Fruit for the Month: July

 

Pike muskmelon. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

This is another post in my new monthly series, about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a mid-Atlantic climate. I cover planting, pruning, harvesting and care of the plants, according to the season. I’ll give links to useful publications. We have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month. We do grow apples and pears, and some other tree fruit, but I’m not writing about those as I don’t have much recent experience.

Melons are the focus fruit for July

July is the month in our climate, to start harvesting muskmelons (often called cantaloupes), Asian melons, and canary melons. Next month I’ll talk about watermelons, which are slower to ripen.

Melons love warm, sunny days and need 80-100 days from seed sowing to harvest. For good production, melons warm weather, along with a steady supply of water. Melon plants also need good air circulation, so leaves and fruit can dry fairly quickly after dew or rainfall. To help prevent the spread of diseases, rotate crops and avoid growing them where other cucurbits were planted in the previous year or two.

Melons thrive in well-drained soil, sandy loam, or in clay soils that have been good levels of organic matter. Soil pH should be 6-6.5 for healthy melons and a good yields. Encourage drought-resilient crops by using drip irrigation, so that roots grow deep.

Mayor Canary melon in July. Photo Pam Dawling

Types of melons

Fastest to produce a crop are the 65-day Asian melons such as Torpedo (replaced Sun Jewel), or Early Silver Line. These 1-2lb (0.5-1kg) oblong melons have refreshing crisp white flesh and are mildly sweet. Some people disparage them as “cucumber melons,” but their good points are earliness, tolerance of chilly weather, being easy to grow and having a pleasant flavor.

Sun Jewel Asian melon. Photo Mary Kranz

Muskmelon (Cucumis melo reticulatus, commonly, but inaccurately called cantaloupe) is the melon type I have most experience with. They have a yellowish-buff skin with a raised netting, and sometimes lengthwise sutures (ribbing).  The flesh is orange with a complex sweet aromatic flavor, and the 3–7 lbs (1.5–3 kg) fruits take 75-84 days to mature. We have enjoyed Pike, Kansas, Delicious 51, Edisto 47 and Hales Best. My long-time favorite was Ambrosia from Seminis Seeds, but when Seminis was bought by Monsanto, I stopped growing it, as I don’t want to support Monsanto in producing GMOs. For Downy mildew resistance and tolerance to cucumber beetles, grow Trifecta from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Kansas muskmelon. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

True cantaloupes, Cucumis melo cantalupensis, are rarer in the US. They are rough and warty rather than netted. Prescott Fond Blanc and Petit Gris de Rennes are true cantaloupes, as are charentais melons. Charentais melons are smaller, round, good-flavored orange-fleshed melons. I have successfully grown 78-day Savor, a 2lb (0.9kg) melon with a green-grey skin and deep orange flesh.

Mayor canary melon. Photo Wren VIle

Canary melons are smooth yellow 4lb (1.8kg) fruits with white flesh and are quite sweet.75 days to maturity. We have had good success with Mayor.

Crenshaw melons are large oblong 78-day melons with light yellow skin and very aromatic pale creamy orange flesh.

Galia tropical melons have green flesh, yellow-tan skins and a round shape. Honeydew melons are fast-maturing, smooth skinned oval melons, usually with pale-green flesh, although Honey Orange is salmon-colored. 3lbs (1.4kg), 74 days.

We tried some smaller (individual serving) melons, Tasty Bites. personal-size melons (they top out at 3lbs/1.4kg) and Sugar Cube 2–2 1/2 lb (1kg). The advantage of having a smaller fruit was not more than the disadvantage of harvesting smaller fruits.

Sowing melon seeds

Melons are a bit finicky in their youth, but given a strong start, they can do very well. You can sow melon seeds directly in the garden, but the seeds need soil temperatures of 59°F (15°C) minimum to germinate, and their best temperature is 86°F (30°C). At that temperature they only take 3 days to emerge. More and earlier success comes with sowing melon seeds indoors, where the right temperatures can happen earlier in the year. Maximum germination temperature is 100°F (38°C).

