How to produce Organic Cucurbit
Cucurbit is a term for all the species in the family of Cucurbitaceae in which there are about 800 species in 130 genera. They are vegetable plants that are consumed worldwide as food and can be prepared and eaten in various forms, for examples: Cucumber, Gherkins and Long melons in the form of salad; Ash gourd, and Pointed gourd in the form of sweets; Gherkins in the form of pickles; and Melons in the form of desserts. Some of them such as Bitter pumpkin have some unique medicinal properties.
Cucurbits are an important Cash crop for small landholders and family farmers, and in India a number of major and minor Cucurbit species are grown in several commercial growing systems and they are also popular among private gardens.
According to the FAO, In India Cucurbits are grown on about 4,290,000 ha with a productivity of 10.52 tons per hectare. Therefore, the cultivation accounts for about 5.6% of the total vegetable production in India.
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The family Cucurbitaceae is very interesting in many ways as it is a family of dicotyledons with so many species which are widely distributed over many parts of the world, including a large number of vegetable and fruit crops which are trailing vine crops.
They are grown during the summer season while some can also be grown during rainy periods. These crops are grown either on Ridges at proper spacing or in Furrows on edges of both sides.
The summer crops are sown during January to March and the rainy crops during June to July and in Hills, it is sown in between April to May. In general, all the Cucurbits can be grown in river banks in some specially prepared pits.
These Crops generally consist of Melons, Gourds, Squash and Cucumber and they make up one of the largest plant families of crops which are used for human consumption and they are best suited for warm temperatures and they need full Sun and well drained soil to thrive.
The spacing for planting the seeds is 2 to 3 metres in Rows and 60 to 90 cm in Plants. The seed rate for Cucumber, Watermelon and Muskmelon are 2 to 3 kgs per hectare; while Bottle Gourd, Ridge Gourd and Sponge Gourd need 4 to 5 kgs per hectare; and Pumpkin and squash needs 7 to 8 kgs per hectare.
After combining technology and experience, many growers have started providing the most effective solutions and the highest quality crops possible.
Certified organic Cucurbits are produced without using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The growers who are commercially producing Cucurbits need to manage the climate and soil conditions and also the insect pests and diseases.
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Here, we will learn more about the production of Cucurbits organically.
The Cucurbit crop group includes vegetable species like:
- Snake Gourd
- Bottle Gourd
- Bitter Gourd
- Ridge Gourd
- Tinda or Round Melon
- Pointed Gourd
- Ash Gourd
- Sponge Gourd
of which Cucumber, Melon, Watermelon and Pumpkin are the four most commonly cultivated crops in India.
Varieties of Cucurbitts
The following are the varieties of Cucurbits under various categories:
- Cucumber – Japanese Long green, Straight Eight, Balam Khira, Khira Poona, etc
- Muskmelon – Pusa Sharbati, Lucknow Safeda, Hara Madhum Kutana, Durgapur, Madhu, Arka Jeet, Arka Rajhans, etc
- Watermelons – Sugar Baby, Asahi Yamato, Charleston Grey, Pusa Bedana (seedless), Tetra-2, etc
- Bottle Gourd – Pusa Summer Prolific Long, Pusa Summer Prolific Round, Pusa Meghdut and Pusa Manjari
- Bitter Gourd – Pusa Dumousmi, Kalianpur Baramasi, Coimbatore white long, etc
- Sponge Gourd – Pusa Chikni
- Ridge Gourd – Pusa Nasdar, Satputia
- Summer Squash – Early yellow prolific, Australian green, Butternut, etc.
- Winter Squash – Arka Suryamukhi
- Tinda – Arka Tinda
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Uses of Cucurbits
The uses of different varieties of Cucurbits are specified as below:
- Vegetables – Bitter gourd, Bottle gourd, Ridge gourd and Sponge gourd, Little gourd, Round gourd and Pumpkin are used as vegetables. Also immature fruits of Muskmelon is also cooked as vegetables.
- Salad – Cucumber and Little gourd are used in making salads.
- Table Purpose – Muskmelon, Watermelon and Cucumber.
- Pickle – Cucumber, Little gourd and Bitter gourd are used for making pickles.
- Medicinal Purpose – Cucumber, Watermelon and Muskmelon are having cooling effects. Better gourd is beneficial to diabetic patients and the person suffering from Arthritis and Asthma. Sponge gourd is beneficial for malaria.
