The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Posts tagged ‘cucurbits’

2009 Melon Torture Test

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

OK, I had my rant about how hard it is to grow a decent melon here. Despite the difficulties, and all my whining, I keep trying very early ripening melons.

Last winter I discovered the Homegrown Goodness forum, an amazing little nook on the internet populated by gardeners as extreme as I am, and even more so! There, I was seduced into trialing way more melons than I usually do by CanadaMike, who gardens in Ontario in a similar (zone 4) climate and is also melon compulsive… He sent me seed for some very interesting varieties from the former Soviet Union, and a French one he has been growing with some success.

Alas, the constant wet and cold we had here for June, July and August was pretty much a disaster for melons, the second very bad season in a row. It was impossible to evaluate flavor for the varieties trialed: no sun equals no sugar. Still, it was possible to observe and compare how the different varieties responded to bad conditions, the Extreme Gardener Melon Torture Test.

All varieties were started in paper pots inside and moved on May 14 to a shelf outside along a sunny wall of the house. (That is to say, where, if the sun ever were to shine, it might shine there… theoretically…).

The first challenge was a night that dipped into the low 30s. There was no frost, and no signs of frost damage, but over the course of the next few days that followed, a large number of the seedlings seemed to faint away, collapsing at the soil level and expiring. I suspect some kind of fungal disease, perhaps, or maybe it was simply the cold.

    The varieties sown and their status on June 10, the last day of transplanting into the garden:

  • 12 Piel de Sapo – survived with some damage
  • 3 Apelsinnaja (Russia) – 1 pot barely survived
  • 3 CUM 304 (Russia) – 1 pot survived
  • 3 Luneville – 1 plant in 1 pot barely survived
  • 3 Altajskaja Ulucsennaja (USSR) – survived well
  • 4 Sary-Guljabi – wiped out
  • 6 Gnadenfeld – 2 pots survived
  • 6 Zatta – robust, survived well

As soon as the female blossoms were ready, I tried hand pollinating, but they all aborted, probably because I was molesting them in cold wet conditions, which is asking for rot. I don’t like to touch plants at all when they’re wet, but last summer everything was always wet, so I had no choice. Anyway, none of my hand pollination of melons was successful, and I was kind of surprised that any set fruit at all. Possibly if I had left them alone, they would have set more fruit.

Altajskaja Ulucsennaja, first week of October

Altajskaja Ulucsennaja was quite impressive. It started blooming (males) on July 11, with females starting 2 days later, and it bloomed heavily compared to the others. Zatta and CUM 304 were soon to follow a few days later, followed by Gnadenfeld, and Piel de Sapo at the beginning of August.

Left, Gnadenfeld, September 13; and Zatta, October 10, right

Gnadenfeld is a Manitoba heirloom variety. It managed to set several fruit, and was the first to ripen, slipping on September 11. Near the end of September I threw clear plastic over the melons that were still out there for a little frost protection, though by then the vines were pretty well gone. In a warmer garden, the other melons probably would have ripened much sooner after Gnadenfeld – when the cool weather sets in, heat lovers like melons slow down, and are prone to rot, as you can see in Zatta.

Altajskaja Ulucsennaja was next to ripen on October 5. It set 3 fruits, and 2 of those, brought inside to ripen, kept fairly well (a couple of weeks). I want to try this one again – it seems very cold tolerant and disease resistant, and the fruit is quite large, even though the vines are not rangy. The plant seems to put a lot of its energy into the fruit. Texture is nice – medium firm, and no rot.

Zatta set 3 fruit, with the first ripe on October 7. It had some rot, but the flesh is firm and dense with a very dark reddish orange color, and a nice melon fragrance.

The one lone vine of Luneville set one fruit, which I cut up on October 29 when it showed some rot. The rot was easily cut away. The fruit weighed about 1#, and had a very dense, smooth texture and nice fragrance.

