Senior Gardening

One of the Joys of Maturity


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Transplanting Melons into Heavy Clay Soil
May 8, 2014

Several years ago, the farmer who rents the farm ground around us generously offered to let us use part of a small field next to our property that he'd decided was too small to be worth planting. Our primary need for space and "clean ground" at that time was for sweet corn, as we had serious corn smut problems in our main garden plots.

I had elbow surgery the first year we had use of the ground, and by the time I healed and rehabbed, it was too late for sweet corn. Seeing some rather sad looking melon transplants at a local discount store, I decided to till up some space in the field and give melons a try.

When I first tilled and then dug into the soil, I realized that I was in real trouble trying to grow melons on what was pretty much a burnt out corn field. There was almost no organic matter in the soil, which was heavy gray to orange clay with no topsoil. What grew in the field was a nasty collection of weeds.

In the years since, we've grown some spectacular green manure crops that we turned under to improve the tilth of the soil, but it still is a challenging growing environment. But...we've also found a way to grow some great crops of melons!

Give Each Hill of Melons a Deluxe Hole

While improving the soil in a whole plot or field takes years of tender loving care, one can improve a small planting hole one puts seed or transplants into rather easily. That's what we do when we transplant melons into our East Garden. We give each of our transplants a deluxe planting hole using peat moss, or compost, when available.

Foot wide and deep hole Save soil
First, dig a hole at least a foot wide and deep, retaining the dirt dug in a cart or wheelbarrow. Add a half handful of 12-12-12 fertilizer and a bit of lime to the hole and work it into the base of the hole. Mix the soil you dug with peat moss, fertilizer, and a bit of lime, taking time to break up heavy clumps of clay soil.

Note that this ground had been thoroughly tilled about ten days before these images were taken. The soil certainly wasn't fluffy as it was just after tilling, but it wasn't all that hard, either.

Backfill the hole with peat moss. Generously water the hole
Backfill with peat moss or compost, if you're lucky enough to have some available. Using a shovel, work the peat moss and fertilizer into the surrounding native soil, going as deeply as you can. Generously water the hole. Think gallons of water. The peat moss will eventually absorb the water. In this planting, each hole got 2-3 gallons at this point and another gallon or so of water later.

While I said "water the hole," we usually add some kind of liquid, starter fertilizer to our transplanting water. For this planting, I collected all of our four and five gallon buckets and hauled 25 gallons of "water" to the planting site...twice! I add Quick Start liquid fertilizer to the water at about a third to half of the recommended dilution. Since I had it sitting around, I also added some Maxicrop soluble seaweed powder to the water for trace elements our soil may lack.

Form a trough around the hole with your saved soil Melon transplant
Using the soil previously saved and mixed with peat moss, fertilizer, and lime, form a trough around your planting hole. Also put a good shovelful of soil into the center of the trough. Dump any remaining soil at the side of the trough, as you'll need it later. And...water the hole again, this time with as much water as your trough (or dam) will hold...usually another gallon or a bit more. Note that we grow our transplants in 4 and 4 1/2 inch pots, with two to three plants per pot. Using large pots helps prevent root shock at transplanting.

Now for the fun part. If you live in a farming community, you may have heard area farmers derisively refer to "mudding in" a crop. That's planting when the soil is really way too wet for planting, but usually done because the farmer has no other choice due to weather or other conditions. Here, we're going to mud in our transplants, which is a very good thing in this case.

Unpot transplant and set in trough Push the transplant down into the soil
Gently remove the transplant from its pot. You want your root and soil ball intact. Just set the transplant in the center of your trough. Push the transplant by the soil into the mud you've created. If your transplant is tall and spindly, push the transplant well into the mud. Otherwise, push it until the top of its soil is level with the surrounding mud. Then bring some of your leftover, dry soil mix over the transplant's soil. Use it to help stand up the stems and leaves of the transplant.

While it's normally good gardening practice to firm the soil around a transplant, the mud pretty well takes care of this step for you. And that about does the basic transplanting. We go ahead and mulch our melons transplants with grass clippings to hold in soil moisture and hold back weeds.

Mulched hill of melons Mulching down the row
If your grass clippings are dry, you can mulch right up to the transplants. Note that if your mulch is wet and decaying, it can give off enough heat to "cook" your tender, young transplants. I generally mulch as I transplant down the row.

Once our melons are in, we begin our annual race with weeds, trying to get the open ground mulched before weeds take over. I scuffle hoe and rototill to hold back the weeds until I have enough mulch to cover all the open area in the melon patch. Note that wet, hot grass clippings can really work to your advantage in mulching open ground. The heat from the decaying clippings burns and kills any emerging seedling weeds under it. Well, it gets most of them.

Two melon rows transplanted and mulched

I've even resorted to spraying the open ground with Roundup, using a 2' x 8' sheet of plywood along the edge of the mulch to prevent the chemical spray from drifting onto our melon vines. But that's the exception, as we try to garden without using any herbicides.

Melons in 2011Melons for the MissionIn a good year, our deluxe planting holes and mulching help provide all the melons we and our extended family can eat. The excess goes to neighbors and area food banks.

While this story is about transplanting melons, watering is a constant problem for us. We have a dry spell late each summer that really stresses our melons. Since our deep well really can't support the irrigation needed, we have to rely on getting our melons in early and mulch holding in as much soil moisture as possible.

Light House Mission

We also face insect and disease problems at times, but not as much as one might think. Squash bugs, striped and spotted cucumber beetles have been problems in the past. Squash bugs can wipe out a squash plant in just a few days and require a strong insecticide to eradicate. The cucumber beetles often arrive late in the season and can either be tolerated or knocked down with pyrethrin.

Powdery mildew often is a problem in our squash plants. While most extension service sites suggest no effective chemical treatment, we've had pretty good luck treating (and better, preventing) the disease with the biological, Serenade. During the drought of 2012, we had the first outbreak we'd seen of bacterial rind necrosis. Better weather, good ground cleanup, and crop rotation have minimized, if not eliminated that problem.

Disclaimer

Just because someone has a web site on gardening doesn't mean what they've written is "THE RIGHT WAY" to do something. What I've written here is what works for us here at the Senior Garden, on our ground, under our weather conditions, most of the time...when we're lucky.

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