaches to the fruit. Cantaloupes are mature when the rind changes from green to tan-yellow between the veins.

Honeydew, crenshaw, and other winter melons are ready to harvest when they turn completely white or yellow, and the blossom end is slightly soft to touch. Since they do not slip, cut the melons from the vine. They will continue to ripen for several days at room temperature once they are picked.

The sweetest and most flavorful melons are those picked ripe from the vine and eaten right away. They may not be icy cold, but the fresh flavor and perfume more than make up for the temperature difference. Go ahead, open a melon and eat it right in the garden—without utensils—and let the sweet nectar run down your chin. That’s the true taste of summer!

Poor Flavor? It may be the weather: cloudy during ripening, too hot, too much or too little water, it rained a lot before harvest, or a combination of factors.

Saving Seeds is easy! When you save and store seeds, you help to continue the genetic line of plant varieties, leading to greater biodiversity in garden plants and preventing extinction of different varieties. A word to the wise! Like other cucurbits, melons easily crossbreed, so allow a ½ mile for reliable distance isolation between different types or cultivars. To be completely safe from any accidental cross-pollination, keep them away from other family members including cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins.

  • Pick melons for seed saving when the tendril nearest the melon is completely dried, then store the harvested melon intact for another 3 weeks before removing and cleaning the seeds. Scoop out the seeds, put them into a wire mesh sieve, then with running water over the seeds rub them gently against the mesh, using it to loosen and remove the stringy fibers. The final test: Healthy seeds will sink to the bottom of a bowl of water, while dead seeds and most of the pulp will float. Get your seeds as clean as possible to keep them from sticking to whatever surface you dry them on.
  • Drain them in a strainer. Pat the bottom of the strainer with a cloth towel to pull extra water from the seeds after they have drained. Spread them on a piece of glass or a shiny ceramic plate to dry (they will stick to paper, even waxed paper). Place the glass or ceramic plate in a cool, dry shady spot for several days. After the seeds are dry, they can be carefully removed from the glass or plate and final-dried before being stored in jars.
  • Your seeds will keep for up to 5 years if stored in a cool dry place, however, the shorter the storage time, the better. Date and Name your seed jar. Dry seeds well to avoid mildew. Fluctuation in temperature or moisture levels of stored seeds lowers their longevity significantly. Prevent insect infestations by adding diatomaceous earth, it’s non toxic, to the stored seeds in their jars. Add a few pinches to the seeds in a bowl and gently stir to thoroughly cover each seed.

All melons are flavorful enough on their own, yet you can enhance them with a sprinkle of ginger or salt. A squirt of lemon or lime juice will bring out the melon’s sweetness.

A popular treat offered by Los Angeles push cart vendors is fresh fruit sprinkled with salt, chili powder and a squeeze of fresh lime juice! it makes a quick, healthy snack or a vibrant side for a barbecue! 

Mexican Fruit Salad with Chili Powder

Recipe Mexican Fruit Salad with Chili Powder

Choose 1, 2, 3 or more fruits and/or vegetables—here are some that work well:

  • mango
  • pineapple
  • watermelon
  • cantaloupe or other melon
  • cucumber or fresh pickles
  • jicama

lime juice
chili powder
salt, to taste or not at all! If you use salt, assemble your salad at the last minute—the salt begins leeching juice from the fruit right away.

May your life be sweet and spicy!

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The Green Bean Connection started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. We are very coastal, during late spring/summer in a fog belt/marine layer area most years, locally referred to as the May grays, June glooms and August fogusts. Keep that in mind compared to the microclimate niche where your veggie garden is. Bless you for being such a wonderful Earth Steward!

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Ants and Aphids on Tomato Plant
Ants tending aphids on Tomato plant

Too many ants! Plants are seriously damaged by their aphids. Production is stalled, plants die. Not ok.

Bad year! Ants are on beans, cucumbers, okra, even tomatoes! It’s become clear the usual hosing off the aphids isn’t enough. Hosing uses too much water, it waters your plants too much, which the ants like! With big tomato plants jammed in cages, you can’t get to the center and fuzzy plants don’t like to be watered on their leaves anyway. The aphids the ants tend are almost impossible to get off those fuzzy backed leaves – especially the stiff haired cucumber leaves. You can’t hard spray them off cucumber flowers because it blows the flowers away too. Argh.