Up to three weeks before your average last frost date, sow 2 or 3 melon seeds in potting compost at a depth of ½” (1cm) in 3” (7.6cm) pots or plug flats. We are in zone 7a, with an approximate last frost date of April 25 – we sow April 15 for May 6 transplanting (21 days after sowing). After germination, the temperature should be reduced to 75°F (24°C). We always ensure our melons get a spot in the greenhouse with very good light and no drafts.

Keep the soil moist and when seedlings have reached 2” (5cm) in height, snip off the weakest ones at soil level, leaving one strong seedling per pot or cell. When the first true leaves appear, lower the temperature to 65°F (18°C) and reduce watering a little.

Muskmelons flowering in early July. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Harden off the transplants for a week before you set them into the garden. Set them outside in a shady area on warm days, gradually increasing the time outside each day from one hour to two hours, to three, and so on. Alternatively, use shadecloth and increase the sun exposure by an hour a day. Reduce watering a bit, to slow plant growth. Check your local weather forecast to ensure that your melon plants will not be subjected to chilly, windy conditions when they are young.

Transplanting melons

Before starting transplanting, check the soil temperature: garden soil should be at least 70°F (21°C) for melon survival. Melon plants exposed to temperatures cooler than recommended might not set fruit later on. One way to speed up soil warming is to cover the area with black plastic mulch for 1-3 weeks prior. Cut an x-shaped slit where for each plant and hold the edges of the plastic down with rocks. We space our melons at 2’ (60cm) apart in the row, with rows 6’ (2m) apart.

Melons are admittedly delicate to transplant. When outdoor conditions, soil temperature, and timing are right for transplanting melons, take great care in handling the plants. To help reduce transplant shock, water the flat (or pots) well before transplanting and avoid disturbing the roots when transplanting into the garden. Plant the entire stem in the ground, leaving only the seed leaves upwards exposed. The stems are fragile, and will do better protected in the ground. Water the soil thoroughly. If you are not using black plastic, spread organic mulch (straw, spoiled hay or dry tree leaves) around the melon vines. You might rather hoe and wait until hot weather to spread organic mulch, as this will keep the soil cool, and as I stressed already, melons like heat. Depending on soil fertility, you may want to add fish emulsion to encourage growth.

If the weather is less warm than you hoped, use hoops and thick rowcover until you are more confidant in the temperatures, then switch to netting. We hoop and net our melons immediately after transplanting, to keep the bugs off. We keep the netting on until we see female flowers (they have miniature melons between the flower and the plant). Melons require pollination, so it is necessary to remove the netting.

A melon plant in July. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Care of melon plants

If weeds emerge through the mulch, pull them slowly, while stepping next to the melon stem. Melon roots near the surface can easily be injured. As melons ripen, put a piece of cardboard under the fruit to help prevent rot. With the late summer planting, you can pinch off new flowers to steer the plant’s energy into fruit that has already set. Keep the soil around melons watered with 1-2” (2-5 cm) per week, up until the last week or two before harvest. Holding back on water during this time leads to sweeter melons.

Succession crops of melons

In our climate we can sow melons three times, a month apart. The first row is from transplants, set outside May 3-6. We direct sow the second bed on May 25, then June 25 and once, on July 15 for a “Last Chance” crop.

Pests and diseases of melons

Like most cucurbits, melons are vulnerable to striped cucumber beetles. These pests chew on plants and spread diseases, such as bacterial wilt and mosaic virus. Protect against cucumber beetles with rowcover or insect netting applied at transplanting, or hunt them every morning on leaves and inside flowers, when beetles are more slow-moving. Watch for aphids in the garden, as they can also spread viruses. You can usually hose off leaves or apply an insecticidal soap to kill aphids before they inflict too much damage. In warm, humid climates like ours, melons are subject to powdery mildew, which can wipe out a melon crop if not caught in time. Look for melon varieties that are disease resistant.

Sudden wilt is caused by cold weather in late summer when the plants are loaded with ripening melons.

Harvesting melons

I recommend harvesting daily, in the mornings, once the dew has dried, to avoid spreading fungal diseases.

