For divine vine crops, get planting now

Las Vegas is ideal for growing melons, cantaloupes and other vine crops. They love our hot weather.

Envision feasting on an ice-cold watermelon or cantaloupe cavity filled with ice cream on a hot summer evening. As an added bonus, their tropical- looking foliage and colorful flowers fit in with the flowers in your garden, thriving with little care. You have until the end of June to plant them. Vine crops are collectively known as cucurbits.

I’m giving a seminar on melons and other vine vegetables at 8:30 a.m. Saturday at the Las Vegas Springs Preserve, 333 S. Valley View Blvd.

Are cucurbits vegetables or fruits? At the supermarket, you find them in the vegetable section. But botanically, anything developing from flowers, and cucurbits do, is a fruit. That is why we label them in the fruit category.

Another peculiar thing: All cucurbits have separate male and female flowers on the same plant. That frustrates people because they find blossoms lying on the ground and wonder why they didn’t set fruit.

Male flowers are usually the first to emerge. Cucumbers, for example, will put out roughly 15 males to one female blossom, which come along later. The male flowers are viable only for a day and then drop off.

Another feature setting cucurbits apart from other plants is how they develop fruit. Apples and peaches come from flowers and then fade. Cucurbits develop fruit before the flower opens. Behind a female flower you’ll find a miniature cucumber, squash or melon. Behind the male flower is just a long stalk.

The conundrum: If these female flowers are not pollinated, they develop to a point and wither. It takes insects to transfer pollen, so watch for bees buzzing through your plants.

If you don’t see any insects, then the task defaults to you. Remove a male flower from the plant and take off its yellow petals. You end up with a sticky orange knob loaded with pollen grains. Find an open female blossom and rub the male knob onto the female center parts. Do this transfer early, when the flowers are most receptive.

Will vine crops cross-pollinate with each other? This is not an easy question to answer. Varieties of the same species cross freely. For example, you’ll find crossing within cantaloupe varieties. Now to add to the confusion, you’ll find crossing between squashes and pumpkins, but not between watermelons and cucumbers.

Vine crops need deep, rich soil to produce abundant crops. Mix into the top foot of soil lots of organic matter such as compost, along with a vegetable fertilizer and sulfur. Deep soil preparation encourages deep root systems, and cucurbits need lots of water.

Cucurbits have large seeds that germinate within a week, making them suitable for a child’s garden.

Remember, cucurbits take up a lot of room, so don’t over-plant. You need only about three producing plants. With this in mind, sow four seeds in clusters 5 feet apart and then thin out the weaker seedlings.

Keep the soil moist to encourage deep rooting. It’s critical that you get roots down before high temperatures set in, as the large, thin leaves will burn if they dry out. The fruits also easily burn if they are not covered by foliage. Don’t be alarmed when your plants wilt temporarily during the middle of the day. It’s normal, even if the soil is wet, but if the wilting continues, water them.

As the seedlings emerge, side dress with a vegetable fertilizer and follow with a good watering. Watch the leaves. Yes, dark green leaves are impressive, but they will suppress flower formation, and pale green leaves reduce the quality of produce.

It’s impressive to have your vines running all over the yard, but the farther the flowers are from the roots, the poorer the yields. Pinch out some of the soft growth at the ends of strong runners. This causes new side shoots to develop and produces more fruit. Dense foliage also protects fruit from sunburn.

Many folks like to plant the green-fruited zucchini varieties. But it’s easy to overlook the fruit among the jungle-type foliage. Yes, you get a bigger fruit, but they are full of seeds and lose much of the quality. Make it easy on yourself and plant the golden-fruited varieties. They stand out against the green foliage, making them easier to harvest.

Linn Mills’ garden column appears on Sundays. He can be reached at linn.mills@ springspreserve.org or (702) 822-7754

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