This last one was a surprise. No name, only an accession number, CUM304, from the former Soviet Union. There was only one little vine, but it set two small round fruits. They were not ripe when I picked them and brought them insde in mid October, and I was skeptical that they would do anything. However, they sat on a warm windowsill, and actually ripened at the end of December. They got a blush of yellow on the skin, and when I cut into them, the seed was matured. Now, as with the rest of the melons in this trial, there was no sugar to speak of, but at the end of December they looked to me like exotic cucumbers. Cabin fever can do that to you, but hey, it works for me. I made them into salsa and they were REALLY good with chili. In fact, I think I’ve discovered another good winter storage vegetable that I can grow. And who knows, maybe if they got a little sun…

Plant fetish of the moment – hand pollinating cucurbits, part 1

Friday, July 31st, 2009

Actually I don’t crave this seed saving task, but it is an obsession right now. We finally got some warm and dryer weather and the melons, squashes and cukes are suddenly taking off after hanging around not blooming and vining in the cold wet weather. The window of opportunity for the fruits to mature is really narrow up here, and there’s no telling if the decent weather will hold, so I’m spending a lot of time crawling around out amongst the cucurbits.

They're off!

…and they’re off!

Hand pollinating is a bit tedious and requires perfect timing. I did it for several years, but then life became too busy outside the garden for such activities, so I simply confined myself each growing season to one variety each of cucurbita pepo, maxima, and moschata, one cuke, one watermelon and one melo melon. I got away with this because for years we had no near neighbors who gardened. This is no longer the case, and rather than knocking on doors and asking “Um, could you please not grow those Red Kuris or those big orange pumpkins? They’re messing up my Honeyboats and my rare Hungarian Winter Squash,” I decided to go back to hand pollinating.

Below is a photo of two supposedly Honeyboat squashes harvested in the fall of 2008, revealing that a neighbor had a big pumpkin patch in 2007, and there was some c. pepo hanky-panky.

mutt squash

Honeyboat Delicata, right,
Honeyboat X mutt, left

Fortunately I hoard seed, so I was able to go back to pre-2007 pure seed for 2009 planting. We really like Honeyboat. It’s the best delicata I’ve ever tasted. The mutts were actually quite good, too, culinary-wise, but not as good as Honeyboat. They were cute, and kept very well. I did save seed from them, but I’m not psyched enough to spend a few years and garden space to sort them out…

This year most of the melons started blooming well before the squashes and pumpkins. I’ve been able to do some melon hand pollination, but so far no pumpkins or squashes. They’re now just barely putting out female blossoms. To hand pollinate, late in the day, I have to find both male and female flowers that are just about to open. I tape them shut to prevent insects from getting in and contaminating the flowers with pollen from a different variety. Then, the following morning, with some luck it will not be raining and the male flower gets picked and rubbed into the female flower. The female is then bagged to keep the bugs out. After a few days the bag is removed and the forming fruit is tagged with a bit of red yarn.

garden wristwear

The latest trend
in garden wristwear.

So, I’m doing daily rounds with my trusty masking tape on my wrist, little pieces of red yarn dangling out of my dirty jeans pockets and a lot of butt-in-the-air groping around in the pumpkins and squash and melons. Melons to be continued….

Stumbling into plant breeding – cucumber Damascus

Thursday, January 8th, 2009

My Damascus cucumber is not an heirloom, but it certainly can be called “rare”. I purchased the original seed in 1978 from Nichols Garden Nursery. This variety disappeared from trade shortly thereafter. I had saved seed from it for a few seasons before I noticed that it had been listed as a hybrid. Funny, it has always been pretty stable for me – I guess after 30 years I can safely say it’s been true-lined (meaning it’s now open-pollinated).

Looking back I’m really glad I didn’t notice that it was listed as a hybrid, because I would have missed out on this variety entirely. In the first place, I wouldn’t have bought it if I thought it wasn’t open-pollinated, nor would I have tried to save seed from a hybrid at that time. Now I know better.

Cucumber DamascusCucumber Damascus

Cucumber Damascus

Anyhow, this is a Middle-Eastern type, intended for salads (a “slicing” cuke). Damascus is smooth and thin skinned (no peeling necessary), and crisp with a nice clean cuke flavor (no bitterness or muskiness). I have never grown a better tasting salad cucumber.

It’s about 57 days to first harvest. Obviously it does well for us here, or we wouldn’t have kept it 30 years. However, I shared seed with a gardener in a warmer clime who had disease problems with it. This has led me to wonder, if this variety is particularly susceptible:

1. Could it be that disease is present here, but since our growing season is so short, the disease is not expressed before the foliage is hit by frost anyway;

2. Or, perhaps the disease is not present here, again because of the short, cool growing season.

I dunno. I do think it’s a good example of how a variety can be great in one location, and quite unsuited to another – an argument for being skeptical about increasingly centralized “one size fits all” plant breeding. Unfortunately, that’s where the most money is for commercial breeding, not with maintaining or developing oddball local varieties.