With muskmelons, when the background-color of the skin beneath the “netting” changes from gray-green to buff or a yellowish color, the melon is almost ripe. A honeydew melon will turn a light yellow-white color when it’s ripe.

For some varieties (but not all), if gentle pressure is applied to the base of the stem, and the stem separates from the vine, the melon is ready. This is called the “full slip” stage. (The half-slip stage requires a bigger nudge.) Crenshaw and Canary melons require a good tug (“forced slip”). Honeydew, Charentais, and Piel de Sapo must be cut from the vine – don’t wait for them to slip!

Storage time for melon depends on the type. Relative humidity should be 85-95% for best results. Muskmelons will last a couple weeks at 40°F (4°C); honeydew can be stored up to three weeks at 50°F (10°C). Store other melons at 45-50°F (7-10°C) for 7-14 days.

Kansas Muskmelon.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

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Other small fruits available in July

Floricane raspberry patch making new growth. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Blackberries, blueberries, crabapples, elderberries, gooseberries, goumi berries, mulberries, peaches, black and red raspberries.

https://harvesttotable.com/how-to-plant-grow-prune-and-harvest-blackberries/

https://harvesttotable.com/how-to-grow-elderberry/

If you live in Virginia, see https://www.vdacs.virginia.gov/pdf/producechart.pdf

Other fruit care in July

Water all fruit crops. Pack away blueberry netting after fruiting. Mow aisles, weed and water all fruit.

 Strawberries:

In late June/early July (after fruiting): Renovate one-year-old strawberry beds to carry over for another year, by mowing or shearing/clipping the plants, weeding and mulching, but don’t compost them at this stage. Dismantle two-year-old strawberry beds after gathering any propagation material.

If preparing to plant new plug-strawberries, till an area in late June or very early July and sow buckwheat by July 4. After three weeks, till in the buckwheat and prepare the beds.

If preparing to plant bare-root strawberries, (perhaps rooted runners in the paths of older beds), till the area by the beginning of July and prepare new beds with compost, driptape, and landscape fabric.

In early July, or at least by mid-July, plant new bare-root strawberry transplants.

A mister in an overhead pipe on a strawberry propagation bed. Photo Lori Katz

July 6-14: To propagate from your own plants, pot up pencil-thick crowns, with 2 or 3 leaves, 4” (10cm) petioles. Use Round-50 plug trays. Or use runner tips. Set up a shadecloth propagation tent in a cold frame, or other protected area Set up a misting system and timer. Also handwater once or twice a day, to keep the soil damp.

Strawberry beds in their second year. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Fruit for May

Flowers on a two-year-old strawberry plant.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

This is the first of my new monthly series, about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a mid-Atlantic climate. I’ll talk about planting, pruning, harvesting and care of the plants, according to the season. I’ll give links to useful publications. I’ll have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month. We do grow apples and pears, and some other tree fruit, but I’m not writing about those as I don’t have much recent experience.

Strawberries are the focus fruit for May

May is the month in our climate, to harvest and weed strawberries. Actually weeding strawberries in bare soil is a job that needs doing once a month from February to November here! We don’t have any strawberries in our gardens this year. Once upon a time, we grew matted rows, where you keep the same bed in production for multiple years, removing the oldest plants to make space for younger more vigorous plants. Weeds were our downfall. Once you let weeds seed in a strawberry bed, you have lost the battle. In our climate, we have cold-weather weeds and warm weather weeds. Semi-permanent strawberry beds get them all. I wouldn’t choose this method again.

See ATTRA Strawberries: Organic Production available free online, for a wealth of information. Updated April 2021.

Strawberries need a lot of weeding if grown on bare soil.
Photo Twin Oaks Community (Renee)

Harvesting strawberries

I recommend harvesting three days a week, in the mornings, once the dew has dried, to avoid spreading fungal diseases. Use shallow containers, although strawberries don’t crush as easily as raspberries. Turn each ripe-looking strawberry over to make sure it’s ripe underneath too. We will harvest with white tips, but not green. Commercial strawberries that will travel long distance are harvested ¼ green and arrive very red, but with not much flavor.

