Clip 1: Growing Cantaloupes and Watermelons
It is almost time to plant watermelons and cantaloupe for the year. Watermelons are originally from Africa, while cantaloupes are originally from Persia (modern day Iran). Actually, what most of us refer to as cantaloupes are really muskmelons. A cantaloupe is a specific muskmelon that is not really available in the United States. For convenience, I will still refer to them as cantaloupes.
Both like it hot and dry, so they grow very well in Texas. They are not tolerant of frost, so can’t be planted until the temperature at night is 65 to 75 degrees. In our area, that means between April 3 and May 1. There are a number of cultivars that grow well here. Be aware that if you are growing seedless watermelons, you will have to plant a row of regular watermelons next to them because they do not self-pollinate.
Melons require full sun. They also like slightly alkaline soil with a ph of 6.0 to 6.8 for watermelons, and 6.4 to 6.7 for cantaloupe. Fertilizing these plants is a little tricky. They really like lots of phosphorus and potassium. In our area, most soils are high in both nutrients, so it is best to get a soil test and see if you need to add any to your soil. Like all plants, melons need nitrogen. However, too much nitrogen will result in big healthy vines with no fruit. The best time to fertilize is as a side dress application once the vines start to really run. That means putting the fertilizer to the side, in a ring around the base of your hill, instead of right on top of them.
Melons are best grown in hills of land, not strict rows. Mound up some dirt to make a low, broad hill about 8-10 inches high. Plant 4-6 seeds in a circle at 5 inch intervals on your hill. When the plants come up and have 2-3 leaves each, thin all but the strongest 2-3 plants. Otherwise, they are too crowded and won’t do well. The seeds should be placed 1 inch deep and covered with soil that is lightly tamped down. If the soil is too compacted, the sprouting seeds can’t force their way surface of the soil.
Melons have deep root systems and need about an inch of water once a week. More frequent watering will keep them from developing the deep root system they need to survive the dry summer. Always water in the early morning, before 10 o’clock, to make sure the leaves have time to dry before the sun gets high. If the foliage is wet overnight, the plants have a tendency to get sick.
A well prepared bed with black plastic or mulch to block the weeds should keep your melons happy. Keep the melons weed free for the best crop. Weeds steal nutrients the plants need.
A frequent question from melon gardeners is why the first flowers to appear don’t bear fruit. These are actually the male flowers. Their sole purpose is to produce pollen. Bees take the pollen from the male flowers and fertilize the female flowers, which produce the fruit. It is important not to use pesticides while the flowers are blooming, as you will kill the bees and your plants won’t produce any fruit at all.
Melons get a number of diseases and have problems with a number of pests. The insects that really like melons are cucumber beetles, aphids, mites, flea beetles, and melonworms. Cucumber beetles carry bacterial wilt. Powdery mildew, downy mildew, alternaria leaf spot, anthracnose, and fusarium wilt are a few. The best defense against these problems is to make your plants as healthy as possible, never water in the afternoon, evening, or at night, as the wet foliage is more vulnerable to disease, and try to water with drip irrigation or soaker hoses, as these avoid getting the leaves wet at all. Finally, you must rotate all curcurbits (cucumbers, cantaloupes, watermelons, pumpkins, summer squash, winter squash, and gourds) on a three year cycle. Year one, grow your curcurbits. Year two, grow an unrelated crop such as tomatoes. Year three, grow a crop that is not related to either of the previous crops, such as beans. Year four, you can again grow curcurbits there. If you stick to this rotation schedule, pests and diseases will die between crops and will not be such a problem. If you must spray your plants, do so in the late afternoon, after most of the bees are finished feeding, and use a pesticide that specifically mentions it is usable on melons. Be sure and read all the directions and observe waiting periods before harvest.
Some animals really love melons. Coyotes and deer will wait until the melons are perfectly ripe, then break them open and eat the juiciest part of the fruit, leaving the rest. They can devastate a melon crop, so be sure and plant the melons close to your house, so these pests won’t come up and eat them.
Finally, how can you tell when your plant is ripe? For cantaloupe, the stem will slip from the melon when it is ripe. Carefully lifting the fruit, making sure you don’t damage the vine, will tell you if the fruit is ready to harvest. You can tell they are getting ready for harvest when they change from green or olive-gray to yellowish brown. You should walk your patch every day to catch the cantaloupes at peak quality.
