Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Summer Fruit Salad Coming Up!

On those dog-days of August, when the heat just won’t stop, there is nothing as refreshing as a chilled garden fresh treat. The subtle hues of home grown cantaloupe and honeydew melon combined with the brilliant crimson of fresh strawberries, can convince you that it isn’t really too hot to eat. Toss your fruit with a bit cool chopped mint and drizzle with honey or yogurt and suddenly you know you will survive. If we get started soon, by August we will have melons and strawberries waiting in the fridge.

Growing Melons:

Melons are extremely easy to grow. Their large seeds need warmth to germinate, but once they get going they usually take right off. Seeds are available through most nurseries and mail order catalogs and starts should be coming into the nurseries any day now. Melons need lots of room to ramble and are happy planted out in fields, rows, or tucked into the sunny edge of the yard or garden border. They are considered heavy feeders, so it is a good idea to amend their planting holes with plenty of organic matter, and mulch to provide nutrition and moisture retention.


Few pests bother melons, although whitefly and slugs can sometimes be a problem. White fly can be controlled with simple organic sprays. Neem, tobacco tea, and insecticidal soap are all effective and they should help with slugs too. Tobacco tea should not be used within two weeks of harvest; neem and insecticidal soap will have directions on their labels. It is best to spray after dark, so you don’t poison beneficial creatures. Avoid soaking the leaves so much that they excessively drip on the soil. Except for the neem, these controls are not healthy for worms and soil microorganisms. Be sure you treat the under side of the leaves, because that’s where white flies live. Last but not least, if you notice lacewings, solider beetles, ladybugs or ladybug larva under the leaves, don’t spay at all. These voracious creatures are your friends. They will seek out and destroy pests with little or no effort needed on your part. Slugs are best controlled by hand picking early mornings and late evenings.

Air Circulation is Important:

It is best to avoid overhead sprinklers when watering melons, and apply the water only to the planting hole. This will keep the vines and fruits relatively dry, which discourages both slugs and rot. Once you have small melons developing it is a good idea to elevate them off the ground ever so slightly. Half an empty egg carton works well, as does a clean piece of old carpet. Either one will provide for some air circulation, which discourages rot and slugs. Carpet or egg cartons will also provide a bit of a barrier to gophers. I have pressed handfuls of sticks, small piles of dried weeds, and folded tea shirts into service. Your melons should be ready to pick when the tendrils nearest the vines turn brown and crisp. Then just wash them up and pop them into the fridge.

Choosing Your Melons

The smaller varieties of melons do very well in Northern CA. Our nights aren’t always warm enough to ripen the old fashioned giants. Look for watermelons designated as “Baby,” “Doll,” and “Ice Box” all of which will ripen fruit in our area. Watermelons are available with and without seeds, in red, yellow, orange, and swirled colors. Most people prefer the flavor of the red melons, but if you have room it is always fun to try something new. Cantaloupe and honeydew melons also do extremely well in Northern CA. If you live in an area with coastal influence choose a small, northern, or short season variety. If you check out the seed catalogs you are bound to find all kinds of exotic melons to try in your home garden. Keep that fruit salad in mind and choose colors that will harmonize nicely with your strawberries. When buying seeds or starts make sure to read the information on the tag, description, or label. Days to maturity should be listed. We don’t have much hope of ripening melons after September, so keep that in mind when making your selections.

Growing Strawberries:

It is definitely time to start planting strawberries! While there are many types of strawberries available, nearly all of them fall into two categories: June bearing, and ever-bearing. If you want strawberries for August fruit salad the ever-bearing kinds are the ones for you. Your next decision will be if you want really big fruit or if you prefer the smaller more intensely flavored berries. (Or maybe you want some of each?) Next keep your eyes out for the words self-pollinating. This is the best option for beginners, as you don’t have to purchase two compatible varieties to get fruit. Last but not least, check out the hardiness zones in the plant description. Here in Hoopa, on the valley floor, we are in USDA hardiness zone 8. If you are not sure of your zone, check with your local nursery, they are likely to have maps or charts to assist you. Ok, I know, this is a little more complicated than choosing a melon, but bear with me. It’s worth it. And unlike melons, you don’t have to replant them every year.

Strawberries are considered short-lived perennials, so if they are happy they will grow and bear for several years. They can be planted out in the garden with the tuck-and-run plan, or one can take a more scientific approach. I am more the tuck-and-run kind of strawb grower, maybe because I want to take the easy way out. Strawberries are most happy with full sun in the morning, and dappled afternoon shade if you live in a hot summer area. Otherwise they would prefer a situation in full sun. However, if all you have is a patch of shade, you can still grow strawberries in your borders and beneath your trees. While they may not be as productive as in a sunny garden, they are lovely plants and you are sure to get at least a few berries for your fruit salads. Here is the easy way out; just tuck the plants in anywhere you have room, keep them watered at least until established, and let them run. Left to their own devices strawberries will form a thick groundcover, and that is ok by me.

Scientific berry growers like slightly raised beds, with hardware cloth bottoms, well amended fertile soil, and deep straw mulch. They plant their berries 8” – 12” apart, and they clip all the runners until after the fruiting season is over. Then they allow each plant to develop two runners each, setting a small pot of potting soil beneath each runner. Once each runner has started one new berry plant the runner is pinched off. The new plants are used to start new beds, or traded for other varieties. The old beds are kept in production for 3 to five years and then turned under, cover cropped and the process begins again. Now, if you really love berries, or want enough to sell them or make jam, I suppose all that work is worth it. But gosh darn it, I will take the easy way out!


Local nurseries should have strawberry plants in stock very soon. If your nursery doesn’t stock strawberries they can be mail ordered from Gurney’s at (513) 354-1491. (Gurney’s also carries a selection of melon seeds suitable to grow in our area.) If you want to try some of the more unusual melons check out Johnny’s Selected Seeds at (877) 564-6697.

Copyright 2006 Harvest McCampbell
Published by the Hoopa Valley People Newspaper May 23, 2006
Posted here with permission

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