- Other Uses – Some other uses are:
- Watermelon is an alternative to drinking water in deserts.
- Oil is extracted from Muskmelon seeds.
- The seed kernels of Muskmelons are used in costly sweets and snacks.
- The ripe fruits of Pumpkins are made into excellent dessert.
- Melons are a good source of Vitamins and Nutrients and act as a protective food.
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Growing Cucurbit Crops
Cucurbits grow best in summer weather when days and nights are consistently warm and these crops need a fair amount of space to scroll and twine and it is also possible to train the traditional vines to vertical structures in order to save space.
They need full sun and well drained soil to thrive well and before planting organic matter is added for best results. In case of heavy soils, you can add peat or rotted manure and it is always best to take a soil sample before fertilizing them.
Production Consideration for Organic Cucurbits
The different requirements and important considerations for organically producing Cucurbits are illustrated below.
The selection of a cultivar is very important and it is the first step to a successful organic harvest. The selected cultivar should be resistant or tolerant to the pest and diseases. In Cucurbits, the availability of resistant varieties vary from crop to crop.
For example: Fusarium Resistance can be more commonly available in watermelon cultivars. So the producers will likely face higher seed costs for Organic seed to get the most desirable cultivars.
The cultivars should also be selected based on the future market. For example: Certain squash cultivars do well in the market but can be challenging to produce large quantities uniformly and therefore may not be suitable for wholesale markets.
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Site Selection, Planting and Maintenance
The Cucurbit crops should not be planted in such soils which have recently been planted, so crop rotation is a better option for this and to manage the diseases and insects pressure. The crops grow well in well drained soils with a fairly high organic matter content. The land selected must be certified for Organic production.
Cucurbits are cold sensitive and therefore they should be planted after the danger of Frost. They are often grown from transplants planted into raised beds with black plastic mulch and drip irrigation. The black plastic mulch helps the soil to warm faster in Spring and also allows earlier times to market.
However, some Cucurbits are often directly seeded such as Squash and Pumpkins. If there is a direct seeding, then overseeding is recommended which means planting 2 to 3 seeds per planting hole and then thinning down to one plant once seedlings have formed their first true leaves.
Mulching also helps in retaining soil moisture, nutrient uptake and weed control and it also has a favourable impact on insect Pest populations. Trickle Irrigation helps in discouraging disease spread while increasing the quality and quantity of fruit. Overhead irrigation is not recommended for Cucurbit crops.
Adequate pollination is also very important in Cucurbits. You can use one or two strong bee hives per acre depending on the crop intensity and pollinator presence. The pollinators will need to be added under row covers which are commonly used in organic Cucurbit systems to help manage the pest pressure.
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Cucurbits thrive well in well drained soils with a rich content of organic matter. Light soils are generally preferred to produce early crops. The soils should be deeply ploughed followed by harrowing and levelling operations so that they leave a fine smooth tilth.
The farmers should implement practices that nurture the soil, stimulate soil life and conserve nutrients. In general, the preferred pH for all Cucurbits is from 6.0 to 7.0 .
Stages of Organic Soil Process
The organic soil process goes through three critical stages:
- The Adjustment Phase – This phase involves developing a system that reduces crops’ reliance on artificial chemicals.
- The Comfort Phase – This phase coincides with an increase in biological activity and it should be remembered not to over fertilize the soil during this phase.
- The Maintenance Phase – Research has shown that organic systems have a comparatively longer period and it increases the soil nutrient reserves.
Cucurbits are widely grown throughout tropics and subtropics and arid regions. They grow under frost free conditions because it is frost sensitive but it can also grow in cold weather conditions. The Melons require about 25 to 30 degree celsius temperature for a longer time period.
The pre germinated seeds are sown for smooth generation at very low temperatures. The seeds should be soaked for 24 hours and then they should be kept in a Gunny bag or covered with cotton cloth and kept in a warm place for one week to germinate and as soon as the shoots become visible outside the seed coat, they can be sown.
Before sowing, the seeds should be treated with Trichoderma viride @ 4 gram per kg or Pseudomonas fluorescens @ 10 gram per kg or Carbendazim @ 2 gram per kg.
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The land should be ploughed 4 times to form long channels which should be 1.5 m apart and the soil should be enriched with organic matter by adding garden manure or well degraded Farmyard manure such as cow dung.
The Cucurbit crops can be cultivated as summer or monsoon crops and the sowing time depends on the type of Crop. Cucumbers are almost always sown directly like most of the cucurbit crops and they do not transplant well.
