Thursday, April 14, 2016

Late Spring Plantings

Early spring plantings include crops like broccoli, lettuce, beets, carrots, kale, etc; crops that are frost tolerant and they do well in cool weather. It is now mid-April and for much of the west, the southwest and the southeastern United States, this is the time to be planting other kinds of crops. If the danger of frost is past then other crops can be planted.

What are late spring crops? Corn, melons, cucumbers, green beans, peppers, sweet potatoes and tomatoes are all late spring crops. So what are the considerations for planting these crops? One consideration is soil temperature; generally speaking the soil temperature should be above 55 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer probe that you can stick in the ground to get a reading, the outdoor temperature can also tell you when it’s safe to plant. If the outdoor daily highs are in the 70s and the outdoor daily lows are 50 or above, the soil temperature will be above 55 degrees.

Corn will not sprout if the soil is below 55 degrees and if the seed sits in the ground too long, it will rot and fail to sprout. You can get around this problem by stretching a strip of clear plastic over the rows of corn you just planted. The plastic will warm the soil, the seeds will sprout, and once the seeds have sprouted, you can remove the plastic and the corn will grow without assistance.

In general, the same can be said for all the cucurbits (melons, cucumbers, etc), clear plastic is an effective way to outwit Mother Nature and gets your garden going early. But melons do not need to be planted early unless you live in a cooler, northern climate and the growing season is short. In the desert regions of the west and southwest, the growing season is sufficiently long to get ripe melons before fall—and they do well in the heat so they are an excellent summer crop; and the reward is worth the wait.

Melon Varieties

If you have prepared your soil properly, have sufficient nutrients in the soil, and planted at the right time, then the remaining question is what variety do I plant? In my experience, the variety is all important with melons. A nice plump ripe cantaloupe can be very disappointing if it tastes like cardboard and has the consistency of cardboard too. Popular varieties include Rocky Ford, Hales Best and Hearts of Gold, but these varieties all have good shelf lives, which means you will find them in the grocery stores because they will last—but the texture is hard and the flavor is mediocre. The best variety for home gardeners is Ambrosia. The flesh of this melon is soft, and the flavor is beyond anything you’ve eaten before. If you grow Ambrosia, you’ll never grow anything else.

I recommend growing cantaloupes over all other melons for a couple of reasons; 1) the days to maturity is the shortest of all the melons and, 2) there is no question about when the cantaloupe is ripe, the outside color turns from green to a soft yellow color…and the step slips off the melon. This makes growing and harvesting easy and predictable.

Watermelons are the next easiest melon to grow; they love the heat, grow fast and are a delight to eat. But watermelons are a little more challenging to know when to pick them; a) the first tendril on the vine from the melon will begin to shrivel and die and, 2) the underside of the melon will turn a yellowish white color. And the days to maturity is another way to know when to pick watermelons. There are many varieties but Crimson Sweet is one of the best, very sweet and delectable. Sugar Baby is also good, Klondike and others. You may want to experiment to see which does best in your area.

Casaba, Crenshaw and Honeydew melons are excellent melons but a little harder to grow and require a longer growing season. They also do not tell you when they are ripe, so they can be a little frustrating to grow. Also, Crenshaw and Honeydew melons tend to sun scald, which can spoil the melon. Because they take so long to mature, hot summer days can scald the exposed melon skin.

Tomatoes: Here are some tomato facts you must know and respect if you want to grow tomatoes in the desert. With low humidity (all of the southwest and desert areas of the west and Rocky Mountain areas), tomatoes will not set fruit if the night time temperature is below 55 degrees and the daytime temperature is above 95 degrees. The plant will bloom but will not set fruit unless the temperature falls within these parameters. Therefore, in certain hot climates, there is a narrow window that must be met. Tomatoes must be planted as early as possible (they have little frost tolerance), so they will grow, bloom and set fruit before the daytime temperatures get above 95 degrees. And once the daytime temperatures exceed 100 degrees, the tomato plant will be severely stressed and will perform poorly; essentially at this point your tomato harvest is over.

There are many varieties of tomatoes so it depends on what you like. Here is another truth, retailers or green house growers who tout “hot weather” tomatoes that will keep producing when it’s hot, are not being completely honest—remember the 55-95 degree principle, this holds true for all varieties except the cherry tomatoes.

Also, you should understand the meaning of “determinate” and “indeterminate” varieties. Determinate varieties will grow, blossom, set fruit but the vines will stop growing. The indeterminate varieties never stop growing; they may or may not continue to produce tomatoes but will continue to grow as long as they have water and nutrients. Thus, space becomes an issue here.

Finally, heirloom varieties seem to be all the rage, although I’m not sure why. Heirloom varieties are of poor quality, poor flavor and are unpredictable in color and shape. If you like quirky looking fruit, a novelty to show your friends, then heirloom varieties are perfect. But if you want quality, flavor and predictable shape and color, then the hybrids are the answer. Personally, I would not waste time, water and expense on growing heirloom varieties.

I am often asked what you can grow during the hot summer days. There are not a lot of good options, in the hot southwest, the 100 plus degree days stress most garden crops (except corn and melons), and although the heat may not necessarily kill the plant, it will stress it to the point that it fails to bear fruit or the fruit is of poor quality. This is why spring and fall or the best times to garden.

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