Where do those aphids come from?! Some farming ant species gather and store the aphid eggs in their nests over the winter. In the spring, the ants carry the newly hatched aphids back to the plants. Queens that are leaving to start a new colony take an aphid egg to found a new herd of underground aphids in the new colony. As aphids feed, they often transmit plant viruses that can sometimes kill the plants, and the honeydew they make, that the ants feed on, favors the growth of sooty mold. This is a very destructive black fungus that spreads on plant leaves. Not only do ants protect and farm herds of aphids, but also cottony scales, mealybugs, soft-type scales, and whiteflies. Bad juju in the garden.

OK. So it’s either spray with a killer mix, or bait to end the colony. Enough already. Spraying is immediate; baiting takes a few days to a week. Do both to save your plants sooner.

Temporary Solutions

  • Insecticidal soaps are quick but temporary. Drench ant colonies with solutions of insecticidal soap, which are nearly non-toxic highly refined soap. It will not eliminate ants deep in the nest.
  • Neem Oil, organic, is a maybe. Some report it works and swear by it, others say it doesn’t work at all. Probably depends on what kind of ants you have. Some say premix works for them, others say get the 100% stuff. It is not long lasting, repeated sprayings are needed.
  • The Stinkies! Tea Tree Oil, herbs like Peppermint or Rosemary, Cinnamon, Eucalyptus sprays work and smell great! These can be used a couple of different ways. Crush the leaves, sprinkle on an ant line and they vanish. Or, use one cup of water to ¼ cup of peppermint or spearmint. Mix in your blender, strain into a handheld pump sprayer. Put it where you want it! Repeated sprayings needed. Some say you need less of Tea Tree and less frequent sprayings.
  • Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth is fossilized remains of plankton; it looks like an off-white talc powder. It kills insects with exoskeletons, all kinds of them! It is perfectly safe for mammals, in fact, is eaten daily by some humans. To work it has to get ON the ant, and if it is even dew dampened, doesn’t work. It doesn’t attract ants, so they don’t invite their friends, and it isn’t ‘shared’ with the other ants. So yes it works, and no it doesn’t. If your plants are suffering now, it’s too slow to use.
  • Vinegar A half to a liter down the hole kills, but the ones that escape merely move. Remember, vinegar is also an herbicide. Be careful.
  • Water? Ants can live submerged in water for several days. That’s why the hose down the hole doesn’t work. So you need a little fire power, boiling hot water, to kill them.

‘Permanent’ Solution! Borax, plain old grocery store 20 Mule Team Borax kills the colony. It really works without fail. It’s cheap, a little goes a long way, and you can use what’s left to do your laundry!

Spray Mix 1/2 cup of sugar with 1 teaspoon of borax (20 mule team) with 1 cup of water to make a spray and spray on their trail where they enter the house (garden) and in 3 days they will be gone. Spay around the windows and doors to keep them out. When the spray dries they eat the crystals and take them back to the nest and POOF they are gone. At the garden, do this on a WINDLESS DAY, and be very careful not to get it on your plants. It’s an herbicide.

Per April Sanders, here’s how the BAIT thing works: Worker ants only feed on liquids. They take solid food back to the nests, where it is given to larvae. Then, the larvae convert it to liquid and feed it back to the worker ants [all the worker ants!]. Straight boric acid or insecticide will kill ants, but the worker ants will eat it rather than taking it back to the nest because it is in liquid form. Making a paste ensures the poison will get to the nest.

The first bait recipes I found were sugar and Borax. So I tried it. I found a lot of dead ants, meaning the Borax was not getting back to the nest, but the Borax was definitely killing the ants. After reading April’s explanation, I am now adding cornmeal to the mix. It is a ‘solid’ the ants have to carry back to the nest for processing. So sugar to attract the ants, cornmeal to carry home, Borax to do the job.

Here’s the skinny on cornmeal! Neither cornmeal nor grits cause ants to explode or jam up and starve because ants don’t eat solids. Cornmeal does disrupt ants’ scent trails until they lay down new ones. Yes, the ants might move, due to disrupted trails, and that might be only a few feet away. It appears to stop ants, but they are merely feeding close to their nest at your expense! They take the stuff home, let the larvae convert it to liquid, and they get it back in the form they can eat.

April explains that cornmeal is a medium to carry the poison. ‘Mix cornmeal with a slow-acting liquid insecticide or boric acid to make a paste. Slow-acting insecticides are the most effective way of controlling ants, according to the Colorado State University Extension. Choose one made specifically for ants for best results, and add it a little at a time to the cornmeal until you have a thick paste.’

