Monday, August 25, 2008


I’ve been growing melons for just four years, and I have yet to find the perfect melon for my yard, but I’m not giving up any time soon. My perfect melon will have a definite melon flavor, will be sweet, will slip off the vine when ripe so even on my least observant days I can figure out when a melon is ready to be eaten, will be an open pollinated (non-hybrid) variety so I can save the seeds for future years, and will produce a decent amount of fruit. So far, I’ve tried Hale’s Best Jumbo, Sugar Nut Hybrid, Minnesota Midget, and Eden’s Gem. At the arboretum where I am a garden-volunteer, the vegetable garden includes Athena, which seems to be pretty similar to Hale’s Best Jumbo.

What I’ve learned so far:

Hale’s Best Jumbo—This is the first melon I grew. I got a couple of big orange-fleshed melons from each vine but they weren’t especially sweet, and they tended to crack before slipping off the vine (my ripeness indicator). I thought that the big rains we’d had around ripening time might have been responsible for the splitting and watery flavor, so I tried again the next year. Same result. At the arboretum, the Hale's Best Jumbo also have tended to split before slipping off the vine and to have less-than-spectacular flavor, but since we turned off the sprinkler system this year when it looked like the melons were getting close to ripe, the melons all (including the Athena) have had good flavor and sweetness, even though they were cracked open and had parts (around the cracks) that did not look good to eat. It seems like this melon (and Athena) need to be kept unwatered and unrained-on at ripening time for best flavor. Since I can’t control the tropical storms that come up across the Florida panhandle to dump rain on metro-Atlanta in the middle of the melon harvest, this seems like a less than ideal choice of melon for my yard.

Minnesota Midget and Eden’s Gem—These both are tiny melons, just a pound or two (max!) each. But since they are supposed to be great for small gardens, and my garden in small, it seemed like they were worth a try. Eden’s Gem is green-fleshed and Minnesota Midget is orange-fleshed. They are both tasty and sweet, they slip off the vine when fully ripe, and none of the fruits have split or cracked. Since the melons are so small, even though each vine produced two to four melons, the total weight of fruit harvested was not as much as I would prefer. However, one of my friends is growing these in containers on her sunny driveway this year, and she has really enjoyed these little fruits.

Sugar Nut Hybrid— This is the third year that I’ve included this melon in my melon patch, and I originally bought the seeds to grow as a back-up melon the second year I planted Hale’s Best Jumbo. The Sugar Nut is green inside like a honeydew and bright yellow outside when it is ripe, and it slips from the vine to let the gardener know it’s time to harvest. If water is withheld at ripening time, this melon is almost too sweet, but my family does not consider that characteristic to be a flaw. A sudden late downpour of rain does not make the sweetness go away, and none of these, in three years, has split or cracked. Each vine usually produces two to three medium sized melons, but the presence of the mini-melons in the garden this year had an interesting, and undesirable, effect on the Sugar Nut Hybrids that were planted at the same time: they stayed little. It hadn’t occurred to me that allowing the fruits to cross-pollinate would affect this year’s fruit, even though I know it would affect any plant babies produced from seeds of this year’s fruit. Luckily, I had planted two of these a few weeks earlier than the others, and those two plants produced normal-sized melons.

The take-home message:

I’m still-hunting for my perfect melon. I will probably plant Sugar Nut Hybrid again next year, alongside a new-to-me open-pollinated variety that won’t be a midget.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Oh, fig!

At the arboretum where I am a garden-volunteer, the fig tree by the tractor shed is loaded down with ripening fruit. We volunteers have been doing our best to reduce that load by snacking on figs every time we go by, but we haven’t been able to keep up. And yesterday, passing the fig tree was a real adventure, because now it is swarming with yellow jackets and big orange wasps.

