Thursday, September 20, 2012

Isaac's Giant Melon

Garden planted in the old chicken house foundation
When Isaac arrived on the Kansas prairie in 1878 and staked his timber claim and homestead, he did not own a horse.  It was 1886 before he bought his mare Dolly, and without a horse to pull a plow, he was limited in his ability to break sod.  For that reason, he focused upon planting and tending trees on his timber claim.  To meet the requirements for a homesteader, he resided on that claim, first living in two different dugouts before building a wooden house.  His farming consisted primarily of planting sod corn and tending his garden plot to raise his own food.
Over the course of keeping his journal, Isaac mentioned several things that he raised--tomatoes, cucumbers, peanuts, black-eyed peas, turnips, radishes, and melons among them.  His August 31, 1884 entry specifically described harvesting a forty-eight pound Cuban Queen watermelon.  As I did with so many references in his journal, I searched for information and at I found a member comment about a Missouri grower in the late 1800s who had grown Cuban Queen watermelons.
My tidy 2011 garden in early spring
I researched many heirloom plants and animals mentioned by Isaac.  After he acquired horses his primary cash crops were potatoes and corn, and he tested many varieties to determine which grew best in his sandy loam soil.  I attempted to research each of the many varieties that he identified, but I could not find some of them, even after consulting farmers who raise heirloom plants.
At local nurseries most plants being sold are hybrid varieties.  Having overcrowded my 2011 garden, I had learned my lesson.  This past spring I was determined to plant no more than five tomato plants.  Unfortunately, something nibbled one plant down to the ground and ate about half of another plant.  It was early in the season, so when my husband went to town I asked him to buy a replacement for the destroyed plant.  Suffering from the same dementia I experience when I enter a plant nursery in the spring, he came home with three plants rather than only one--one to replace the plant nibbled to the roots, one to replace the partially eaten plant (because he didn't believe me when I said I thought it would be all right), and one because the clerk had recommended it so highly.
Mid-summer the path has disappeared
When I took the new plants to the garden and dug up the roots of the "destroyed" plant, I observed a sprout.  Not one to throw away a plant struggling to survive, I moved it to have a chance at life.  The partially eaten plant was recovering, so instead of my carefully spaced five tomato plants, I had eight crowded plants!
Marigolds that had ringed the 2011 garden had left behind seeds, whose descendants I carefully transplanted.  I also noticed tiny seedlings with tomato-like leaves, so I left them to see what they might be.
After being away for a long weekend in early June, we returned to find many healthy little tomato plants, especially in the area that I had found difficult to reach in the overcrowded 2011 garden.  Unpicked tomatoes had apparently fallen to the ground and left seeds in the soil.  I transplanted (unsuccessfully) a few of the volunteers to an area too shady for them to thrive and left the rest.  The thick little forest of volunteer tomato plants that I ignored began to sprawl, as the store-bought plants grew in their tall cages, beautiful towers of green.
Sprawling tomato vines escape through the fence
Whether you live in the central region of the United States or not, you know from my blog that this has been the second year of high temperatures and little rain.  Before it got so hot, we got a few tomatoes from three of the eight plants we bought, but I'm sure you can guess where most of our tomatoes were picked--from the ignored, sprawling volunteer plants, of course!
They engulfed the green beans, cucumbers, and onions, growing wherever Mother Nature planted them.  They exploded through the fence.  And, they produced tomatoes!
Volunteers overtake the herb garden
What do seeds from volunteer hybrid tomatoes produce?  In our case, cherry and Roma tomatoes, probably because in 2011 the large tomatoes did not produce well to leave behind any hidden seeds.  The volunteers seem to be more tolerant of the heat and drought than the fancy hybrids in their cages, some of which produced nothing this year!
Tomatoes and marigolds were not our only volunteers.  The zinnas from 2011 overtook the herb garden outside the fence.  Herbs are hardy plants, however, and they refused to give up.  The other thing that spread vigorously was the Bermuda grass, which was determined to fight for space in the jumble of plants intended for herbs.  It was a messy garden in 2012, but it survived the drought.
I hope this year's tomatoes hide some seeds beneath their sprawling vines for Mother Nature to tend.  She seems to grow better tomato plants than the nurseries!  However, I must be more hard hearted next spring about which little volunteers I allow to live.  Either that, or I need to clear more garden space in a sunny area!  Maybe then I could grow asparagus and strawberries and melons and...


Margarete Uzarski said...

I planted several tomato plants, watered them lavishly and found that the squirrels enjoyed them immensely!!

BTW: asparagus was a big cash crop around the Rossville area and commercially canned locally into at least the early 1960's.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

I wonder if asparagus was being grown around Rossville as early as the 1870s. Isaac never mentioned growing asparagus.

Anonymous said...

our garden this year produced a prolific squash crop, so much more than we could use that I donated 12 freezer bags to the local food bank! Our beautiful pole bean plants have produced almost no beans but they are now being covered with the same morning glory type vine that seems to have invaded your tomatoes. Now the okra is coming on strong. We are loving the experience. Thanks for sharing yours.

The Blog Fodder said...

I love your pictures and the story of the volunteer tomatoes. Your garden looked wonderful.

A 48 lb melon is no slouch. I have never seen one that big. There is a real boom in heirloom seeds these days, no idea why, but it is interesting.

Tanya plants some 100 to 200 tomato plants every year. They do not seem to yield like the plants at home though they certainly yield. We eat vine ripened all summer and can tomato juice for winter.

Khuram said...

Its like you read my mind! You appear to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something.
I think that you could do with some pics to drive the message home a bit, but instead of that, this is great blog.
An excellent read. I’ll certainly be back.
Heirloom seeds