Melon production in the Southeast has typically been confined to the cultivation of American varieties such as watermelons and muskmelons. These melons do very well in the long, warm summers in the Southeast and have developed into an important cash crop in the region.
While the production of American melons is an important agricultural undertaking, we feel that there exists the potential to develop a profitable specialty market in European melons. European melons such as Charentais, Petit Gris des Rennes and Noir des Carmes have outstanding flavor and table qualities but are not ordinarily seen at US markets for a variety of reasons. Many people are not familiar with these varieties including a lot of growers. In addition to having cultivation requirements that are different US melons, these varieties also do not ship well or have a long shelf life. With the growth of farmers markets and the growing trend to locally grown food, we believe that, if successfully cultivated and marketed, these melons will be welcomed at consumer tables and a profitable niche market for them will be created.
The goals of our SARE project were to grow out a marketable quantity of European melons. Unfortunately, our results were extremely disappointing. While there were several reasons for this, a major one was the record breaking heat we experienced in Georgia this summer. Heading into this project, we were aware that we had to surmount some very clear obstacles in order to be successful. And while we structured our project to account for meeting these obstacles, we did encounter some problems that were unexpected and contributed negatively to our results. Among these issues were:
• Record-Breaking Heat
• Pollination Issues
• Rodent Issues
We will provide more details on various aspects of our project later in this report. While our results were not what we hoped they would be, we still believe that we this crop can be successfully cultivated in a cost-effective manner. We will make another attempt at the crop next year.
We will attempt to grow out three (3) varieties of European melons for market. The varieties we will grow are Charentais, Petit Gris Des Rennes and Noir Des Carmes. We have selected these varieties because we have been able to grow them in our Georgia location in extremely limited trials. While we were able to get them to grow, the quality and quantity of the crop produced was not sufficient for market. We intend to institute a more formal project with strict growing controls and record-keeping.
Among the issues we will need to address in our growing trials are proper irrigation and pest and disease control. We plan to grow our melons in raised beds using drip irrigation, mulch and row covers. Our goal is to grow out enough melons to have product to sell at least 2 of the farmers markets we attend. One of the problems we had in our informal test was growing melons that appeared to be ideal melons but lacked taste and sweetness. We plan to pay particular attention to those practices that increases the brix content of our melons and harvest them correctly as to maximize their sugar content and taste.
Our aim is to utilize natural and organic methods in this trial.
We selected the following varieties for our trial.
• Noir des Carmes
• Petit Gris des Rennes
• Boule d’Or
These varieties are of French origin. We had grown Charentais, Noir des Carmes and Petit Gris des Rennes in the past with varying degrees of success. We included Boule d’Or to expand the trial.
We utilized two methods to propagate our melons; seed starts into flats and direct seeding. We wanted to get a sense of which method was better for getting seedlings started.
We used a combination of brand new seed as well as year old seed to test for viability over time.
We seeded our varieties into either 72 cell flats or 3 1/2 inch pots in flats of 18. All varieties had close to 100% germination results no matter the age of the seed. The growing medium was a mixture of a soiless medium mixed with composted worm castings. Germination generally occurred in 3 to 5 days inside of our greenhouse. Seedlings were periodically fed a diluted solution of fish emulsion and liquid kelp.
We also direct seeded several varieties to see how this method of propagation worked. Three to five seeds were planted into hills in raised beds. 5 hills to a 4 x 4 foot bed. This propagation method was much less effective than starting into flats. Germination was not as robust and the resulting seedlings did not have the vigor of those started into flats.
The direct started seeds seemed to be adversely affected by the heat. Germination was uneven.
We started to set out melon starts beginning in early June. The melons were planted into raised beds in 4×4 quadrants. The beds were amended with compost, composted fish waste and a natural fertilizer. The melons were planted in a star pattern with a small hill of 3-5 plants placed in each corner of the bed with one planting directly in the middle.
The plants were mulched with a thick layer of coastal hay to conserve moisture and provide weed control. The mulch was an excellent component as it did an excellent job of controlling weeds and helping to moderate water usage. We had very few issues with weeds over the entire growing season.
European Melons typically have shorter vines than many of their American counterparts and they growth habit fit nicely in our raised bed environment. One variety, Petit Gris des Rennes, has a climbing habit and we grew some of them on trellises to take advantage of this habit. The variety didn’t climb as readily as we thought and it had to be trained to the trellis.
We fed the melons in a variety of ways. Bed preparation consisted of amending the bed with compost and composted fish waste obtained from a local fish hatchery. These materials were turned into the raised beds prior to planting.
