Tuesday, April 19, 2016

To Start Or Not To Start?

Dakota Sisters muskmelon

To Start Or Not To Start?

A delightfully flavorful, sweet, and aromatic melon! Bred by David Podoll, our family has been selecting Dakota Sisters muskmelon for smooth texture, great melon flavor, juicy sweetness, deep orange color, and thick flesh since 1980. This easy growing specialty melon can be direct sown in full sun after all danger of frost has passed.  We direct seed our muskmelons the last week of May and recommend direct seeding. You could start your muskmelon plants indoors 3-4 weeks before setting out, however, we have found little advantage to doing so. Bred and selected in North Dakota, this muskmelon is especially suited to areas with a shorter growing season. 

Muskmelons take some space to grow and vine, so leave enough room for muskmelon vines to spread. Plant 1/2” deep and space 1 foot between plants in the row and 3-6 feet between rows. Emergence is 5-10 days. Muskmelons can be trained on a trellis or fence to save space. 

Insect Pests
It's best to rotate your melon crops each year, ensuring that you are not planting in the same spot each year. Striped and spotted cucumber beetles can be a serious pest. They can damage young leaves so extensively that plants either die or are stunted in growth. In our experience these insects often appear in our cucurbits after a strong south wind. If the plants are in the two to four leaf stage, they are particularly vulnerable.  The insects target weakened plants first and can literally suck the plant dry, destroying all of its leaf area. In addition to the feeding damage, these insects can transport diseases, such as bacterial wilt as they feed. Prevention strategies include crop rotation and removal of crop debris to discourage overwintering of these pests. Tents can be constructed of fine netting, cheesecloth, or floating row cover to protect young plants.  (Remove before flowering to allow pollinators to do their job.)

If the cucumber beetles are detected, hand picking is one strategy, if the bugs are few and far between. Trap crops or companion crops, such as tansy, may be planted to lure pests away from the production areas long enough for your muskmelon to get established. Another strategy is the use of sticky traps and pheromones to lure beetles away from main crop and to the trap them, impeding mating, which will breed a more serious invasion as the season progresses. Sticky traps are also a good pest monitoring strategy, helping you ascertain their numbers.

If pest numbers climb, another strategy is to dip or spray seedlings with kaolin clay to deter the insects from feeding on young plants. You can also combine clay with insecticidal soap, such as Safer BrandTM, or neem oil, such as Ahimsa Neem Oil. You can also use a hand-held vacuum cleaner to remove beetles from the plants.  Dump the collected beetles into soapy water to kill them.

If pest numbers become a serious threat for crop loss, you can spray a pyrethrin product, such as PyGanic. This should be used as a last resort to provide immediate knockdown. PyGanic contains botanical pyrethrum (derived from chrysanthemum) and is OMRI listed for use in organic production. These interventions should only be used if absolutely necessary.

For more information on control strategies, see the ATTRA publication, Cucumber Beetles:
Organic and Biorational Integrated Pest Management, available for download here at: https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=133

Squash vine borer is another potential pest in muskmelon.  As the borer boroughs its way inside the vine, it will cause plants to look wilted, even when moisture is plentiful. If you see wilting, check for signs of disease and look for signs of damage along the vine.  If it appears to be vine borer damage, slice open the stem, remove the borers and destroy them, being careful to do as little damage to the vine as possible to aid in healing.

Downy and powdery mildew are common in wet weather. Downy mildew produces yellow spots on leaf surfaces, with purplish areas on the underside of the leaf. Powdery mildew causes powdery white areas on leaves and stems. Even a small amount of mildew can affect the sweetness of melons because the fungus will fuel its own growth by siphoning off the vine’s sugars. Sprays of potassium bicarbonate (or baking soda) can help prevent powdery mildew. Cut off, remove, and destroy any affected branches.

Bacterial wilt produces limp leaves and stems that secrete a white sticky substance when cut. Controlling cucumber beetles and aphids, and remove and destroy any affected plants to reduce the chances of it spreading. 

Melons need to ripen fully on the vine. They do not ripen well after they are harvested. We normally have ripe melons around August 5-10th.  Muskmelons develop a wonderful fragrance when they are ready to pick. The aroma is unmistakable. The vine will begin to ooze where the stem connects to the fruit. At this point the fruit should slip easily from the vine and the blossom end should feel soft to the touch.

Muskmelon last for a week or more in the refrigerator.  They make a delicious and refreshing summer snack, a gourmet breakfast, or a dessert specialty!

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