Subscribe for 33¢ / day

Q: How can I grow melons that are ripe before fall frosts kill the vines?

A: There are several little tricks that will help your melon production, but nearly all of them aim to keep the plants warm. Two do not: choose a melon variety that has been bred for a short season and cool weather. Most melons prefer a climate like Arizona's; they have no chance in Montana. When you are checking "days to maturity" on the seed packet, remember that it refers to melons growing in ideal conditions. Here, where growing conditions are never ideal, add more days before you can expect to see the first melon.

Second, melon plants gobble food from the soil. To feed the hungry plants all summer, plant melon seeds in the best soil you have available. Before planting, add a few shovelfuls of soil enrichment, like well-aged compost or manure. Cover the area with plastic so that the soil begins to warm before the seeds go in. Clear plastic will raise soil temperatures even more than black plastic, but it will also permit weeds to grow. Weeding will become a necessary chore.

Start early, but not too early. The melons need every warm day that you can provide them; however, one cold night will slow their growth more than a warm following day will speed it up. Try to plan so that melon growth is never checked, so that it continues smoothly from day to day.

Usually that means germinating melon seeds in the house or greenhouse, and then setting the young plants outdoors. Timing the seed planting can be tricky. Melon roots are fragile, easily broken by disturbance of the dirt surrounding them. In other words, a 3- or 4-inch container for starting seeds is better than a small one. Even so, the melons cannot grow too long in a pot without having their fast-developing roots run out of space. Three or four weeks is considered the maximum time before transplanting. If roots are bruised or broken while being moved to the garden, the advantage of an early start is canceled. A wall of water will reduce transplant shock.

Plant melons in the warmest spot available. That means a place with sun all day long and no wind. If the sunny places are exposed to wind, think about creating a windbreak. A short fence of shade cloth or snow fence, or even bird netting, makes a good windbreak. It lets through enough air to circulate but not enough to push the melon leaves around. I have grown melons in a cold frame, with the top removed once warm weather arrived. In my cold garden that speeded growth. Gardens that will grow eggplant have an easier time growing melons, since both are heat lovers.

Be sure that melon plants always have enough water, and give them a little nitrogen fertilizer — but not too much — once a month after they set fruit. If plants grow into awkward places like across a path, it may be possible to redirect the vine tips. Do not remove any leaves; every leaf is feeding the fruit.

Limit the burden on the plant by limiting the number of its melons. One or two on each branch is plenty. Let the baby melons grow long enough to be sure that they are established and healthy. Like squash, if the fruit is not pollinated, it will grow only a little and then shrivel and die. Once a large enough number of fruit is growing, clip off any further ones so that the plant's energy is focused on the few fruit that it can manage. Later female flowers can also be removed; they can be distinguished by the diminutive melon at the base.

Once summer temperatures begin to cool, start covering the melon plant on every cool night, not just on nights when frost threatens. The warmer the plant remains, the faster the melons will ripen.

Q: Can I use vinegar to kill some ornamental grass that seeded itself near my pear tree?

Q: I read that using a mixture of vinegar, salt, and dish soap is a good weed spray. Would it be useful for killing grass in the garden?

A: First, what vinegar can do: It can kill broad-leaved annual weeds. As a matter of fact, it can kill any broad-leaved annual plant, from peppers to petunias, by burning off the leaves. It is the acetic acid in vinegar that burns leaves, so any kind of vinegar is effective. Do not weaken the acid by diluting the vinegar with water.

Since having all its leaves scorched is what causes plants to die, vinegar spray is most effective on a dry and sunny day. The leaves will be visibly dying in an hour or two.

Second, what vinegar cannot do: It can kill a broadleaf perennial weed, but only with repeated spraying. Perennials have big enough root systems to grow a new flush of leaves, replacing the dead ones. Those new leaves can be killed with more vinegar. Depending on the size of the root system and the speed with which new leaves are noticed and killed, one to several repeated vinegar treatments will be required.

Get home and garden tips sent to your email inbox

Vinegar does not kill grass. Long ago, grass was programmed to come back after prairie fires. Grass plants can stand having their leaves burned off over and over again, by fire or by acid. Grass can be killed by digging out the crowns of the plants or by spraying with an herbicide for narrow-leaved plants. I would not take the chance of damaging your pear tree by applying herbicide nearby. Even though it should not absorb harmful amounts through bark or roots, I have heard enough sad stories to make me very cautious.

In case you feel alone, I am fighting a years-long battle with ornamental grasses that seeded themselves in my lawn. I keep digging out clumps of grass, but I have not yet won the fight.

Salt kills plants by making it impossible for them to transport water through inside channels. The plants die because water cannot travel between roots and leaves. Because it remains in the soil, salt could make it impossible to grow anything in a garden for years to come. I would put salt only on a place where I wanted no vegetation at all.

Dish soap is simply intended as a "spreader sticker." Mixed with any other chemicals, it helps to provide even spray coverage, and it keeps spray from running off too quickly. It has no direct effect on weeds or grasses.


At this time of year we are inundated with advice about how to take care of our gardens. Garden writer Tim Richardson sums it all up in these words: "Just as weekend personal finance supplements in newspapers ought to be boiled down to two words, 'buy property,' so horticultural supplements might be replaced with the single word, 'mulch'."