Watermelons are not quite as easy to diagnosis as ripe. The light green curly tendrils on the stem near the point of attachment turn brown and dry. The surface of the fruit loses its slick appearance and turns dull. The skin becomes rough and you can penetrate it with your thumbnails. The white spot where the melon rests on the ground will turn yellow. Finally, you will hear a muffled, dull tone if you thump a ripe watermelon.
Clip 2: Magnolia Trees
Magnolia Trees are intricately linked to visions of the South. The movie Steel Magnolias is an excellent example of this linkage. Magnolia trees are usually trimmed into the familiar Christmas tree shape, but they grow straight and true when left alone. They can grow as tall as pines under ideal conditions.
The major Magnolia found in the South is the Southern Magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora. This tree grows throughout the South in creek and river bottoms, swamps, and around other hardwood trees. It is an evergreen tree, shedding old leaves in the spring and seed pods in late summer. You must plant it in a place where the old leaves, blossoms, and seed pods won’t make too much of a mess, or be very diligent about picking up the litter from the tree. However, the large, glossy leaves, beautiful tree, and wonderful smelling white blossoms make up for any trouble the tree litter might cause.
Magnolia trees grow best in loose, acidic soils. They are tolerate of high moisture levels and can be planted in areas prone to wet/dry fluctuations in soil moisture. They do not like the black, clay soils found in many parts of Hunt County. Sometimes a tree will grow for several years, then decline and die when the roots hit the compacted clay substrate. Magnolia trees will grow in partial shade, but will not grow as fast and will have fewer blooms than a tree planted in full sun.
Magnolia trees are propagated from cuttings taken off of older trees or from seed. The trees grown from cuttings grow much better than the trees grown from seed. The seeds are hard to germinate, and the cuttings are hard to root. It is best to buy a tree from a nursery instead of trying to grow one from seed or a cutting yourself.
The best time to plant Magnolia trees in this area is October and November. You should dig a hole twice as wide as the root ball or container in which the plant is growing, and as deep as the root ball. Be certain the top of the root ball is level with the soil surface, then backfill with the native soil you just dug out of your hole. Water thoroughly to settle the soil. Then apply three to five inches of mulch on the soil surface to conserve moisture and prevent weeds.
The tree will need to be watered three times a week, with one inch of water a time, the first two weeks. After that, water the tree one inch a week once a week. Too much water will kill your tree faster than too little water. Do not fertilize at planting or in the winter. Wait until spring arrives and the tree has new growth before fertilizing.
For the first three years, fertilize lightly in March, May, July, and September. By the fourth growing season, you can reduce that to March and September for the rest of the life of the tree. You will need to test the soil around the tree to know what nutrients to feed your plant. It will definitely need Nitrogen, but may not need Phosphorus or Potassium.
Most people shape their Magnolia tree into a pyramidal shape. You should leave the lower branches on the Magnolia, so that the canopy extends to the ground and hides the tree litter. You will need to selectively prune the side branches in December to maintain the pyramidal shape. If you chose not to trim the tree, it will grow straight and can reach 80 to 100 feet in height. It will still have the foliage and blossoms, but there will not be as many of them as if it were pruned into the pyramidal shape.
There are different cultivars of Magnolia trees. Some grow only 20 feet tall, some grow 80 feet tall. You can do a little research and find the best cultivar for the site you have chosen for your tree. When planting, make sure you allow for the mature size of the tree and avoid overhead lines, sidewalks, and other plants. The tree will shade out most plants that are under the canopy, so keep that in mind.
Clip 3: Integrated Pest Management
With all the rains we got in June, we can look forward to a summer full of bugs. The temptation is to kill everything that creeps, crawls, or flies to protect ourselves, our pets, and our plants. That would be a mistake, however, as only five percent of bugs are harmful. The rest are either neutral or are actually beneficial. We need these bugs to keep the bad bugs in check. How do we protect ourselves and our plants without killing the good bugs? By using Integrated Pest Management.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a systems approach to pest control that combines preventative techniques, non-chemical pest control methods, and the wise use of pesticides with preference for products that are least harmful to human health and the environment. The three pillars of IPM are cultural controls, biological controls, and chemical controls. I will discuss each of them and mention their benefits.
