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In the Garden

Robin Sweetser: The seed-sprouting season has begun

All over the state florescent lamps and grow-lights are burning in basements and back rooms for 16 hours a day – much to the delight of the power company – and sunny windowsills and three-season porches are filling up with plants. Seed starting has begun! Prepare to be wowed when your neighbor brings out his three-foot tall tomato plants in a few weeks.

This is such an optimistic time of year for gardeners. Nothing has gone wrong yet, no bugs have attacked, no weird weather has struck. We know this will be the best growing season we have ever had – we’re kind of like Red Sox fans.

If you’ve always wanted a greenhouse, now is the time to get crackin’ on that project. You will not regret it. One of our handier friends is building one out of old patio doors. Whether plastic or glass, any outdoor structure that gets good sun and can be vented to let out the heat during the day and closed to keep the plants protected at night is a must-have for the serious gardener. It beats schlepping plants in and out of the house every day.

We are four weeks away from Memorial Day, traditionally the time to plant out tender crops like tomatoes and peppers. By now you have probably planted a few hardy things in your garden, such as peas, onions, beets, carrots, lettuce, radishes, chard and cole crops. If you want to give your vining crops a head start, now is the time to start seeds indoors for cukes, squash and melons. If space is an issue, you can wait and plant the cukes and squash directly from seed in the garden. Sometimes the transplants suffer such shock transitioning from indoors to outdoors that the direct seeded ones catch up to them quickly anyway. But heat-loving melons and watermelons will really benefit from an indoor head start.

With optimal weather conditions – daytime highs in the 80s and warm nights – last year was a great one for melons. Several gardeners told me tales of their giant muskmelons and watermelons. Middle school student and 4-H member Molly Snow of Hillsboro won ribbons at two fairs for her giant “Jubilee” watermelons and had old-timers asking for her advice and melon-growing secrets. At the New Boston fair, her 30-pound watermelon even drew the attention of garden guru Roger Swain, who said that he hadn’t seen a watermelon that big in New Hampshire for years! With her permission, he scooped it up from the 4-H exhibit and brought it to be judged in the regular competition, where it won Best Overall Vegetable. Way to go, Molly! We can only hope that this summer will be just as good.

New melons are being developed all the time. This year two have won the coveted All-America Selections award – “Melemon” is a small, white-fleshed, Santa Claus-type melon and “Harvest Moon” is a seedless watermelon. When it comes to taste though, you just can’t beat the tried and true heirloom melons. Some of the varieties we have tried in the past (with mixed success) are “Oka,” “Delicious,” “Sweet Granite,” “Hale’s Best,” and hybrid “Halona.” For green-fleshed varieties, we have grown Ha’Ogen, Jenny Lind and hybrid “Passport.” “Sugar Baby” remains my favorite watermelon. I have struggled unsuccessfully for years to grow a true French charentais melon – the holy grail of melon growing. It seems like those plants always get attacked first by cucumber beetles and eventually die.

To give your melons and watermelons a fighting chance, plant two to three seeds in a peat pot. They need a soil temperature of about 70 degrees to germinate, so bottom heat is necessary. Once they are up and growing, clip off the weaker plants leaving just one in each pot. It isn’t advisable to plant them out until the night temperatures are above 45 degrees. Make mounds of soil 3 feet apart. Enrich them with plenty of composted manure. Plant three plants per hill, pots and all to lessen any root disturbance, and mulch between the hills with black plastic to keep the soil warm and weed free. Cover the plants with floating row cover supported by hoops to keep them warm and protected from cucumber beetles. Leave the row covers on until the plants start to flower, then remove the covers so the bees can pollinate them. If you are attempting to grow a prize-winning watermelon like Molly’s, bear in mind that it takes a lot of water to grow a 30-pound fruit!

To whet your appetite for melons even further, check out Amy Goldman’s book Melons for the Passionate Grower. In it she provides pictures of 100 varieties and profiles many of them, complete with anecdotes. One of my favorites is about the 17th century Hungarian noblewoman who wrapped her growing melons with her fur coat to protect them on a frosty night. Unfortunately thieves stole the coat and the melons froze!

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