During the direct seeding, a distance of 45 to 60 cm in the trench at a depth of 3 to 4 cm is considered with two seeds generally sown in one place. The seeds should not be sown too deep because it could cause delayed emergence of fruit.
The sowing rate varies depending upon the cultivated crops and in general, 2 to 3 kgs for cucumber, 4 to 5 kgs for Bitter Gourd and Bottle Gourd, 3 kgs for Sponge Gourd and Flash Gourd is considered in 1 hectare of land.
For transplanting, container grown transplants are preferred to plant with a daily mean soil temperature of 15 degree Celsius and also in this case the transplants should be protected from winds with hot caps or row covers.
The spacing of plants depends on the growing method, the variety of Crop used and the type of harvesting method. Close spacing is considered to increase the yield and it ensures more uniform ripening and also reduces weed problems. On the other hand, it also results in shorter fruits with a lighter colour.
After preparing the bed, it is advised to lay black and silver plastic mulch over the bed surface with black side to be laid towards the floor to prevent weed from developing and the Silver side to be faced upwards for reflecting sunlight and reducing the absorption of heat.
Also, the reflective side helps to deter sucking insects. After laying the plastic, the foil should be perforated with holes of diameter 10 cm for planting.
One of the best method for irrigation of cucurbits is with Drip irrigation. When you use Micro Irrigation for the irrigation and fertigation purposes you will definitely reach yield up to 3-40% extra. Irrigation is very important for the spring-summer crop, while in the rainy season, irrigation is not necessary if rainfall is well distributed from July to September.
In general, sprouted seeds are sown in the spring season and adequate moisture has to be maintained at the time of emergence. Usually the pits, ridges or beds are lightly irrigated a day or two before sowing and the next irrigation is given 4 to 5 days after planting. The formation of crust should be avoided in soil and irrigation is very necessary after every 5 to 6 days depending upon the soil temperature and location.
Over irrigation as well as water stress conditions, both are harmful to the Melons. Pitcher irrigation is an efficient means of irrigating as it saves 40% water, reducing soil salinity as compared to the conventional method of irrigation.
Organic Cucurbits face pressure from multiple insects and diseases like bacterial wilt and Cucurbit yellow vine decline (CYVD) and their risk is so great that many commercial organic Cucurbits plantings use row covers to create a physical insect barrier.
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Seed treatments like Bacillus subtilis have been shown to impart some level of resistance to bacterial wilt in some melons and in addition to insect vectored diseases, many other diseases and viruses affect Cucurbits.
They are Gummy stem blight and Anthracnose in Watermelons; Choanephora fruit rot, scab, powdery mildew, and Phytophthora blight in Summer Squash. Late season Cucurbits like Pumpkins and Winter squash are susceptible to disease pressure from Black rot, Downy mildew and Powdery mildew.
Fusarium wilt is a common concern across most Cucurbits and the main option for controlling them is by the use of copper containing fungicides.
In addition to cucumber beetles and squash, there are some other insects such as Squash vine borers, Spider mites, Leafhoppers and Aphids which become economically important when not managed. Aphids impact crops by vectoring viruses and producing aphid honeydew which attract ants and other problematic insects.
Crop scouting and observation including insect trapping is an important part to manage pests using organic means. Some beneficial and predatory insects and other organisms including parasitic wasps can also be utilised to reduce insect pests in organic Cucurbits.
There are some products also proved by certified organic production which can be spread on the Cucurbits, but they also reduce beneficial insect populations.
Harvesting & Storage
The harvest and the storage requirement for Cucurbit crops vary according to the plant species and desired market. Summer Squash have the most variable harvest requirement as market preferences determine the maturity stage at which the fruits are picked.
For cucumbers, the first harvestable cucumbers are very important to be picked up so as to ensure continuous production throughout the season and cooling them just after the harvest helps in maintaining the quality of the crop and extending shelf life.
The Melons should be picked at full maturity with some variations in muskmelons according to the market locations. The pumpkins and winter squash might be picked at full maturity stage and they can be stored the longest of any other major Cucurbit crops.
It is always recommended to wear gloves during harvesting for some Cucurbits such as squash and cucumber to avoid scratching or damaging the fruit.
During harvesting, the matured fruit should be carefully removed from the vines by cutting them through the stalks because the damage to the fruit can reduce the storage life and can even promote various diseases.