Cultural controls are the things you do when choosing and planting your plants that help the plant get a good start. This makes it more able to resist bugs and diseases. One of the most important things here is to choose plants that are resistant to the diseases that are common in this area. Texas SuperStar ® plants and EarthKind Roses ® are tested and proven resistant to disease and tolerant of the growing conditions in our area. Lists of these plants are available at the office of the Texas Cooperative Extension Service, and many are shown in the Heritage Garden of Hunt County, next door to the Extension Office.
In addition to choosing the right plant for your area, you need to make sure that anything you bring home is pest free. You also need to use pest free propagating material. Buy potting soil instead of using yard dirt to pot your indoor plants. Make sure manure is properly composted so that weeds and diseases are killed. You don’t want to introduce problems here, or they will haunt you throughout the growing season.
Finally, prepare the site properly. Do a soil sample so that you know what nutrients your soil has and what you need to add. Add lots of organic matter and till it into your soil well. Make sure that you only add the nutrients your soil lacks, instead of using a fertilizer with everything in it. Our soils are mostly high in Phosphorus, so don’t add that unless you need it. Follow label directions for the fertilizers you use and be careful watering so you don’t overwater or underwater. Established plants need an inch of water a week, and that should be delivered early in the morning all at once.
Once you have planted your plants, you need to keep them healthy. Biological controls will help you with that. Basically, this involves saving the good insects so they can eat the bad insects. For example, lady bugs will eat aphids. If you spray a pesticide on your plants, you will kill both the aphids and the lady bugs. Next time you have aphids, they will do a lot more damage because their will be no lady bugs to eat them. So, you need to encourage pest predators, not kill them. In some cases, you can use a predator such as Bacillus t. bacteria to kill your caterpillars and other trouble makers.
What happens if you have done everything you are supposed to and you still have bugs eating your plants? You use pesticides wisely to kill the pest but not everything else. First, however, you have to decide at what point you will use pesticides and at what point you will just live with a few bugs. For example, back to those aphids. If there are not at least a few aphids, the lady bugs won’t have anything to eat, so they won’t stick around. If there are too many aphids, they will damage the plants and possibly kill them. Somewhere between leaving enough aphids for the lady bugs and keeping them from killing your plants is the threshold for using chemicals. This threshold may vary by pest and by type of plants.
Just because the threshold for using chemicals has passed for one pest or plant doesn’t mean you should spray your whole yard. That will undo all the hard work you have done encouraging biological controls for your pests. Instead, pick a pesticide that is targeted for the particular pest you are having problems with, making sure that you choose the least toxic pesticide that will kill that pest. Spray only the plants where that pest is a problem, leaving the other plants unsprayed. Continue monitoring those plants and others to see what level of pests you have, and whether they have passed your threshold and you need to spray.
When you do use pesticides, be sure to obey all the safety cautions. Remember that the label is the law. If you use a pesticide in a way inconsistent with the label, it is likely the pesticide won’t work properly. In addition, if you cause damage due to improperly using a pesticide, you will get fined and may face criminal charges, depending on the severity of the damage.
Each label had mixing directions for the pesticide, a list of the plants and pests the pesticide is approved for, a list of the safety equipment you need to wear while using the pesticide, and the re-entry period for the pesticide. If a use is not listed for the pesticide you are looking at, don’t use it for that purpose. For example, there are many pesticides that are not safe to use on vegetables because you will eat them.
The re-entry period is how long you need to avoid the area after spraying. It can range from minutes to up to 72 hours. Make sure that not only do the humans in your family obey the re-entry period, but your pets do as well. Do not let your dog or cat walk where you have just sprayed until the re-entry period has passed, or they can become ill or die.
Finally, control drift and watch for runoff or ground water contamination. If you spray a pesticide, and it drifts over and kills your neighbors honey bees, you will be libel for fines and damages. Spray in the early morning or late afternoon when winds are low and pay attention to what you are doing. Don’t spray right before a rain, because the rain will wash the spray into the sewers and it will contaminate the ground water. Make sure the you never poor pesticides down the sewer, and that you dispose of them safely so they won’t contaminate the landfill.
Integrated Pest Management is an opportunity to control the pests in your yard in a more environmental friendly manner. In addition, it saves you money by reducing the need for expensive fertilizers and pesticides. Finally, it helps protect your family and pets from excessive pesticide exposure. You get to enjoy your plants and the bees, butterflies, and birds they attract while feeling good about your contributions to a healthier environment.