The Melon Man

This is Melon Man Gene’s melon patch way out west in the Rocky Mountains.

Yes, those are chickens hither and yonder. Gene refers to them as his “egg laying composters.” The chickens are integral to breaking down his clay soil. The clay content would allow him to make pottery with it if he were artistically inclined. The kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, garden clippings and unripened end-of-season fruits are tossed into the coop. The chickens then stir it, aerate it, eat it, and render these nutrients as compostable material.

I “met” Gene in the comments of my post about Melons, I Ain’t Got Melons. I was intrigued that he grew a wide variety of heirlooms (and fruit trees) but had a special fondness for melons. So I emailed him. The appearance of my email in his inbox must have freaked him out because hours passed before he responded. He confessed that it was probably “not safe” for him to be writing to me because I wrote about crazy people and his wife already thought he was crazy. He never quite admitted that he thought I was crazy, too, but it was there between the lines. I had to laugh. He probably thought I was one of those strange characters one meets up with on the way to see the Wizard after they tumble down the rabbit hole onto the yellow brick road to Oz.

Gene admitted that he might, indeed, be crazy but he drew the line at being called a tree hugger, vegan, greenie, foodie, or anything like that. He likes melons, plain and simple. Each year, on a quarter acre, he plants around 120-150 heirlooms of pumpkin, muskmelon and watermelon.

Atlantic Giant Pumpkin which grew to 75 pounds
One grew to 110 pounds
Blacktail Mountain Watermelon
Ali Baba Watermelon
One of these grew to 40 pounds
Orangeglo

Here’s a list of the melons currently in his patch:

Muskmelon

Watermelon

Watermelon

Golden Honeymoon Ali Baba Missouri Heirloom YF
Honeydew Black Diamond-YB Moon & Stars
Ineya Black Diamond-YF Moon & Stars Yellow Flesh
Black’s Cross Ribbed Blacktail Mountain Mountain Hoosier
Black’s Cross Unribbed Carolina Cross Orangeglo
Collective Farm Woman Congo Osh Kirgizia
Crane Crimson Sweet Royal Golden
Crenshaw Blanco Desert King Stone Mountain
Healy’s Pride Georgia Rattlesnake Sugar Baby
Jake’s Golden Russian Tendergold
Persian Jubilee Thai Chatchai 185
Petit Gris de Rennes Katanya
Schoon’s Hard Shell Kolb’s Gem
Uzbek Sweetness Ledmon
Minnesota Midget Milky Way Moon & Stars

Whip out your green-with-envy face because his garden is grown from an impressive seed collection:

The amazing seed collection

Gene believes “we really don’t know a whole lot about plants or even nature in general. All our facts are suspect because our experts know less than they think they do.” He concedes “they may often be right, but that’s more due to chance (observations from which assumptions are made) rather than a real understanding of plants.” He also thinks we should “realize Mother Nature has been growing stuff for thousands of years without any help from us, has been quite successful at it, has supported vast animal populations with it, and is ultimately responsible for all of the material we have to work with today. Given the great number of things the experts can’t explain about nature increases the chance they actually are wrong.” All of this influences the way he gardens.

Like a lot of guys I’ve encountered in the garden network, the challenge of gardening appeals to him. Gene has considered everything — commercial farming methods, hydroponics, aquaponics, vermiculture (ewwww, worms) – and keeps only what makes sense to him. He admits he doesn’t always do things the “right” way and he’s tried all sorts of crazy stuff (the stuff that led his wife to wonder if she was raising six kids instead of five) but has found that some of his crazy stuff was wildly successful. Other experiments have been “less successful” but he usually has a good idea why his experiment didn’t work.

Gene’s Methodology:

  • Most of his veggies are laid out in 10×4 garden beds covered with newspaper. Tomatoes and cucumbers are grown vertically; pumpkins, muskmelons, watermelons  and squash are allowed to sprawl.
  • His entire garden is covered with UV stabilized vinyl billboard with a black backing. The advertising goes face down on the soil. The billboard helps with weed suppression and moderation of soil temperatures. To get billboard, he suggested contacting your local billboard company and asking for vinyl (not paper) billboard after the ad runs.
Gene’s garden laid out with the vinyl billboard
  • I asked Gene how it was that the billboard didn’t fry his garden. He admitted, “Everyone I talked to about my billboard idea told me it would fry my stuff. Most of our days this summer have been over 95, with a number of them well over 100 but my garden did not fry. If I take temperatures at the surface of the billboard when the sun is up, it’s extremely hot. If I go just an inch down in the soil, there is a drastic temperature change. Think of it this way. When light hits something and isn’t reflected, it transforms into heat. If the light hits the soil, it’s turning into heat in the soil. If it hits the billboard, it turns into heat at the billboard. Heat rises. The billboard prevents the light from making it all the way to the soil before it turns into heat. What it also does is warm air trapped between the billboard and the soil. The billboard acts as an insulator between the trapped air and the air temperatures above the billboard (like throwing a blanket over the soil). So when it’s hot outside, the soil is cooler than it would be if it was directly exposed to the sun. When it’s cool outside (at night after a warm day), the soil is warmer because the blanket effect keeps the soil from cooling down. The opposite happens when you cover your soil with clear plastic. You’ll have the same blanket effect, but the light makes it all the way to the soil (below the blanket) and turns into heat. You will absolutely fry everything down there. This is called solarizing your soil.” In lieu of a billboard, a tarp could be used. He uses the billboard because it’s more durable and cuts holes in it for his melons and square foot beds.
  • Water soluble fertilizer is dispersed through a drip irrigation system beneath the billboard. His fertilizer ratio is much lower than recommended because he finds it easier to correct under-fertilization than over-fertilization. He confesses to using Azomite, as well, but strongly recommends getting a soil sample to figure out what your soil needs. Azomite is included in his fertilization plan because it has a combination of macro and micro nutrients needed by most plants. His theory is simple – most plants we grow in our gardens are not native to where we’re growing them so he likes to provide as many trace elements as the plant would get in its native habitat.
  • The drip irrigation system is on a timer. This allows him to keep his plant roots, which are more sensitive to temperature, cooler at the root zone than at their leaves. As a result, his plants easily weather temperatures of 105F.
  • To avoid pesticides, he separates his plants to make it harder for the squash vine borer to find his plants.
  • Mice are a problem for him. It doesn’t matter how many he removes from the garden, more come. Gene complains that some of his melons have a hole on both sides as though the mice went in on one side and went out the other. They love the muskmelons so much that Gene now picks “one for the mice, one for me, etc.”