Upon the initial planting, we applied a cup of our custom blended fertilizer to the planting hole. This fertilizer was 4 parts cottonseed meal, 1 part blood meal, 1 part bone meal and 1 part granulated limestone. We have found this to be an excellent general purpose fertilizer. In addition to the general fertilizer, we also added a cup of composted worm castings. The starts were placed in the planting hole and the watered in with a solution of diluted fish and kelp emulsion.
We provided the plants with two major feedings aside from the initial feeding. Once when the plants set blossoms and again when the plants set fruit. This feeding schedule provided the melon plants with adequate nutrition resulting in healthy vigorous plants.
Irrigation of the plants was accomplished through the use of drip and soaker hose systems. Irrigation turned out to be a critical component of our trial due to the record breaking heat we had during the summer. We found ourselves having to apply one to two inches per week per bed over the summer. Irrigation was usually applied in the morning prior to the onset of the hot part of the day. If the plants appeared stressed, we performed a second watering in the early evening to perk the plants up.
We used drip tape with emitters at 8 inch spacing. Although the transplants were spaced at 18-24 inches, the 8 inch emitters gave us good even water coverage.
We periodically foliar fed the starts with a solution of fish and kelp emulsion. Not only did this help increase the plants vigor, it also did a remarkable job of preventing disease such as powdery mildew.
Our two biggest concerns heading into this trial were powdery mildew and possible cucumber beetle infestation. When we attempted to grow these melons before we had a significant problem with mildew and other foliar diseases. A large part of this was probably due to the watering methods we used(overhead watering)and our humid summers. We also made the cardinal sin of planting our melons in fairly close proximity to our cucumbers making pest transition to our melons fairly easy.
Our pest and disease management program began as soon as the seedlings sprouted. We applied a fish and kelp solution to the seedlings once a week. We found that in addition to providing vital nutrients and minerals, the solution also conferred some disease resistance as well. The solution definitely helped with damping off problems. We lost only one plant due to damping off this year.
At the beginning of the season, we employed the use of lightweight row covers to help to protect against early season pests. PVC hoops were built around each bed and supported by rebar. This gave us good protection against early season pests such as flea beetles and cucumber beetles.
We did have a few plants that succumbed to fusarium wilt. The instances were extremely rare and plants were promptly removed. The bulk of the planting was disease free.
While we did succeed in growing out these melons, our results were disappointing. Our yields were low and the fruit quality and appearance was below the standards necessary for market. The extremely high temperatures over a two week period in July 2010 adversely affected fruit set.
We grew out close to 100 pounds of melons with fruit sizes ranging from 1/2 pound to several pounds in weight.Our blossom set was tremendous but our blossom to fruit conversion ratio was nowhere what it should have been.
Having successfully grown these melons before in Georgia’s climate, we were a little surprised by the problems we had with germination and blossom to fruit conversion. While these melons can have germination problems, we felt that we had taken the proper steps to provide an ideal environment for successful production. After looking at all the variables, we believe that the critical factor in our germination issues was the extremely high temperatures that occurred just as the blossom set occurred and pollination was occurring. We purposely grew some of our plants in beds that were shaded part of the day and the fruit set on them was a little better than those that received direct sun.
Educational & Outreach Activities
We performed several types of outreach. On the consumer side, we did samplings of melons at the Lawrenceville Farmers Market and other outlets. We had an information booth at the Watermelon Festival held by the Atlanta Botanical Gardens in August 2010. At the festival, we informed people about our project, explained the different types of melons and did a limited tasting.
We will be putting up a tutorial on our efforts for other growers on our website this year when our new crop comes in. We have worked personally with some smaller farmers, teaching them about these varieties and how they can be worked into their crop planning.
Although we did not get the results we were hoping for in this trial, we feel we did have several accomplishments. We did successfully grow out a large quantity of plants from seed to mature specimen. Our yield while not near projections were enough to do some sampling and outreach. And some of the fruit was of excellent quality in both taste and appearance.
The major accomplishment is that we gained a body of knowledge that we can build upon to achieve a greater level of success in the future. Given what we learned regarding the heat factors, we would probably employ a more aggressive approach to heat protection including the use of shade covers and earlier and or later plantings.
In terms of performance, Petit Gris de Rennes did the best with an excellent fruit set given the circumstances. The melons were attractive to consumers because of their small size which lends itself well to single or servings for two. We were so pleased with this melon that despite the problems, we are going to add it to our commercial market production each year.
Although our trial was not as productive as we would have liked, we do feel that these melons can be grown in marketable quantities and that consumers will purchase them. They present an attractive alternative to the watermelons and muskmelons typically found in stores and at farmers markets.
We recommend that continued trials of these plants be done as we believe that a viable market exists for the crop and it will be well received by consumers and chefs alike. We plan to continue to grow these melons out each year, perfecting the methods to turn out reliable production.