As we all stood back from the buzzing tree and talked about figs and fig recipes, it came out that for the past couple of weeks everybody else’s fig trees have been going wild, ripening pounds and pounds of figs. One gardener invited everyone who wanted more figs over to her place because she has five fig trees all weighed down with fruit. Unfortunately, her trees pose the same problem as the one at the arboretum: picking the figs means braving a lot of stinging insects.

I started thinking about the brown turkey fig tree in my back yard near the deck. The tree is in partial shade, so we don’t get tons of figs and they ripen later than everybody else’s . This may be why I’ve never had too much trouble with yellow jackets around the back porch, in spite of the relatively unwise placement of the fig tree. As we all put away buckets and tools and continued talking, I realized how lucky I was in mistakenly placing my tree in the shade. Another gardener mentioned that she knew a family that, a few years ago, had planted a fig tree by their (sunny) back door. Her comment was followed by a moment of somber silence, except, of course, for the buzzing of wasps and yellow jackets.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Matt's Wild Cherry (Tomato)

Reading tomato descriptions in the seed catalogues in winter, when fresh tomatoes have been gone from the house for two or three months, is almost torture. They all sound so wonderful, and I want to try them all, but in my yard, most tomato varieties that aren't at least VFN resistant either die right away or have pretty low yields of tomatoes. To save myself from the distress of a pathetic tomato harvest, I choose my main crop tomatoes from varieties that are listed as being the most disease resistant, then I add one or two others to try, just in case the plants turn out to be resistant, after all (hope springs eternal!).

Matt's Wild Cherry is the kind of cherry tomato that I chose to grow this year, mostly because the catalogue description made it sound very resistant to all kinds of diseases and also because I had never heard of it before (the lure of the unknown!). Since this was an experiment, I started, and eventually planted, only one plant from the seed packet.

This is one tomato that is a success in my yard. It has been reasonably productive, providing a couple of cups of grape-sized tomatoes every day since the weather turned hot, and it is tasty. It isn't a super-sweet tomato, just nicely tomato-y. One of my brothers said it was like "a cool drink of water."

It isn't a good choice for a very small garden, though, or for a container. My one plant has arms that sprawl at least twelve feet, reaching through the all the cages of my Mortgage Lifters and Arkansas Travelers in one direction and all the way through my melon patch in the other.

After this year's success, I'm going to plant a Matt's Wild Cherry again, next year. Plenty of seeds are left in the packet, safely stored in a jar in the fridge.

Thanksgiving in August!

That title only makes sense because the local fabric and craft shops, that all have my address and aren’t afraid to use it, send me fliers in June and July advertising “Christmas in July” workshops and sales. The theory behind the July push seems to be that it takes a while to plan and complete craft projects, so getting an early start on Christmas gift-making is essential. A similar idea works for my garden. If I want to be able to go out and pick fresh veggies from my yard at Thanksgiving, I need to plan and begin the work in August.

Lots of plants do better in the cool weather of fall than in the blazing heat of a Georgia summer. Some of these, that I actually grow, are chard, spinach, lettuce, carrots, beets, peas, and broccoli. In addition, this year, as an experiment, I bought some rutabega seeds to try. My parsnips are already up; they have to be planted extra early since they need a very long growing time, so I planted those at the end of June.

I started my planning last week by looking at my seed supply and realizing that I needed more carrot seed, so I bought a packet of “Little Finger” carrots from Burpee. I’ve grown them before, and they were delicious. The back of the packet claims that I can harvest the little carrots just 65 days after planting. I would want the carrots to reach maturity (full sweetness and flavor) before the first freeze of the season, so the latest I should plant them is 65 days before the first frost date.

In the past, I have calculated my planting dates using Halloween as the first-frost date, but this article indicates that the Atlanta area gets its first frost fairly late in November, around the 20th.

Counting backwards from 20 November, I should plan to have those carrot seeds in the ground by 16 Sept at the latest. Since I want several weeks of carrots, and because the best-laid plans often go awry, I will probably plant little patches of them weekly before then, starting the last week in August. That should help ensure that my Thanksgiving relish tray includes my own garden’s carrots.
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