I wonder how many times Gene stands, like me, at the edge of the garden, hands on hips, muttering, “Well, that didn’t work.”

I hope you have enjoyed this tour of Gene’s Melon Patch as much as I did. If you have questions about his growing methods, I will forward them to him. He’s willing to share his knowledge.

All photos in this article were provided by Gene the Melon Man. He provided additional information in the Comments section.

Possibility Alliance

I was reading one of those free email newsletters from Mother Earth News in which the author, Michelle Martin, had interviewed Ethan Hughes about his educational homestead, the Possibility Alliance. He has a remarkable generosity of spirit and the last three paragraphs of his interview were inspirational:

“I would also like to give readers a homework assignment. Sit down, put the article aside, and make a  list of everything you love to do that you’re doing now. Then add a list of everything you want to do and are not doing — big or small, whatever it might be. “I would love to grow a vegetable garden.” Or “I would love to bike to the White House and hang a sign that said, ‘No more offshore drilling.'”

“Then make another list of everything that you don’t want to be doing. On that list, also write anything that you might be doing in the future that you don’t want to be doing.”

“After you’ve got those two lists, it’s very simple. The next day, choose one thing from the first list to start doing and choose one thing from the second list that you don’t want to be doing and remove it from your life. Start integrating one thing at a time into your life. Each one might take a week or it might take a month. Just keep going until your whole life is aligned with the first list.”

You can read the full article here.

Beekeeper Interview

Smoking the bees
Opening the hive
Checking the hive

Karen Wassmer, a native Floridian, followed her husband to Fort Ord, California, where he was stationed in the Army. It was there that Karen read about the dying art of beekeeping that began her fascination about becoming a beekeeper. Finding herself back in Jacksonville to care for her sick mother, the two of them were sitting under a holly tree with thousands of honey bees flying above their heads. Her fascination with beekeeping was reborn. She had reservations about beekeeping because of a childhood allergy to bee stings. Later, she was diagnosed with Horner’s Syndrome which affects the eye, causes lesions, and is sometimes associated with brain cancer when developed late in life. Doctors gave her six months to live and, believing she had nothing to lose, got her first beehive in May 2005. At that time, she built the hives herself but later decided it was cheaper to buy ready-made beehives except for the hive covers and screen bottom boards.

It seems that God had other plans for Karen. She did not succumb to Horner’s Syndrome and gives God the glory for the healing. Apparently, regular bee stings caused the Horner’s to go into remission. The honeybees haven’t been so lucky because they are periodically killed by spraying. Karen believes that systemic pesticides are the primary cause of Colony Collapse Disorder.

Honeybees are also affected by diseases passed onto them by varroa mites. Bees are unable to remove varroa mites from their backside. In her first couple of years of beekeeping, her bees came under attack by these mites and she followed the advice of other beekeepers who used the chemical Sucrocide to control the varroa mite population. The use of chemicals, however, went against her beliefs. With assistance from God, she invented an organic way to control the mites by attaching a small brush at the entrance to the hives. It helps remove some of the varroa mites from the bee’s backsides and reduces the problem to a manageable level.

Karen also taught herself to raise one very special bee, the Queen. She did so by reading books, listening to beekeepers of long standing and persevering despite early failures.

I had the special privilege of listening to her speak at The Garden Club of Jacksonville where I learned a few quirky facts I’d like to share with you:

  • There are about 11 strains of European honeybees in the U.S.
  • Honeybees have two stomachs – one for nectar to take back to the hive and one for its own sustenance
  • Pollen is pure protein
  • The hive remains at 90 degrees all the time

A question from the audience produced startling news for me. I don’t remember the question but the answer is engraved in my mind. I had assumed that honeybees pollinated all of the veggies in my garden. Not so! Karen said it takes a carpenter bee to pollinate my tomato and pepper plants and a squash bee for my squash plants. I found an easy-to-read list of crop plants and the bees that pollinate them at Wikipedia.

Karen offers mentoring classes and workshops for new beekeepers, lectures to schools and organizations, educational tours of her farm and bees, bee removal, as well as the sale of queen bees, the varroa mite brush, and fresh organic produce from her farm. You can contact her at http://kwapiary.com.