Nip through the stem of the fruit with your nails and set the fruit in the container. Also, now or preferably separately, collect up any moldy or bird-bitten fruits to compost. It’s better not to handle healthy plants after moldy fruit, but if you have dry weather and not many moldy ones, it’s very tempting to remove them as you go. When “Mouseberry”, our nickname for Botrytis grey mold, is only a minor problem, we just hurl each one as far from the strawberry bed as we can, rather than collect them up.

Unblemished strawberries can be stored for several days in the refrigerator. Do not wash before refrigerating, as this leads to rot. If you are planning to process lots of strawberries for drying, jam, juice or other value-added products, I recommend finding a simple little tool, a pair of round-ended tweezers about 2” (5 cm) long and ½” (1 cm) across. You can twist our the green tops quickly with minimal wastage.

A dormant bare root strawberry plant.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

When to plant strawberries

In case you don’t yet have strawberries, and now wish you did, here are some considerations about when to plant. Many gardening books are written in more northerly climates, where bare-root transplants are set out in early spring. But then it is necessary to pinch off the flowers the first year. And still weed once a month! We found it better here to plan for September planting of runners we had potted up in July, leaving them attached to their mother plants until time to make the new bed. They are less likely to die if still attached to the well-rooted mother plant. Fall-planted strawberries do not need to have the flowers removed in their first spring. It is not easy to find bare-root transplants to buy in the fall.

In Virginia, many commercial growers plant new strawberries on plastic mulch every year, buying in plugs. The costs are covered by the high price that strawberries bring in when sold. We were not selling, but feeding our intentional community. This means that produce that would get high prices doesn’t repay us for the time spent. We need nutrients for a well-balanced diet, not fancy stuff. This issue also came up for us when we grew ginger in our hoophouse. Tasty and enjoyable, but not lots of food for the space and time.

Newly prepared strawberry beds with landscape fabric.
Photo Wren Vile

As a balance, we settled on keeping two beds (one early variety, one late) for two years each, using landscape fabric with holes melted in it. Each year we would make 1 new patch, till in the older one after 2 harvests. Some years we bought plants, and we also figured out a good propagation method, which gave us plants when we needed them, without too much money or labor. We had backup plans in case we failed to propagate enough replacements.

In early June we’d prepare new beds if going for bare-root plants; after fruiting we’d dismantle the two-year-old bed, renovate the one-year-old bed, and in early July prepare the new bed if using plugs. We did the propagation of our own plugs during July, setting up a misting tent. We planted the new plugs in early August. I’ll go into detail about these tasks when we get to that time of year.

Patented varieties

Some varieties are patented and it is illegal to propagate your own without permission from the patent holder. It’s most illegal to sell plants you have propagated from a patented variety. Technically, it is also illegal to propagate for you own use, and even to let strawberry runners root themselves beside a mother plant. Not all varieties are patented. Cornell has a page Patent Status of Select Strawberry Varieties with info for varieties that do well in NY State. It includes when patents expire. StrawberryPlants.org has a lot of information, including an interactive variety list. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include info on which are patented.

We cover the new strawberry bed in newspapers and hay. Our method prior to using landscape fabric. Note the drip tape in position below the mulch.
Photo Luke Stovall

Climate change, challenges and options

Our climate is variable, and is changing to more of all extremes, so we need to change our systems to meet the challenges. It always helps to have a plan B.

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Fruit still available in May

If your rhubarb flowers, cut off the flower stems, preferably before the buds open, to keep the energy for the stalks.
Photo Pam Dawling

Rhubarb can be harvested until the stems get too thin. April is its main month here in central Virginia. Weed and water. Lop off any flower heads or buds, to concentrate energy into the stems.

Other fruit care in May

Install blueberry netting before the fruit sets, so the birds will have no reason to be interested. Weed, water, top up mulch, as needed. Check periodically to ensure the netting has no holes.

Grapes: Mow, weed, water in drought. Mow aisles as needed. New vines: remove side branches from trunks, and fruitlets. I like to walk through in May to record the condition of the grape vines.

A young grape vine in early May.
Photo Bridget Aleshire