Groundwork column for Dec. 30, 2012

Watermelons, Gerberas, wildflowers to rule in ’13

The National Garden Bureau has announced the three plants that are featured in its 2013 “Year of the” Crops program — watermelon, Gerbera daisy and wildflowers.

2013: Year of the Watermelon

Not only are watermelons delicious, they are one of the largest edible fruits grown in the U.S. It’s also one of the most useful fruits as every part is edible: the flesh can be eaten as is, the rind can be pickled and the seed can be roasted.

Today’s watermelons can be classified as picnic, icebox, seedless and yellow/orange flesh types. Picnic types are the larger melons that can be round, long or oblong and are the largest ranging from 15-50 pounds.

Icebox melons are smaller, round types that range from 5-15 pounds. Seedless are mid-sized, oblong or round and range from 10-20 pounds.

During the summer, watermelon becomes the all favorite and a “must have” that is known to quench the summer thirst as well as a sure way to beat the summer heat. Watermelon is fat-free, low in calories and a good source of vitamins and dietary fiber. It is a rich natural source of the antioxidant lycopene.

Watermelon is a space hog; vines can reach 20 feet in length. Luckily, breeders have been working on varieties that still produce a large number of fruits on shorter vines, like Seedless Sugar Baby with vines just 3 1/2 feet long or the newest AAS Winner, Faerie, with vines just 10 feet long.

When vines begin to ramble, give watermelon plants a dose of boron to help them produce sweeter fruits. Dissolve 1 tablespoon of household borax in 1 gallon of water and spray foliage and the base of the plants.

Determining when a watermelon is perfectly ripe is not easy. The surest sign of ripeness in most watermelon varieties is the color of the bottom spot where the melon sits on the ground.

As the watermelon matures, the spot turns from almost white to a rich yellow. Also, all watermelons lose the powdery or slick appearance on the top and take on a dull look when fully ripe. Watermelons mature rapidly during hot weather. Most are ripe about 32 days after blooming.

Last but not least, enjoy your watermelon harvest. Watermelon chunks can be frozen to use in watermelon slushes or fruit smoothies. Watermelon sorbet or granita stays fresh in the freezer for up to three months, but the most common way to enjoy watermelon is while it is fresh, sweet, crisp and cool.

2013: Year of the Gerbera

Gerbera is an extensive genus and a member of the sunflower family. Gerbera species bear a large flower head with rayed petals in pink, orange, yellow, gold, white, red, cream and bicolors.

The center of the flower is either green or black. The flower head has the appearance of a single flower but is actually composed of hundreds of individual flowers. Gerbera flowers are diverse, and their flower heads range from 2.5 to 8 inches in diameter.

Single flowers: The main class of flowers is the single type with two layers of flower petals.

Semidouble flowers: The semi-doubles are often seen in cut flower types and some series of pot types. Semidouble flowers have extra rows of minipetals around the center eye, giving the blooms added bulk and interest.

Double flowers: Unique full flowers have five to seven layers of flower petals that completely cover the flower head.

Spider flowers: They feature a unique flower form with thinner and more pointed flower petals resembling sea urchins.

Many consumers have their first encounter with Gerbera as cut flowers since Gerbera is the fifth most used cut flower in the world (after rose, carnation, chrysanthemum and tulip). Gerberas as cut flowers offer a rich color palette and beautiful flower forms from single to semidouble.

2013: Year of the Wildflower

Wildflowers are one of Mother Nature’s loveliest gifts. Their changing panorama of colors, shapes, sizes and heights provides delight throughout the seasons.

Wildflowers can be used anywhere. In the home landscape they are ideal for creating colorful beds and borders, as well as offering a lower-maintenance alternative for large areas.

Wildflowers are experiencing a resurgence in popularity by both gardeners and public officials for their beauty and their valuable contributions to the environment. Flowers provide nectar and pollen sources for bees, butterflies and other pollinators, while ripened seeds are a food source for birds and wildlife.

A garden of wildflowers offers benefits to both the gardener and the environment. Once established, properly chosen wildflowers require less maintenance than traditional landscape plantings which can mean less watering, fertilizing, pest control and mowing. Some plants have deep root systems that prevent water runoff and soil erosion, and enable them to withstand drought.

Their growth also brings earthworms and beneficial soil microorganisms to enhance soil health. And colorful blossoms can be arranged into lovely, casual bouquets that brighten the home.

There are many sources available to help find the best native wildflowers for the garden. The Xerces Society (http://www.xerces.org) has several fact sheets and publications that suggest good native plants for geographic regions in the U.S.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center has an extensive database of commercially available native plants that can be searched to provide recommendations by state (http://www.wildflower.org).

Master Gardener?

Want to become a Master Gardener? Visit http://www.lsuagcenter.com and click Research Stations, then Burden Center and EBR Master Gardeners or contact Bob Souvestre at bsouvestre@agcenter.lsu.edu or (225) 763-3990. Applications are being accepted for the East Baton Rouge Parish program at Burden. Deadline is Jan. 17. Class size is limited.

Got a gardening question? Write to Bob Souvestre, horticulturist with the LSU AgCenter, at Burden Center, 4560 Essen Lane, Baton Rouge, LA 70809, or email to bsouvestre@agcenter.lsu.edu, or call Master Gardeners at (225) 763-3990.