  • Sugar ants. Bait is serious. This means you are out to kill the colony, a ‘permanent fix.’ Bait is easy to make, a cup of very warm water, 1/2 c of sugar, cornmeal, 2 tablespoons Borax, make a paste. Set it out in a way birds, pets or children can’t get to it. Put it out AFTER you have watered, at the base of plants the ants and aphids are bothering. The ants will go for the sugar and lay off your plants. Scout ants take it home to the colony, and it is spread to all the ants. It isn’t an instant fix, but it works in a few days to a week. REMOVE while you water, replace afterwards.
  • For grease or protein ants, Golden Harvest Organics bait: Mix three parts peanut butter with two parts jelly and add one tablespoon of boric acid per six ounces of mix. Add cornmeal for your solid. Place the bait on pieces of paper or stuff it into large straws (safer so birds won’t get into it,) and place it where you see ants foraging.

Make your own SAFE bait containers!

Make your own Safe Ant Bait Containers!

  • Small diameters of pipe or unchewable tubing keeps bait safe from birds, pets and small animals. Swab the inside of the end of the tube with a Q-tip to be sure the paste is stuffed far enough away from the end of the tube for a small creature to reach. Place out of the sun, or make some shade for it, along the ant trail.
  • Make holes in a jar lid, toward the center, so if it gets wet, falls over or you lay it on its side, your bait doesn’t ooze out. Put your bait in the jar, put the lid on tight. Lay it on its side, butt end facing the direction you water from, so if you accidentally water, the water doesn’t get inside. Lay it on its side along the ant trail, but especially near a plant the ants have been tending, for their easy access. They will go to it and stop tending the aphids. Don’t put it in full sun so it won’t bake your bait or be too hot for the ants to want to get into. If the lid surface is too slick for purchase, sandpaper or scratch it with a rock so the ants can get a grip. Containers are safe for you to handle when you want to move them or add more bait or remove while you water. If you make holes in the sides, make them high so the bait doesn’t seep out.

When I say Borax really works, I mean it! BE VERY CAREFUL. Besides a bugacide, it is an herbicide, used to kill weeds! It can’t tell the difference between a weed and your veggie plants. When you put down your bait, do not water later, forgetting it is there, and get it in your soil or on your plants. Take up your baits before you water. Definitely don’t do it before rains.

More ant & Borax details from an undated UCCE article on ‘New Research’ by Nick Savotich says: ‘The Argentine ant, being a honeydew feeder, has a strong preference for high carbohydrate liquids. High sucrose-based baits, (50% solution), were found to be the most preferred. Various concentrations of boric acid as the toxicant were also tried in combination with the high sucrose baits. It was found that the lowest concentration of boric acid, 0.25%, was as acceptable to the ants as was the sugar solution alone. Higher concentrations, 0.5 – 2%, tended to inhibit acceptance. Boric acid is an excellent toxicant for ants. However the next step is to determine whether this very low concentration (0.25%) is adequate to destroy whole colonies of the Argentine ant.’ So you see, it doesn’t take much of that 20 Mule Team to do the job.

For best results lay out a fresh bait daily. Lay it in areas where you see regular activity and near their points of entry if you know them. Don’t be diligent washing away their trails, you want them to find the bait spots easily again and again. All the workers in the colony can follow each others trails, so even if you killed off the first foragers, their partners will follow the trail they left.

Stop them before they start! Maybe you have been over watering? Ants make their colonies near a water source, and soft over watered plants are aphid friendly. When you find ant colony entrances, put a few drops of dish soap around, down the nest hole, fill in/bury the nest entrance. If they have taken up residence in your compost pile, turn that compost more frequently and water it a little less!

Predators! Groundbeetles, humpback flies, parasitic wasps, praying mantids and the yellow-shafted flicker all dine on ants. Plant flowering plants like cilantro, celery, carrots, food to bring the beneficial insect predators. You are lucky if you have woodpeckers because they are voracious ant eaters.

Wear gloves, wash your hands when you are done working with any toxic stuff, and remove your baits promptly when you are done with them.

Next year, put down your baits before you do plantings the ants and aphids love. Knock back the ant population from the get go! No, dear garden friends, we will never be ant free, nor do we want to be. Ants aerate our soil, clean up scraps and seeds, feed on fleas, termites, and other pests, are a food source for birds and other insects. As with all creatures, they play an important part in a healthy planet. Balance is a practical peace.

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