The vegetable industry in New England (and other peri-urban areas) is dominated by small-scale producers who market directly to consumers (USDA, 2012, 2013). Farmers grow a diverse mix of crops and rely on season extension technologies, such as high tunnels, rowcovers, and greenhouse-grown transplants, to meet customer demand for fresh local produce throughout the year (Sassenrath et al., 2010). Plasticulture, including rowcovers and high tunnels as well as plastic mulch, has been an important tool for crop diversification and season extension as it enables farmers in New England to create microclimates better suited to heat-loving crops such as muskmelon (Cucumis melo) (Lamont, 1996; Wells and Loy, 1993).
Jenni et al. (1996) found that the vegetative growth rate of muskmelon plants increased with warmer temperatures as long as the cumulative base 14 °C GDD did not exceed 300 at anthesis. Time to anthesis decreased linearly as temperatures increased. The warmer conditions under plastic low tunnels have been shown to accelerate flowering and fruit set and to double or triple yields relative to production in the open field over a range of climates (Loy and Wells, 1975; Motsenbocker and Bonanno, 1989; Wiebe, 1973). Like low tunnels, high tunnels can increase temperatures in the crop canopy (Lamont, 2009). Muskmelon production tests have demonstrated that high tunnels can produce yield benefits similar to or greater than those of low tunnels (Jett, 2006a; Waterer, 2003).
In New England, melons are transplanted into the field when soil temperatures exceed 15 °C, which generally occurs in early June. Average daytime air temperatures range from 20 to 23 °C during the production season. Muskmelons are typically grown on raised beds covered with black plastic mulch, which has been shown to increase earliness by up to 7 d and to double yields over planting in bare soil (Loy and Wells, 1975). However, mulch does little to enhance air temperature (Loy and Wells, 1975). High tunnels are increasingly common on market farms in New England but are mostly used for tomato production; there have been no studies evaluating high tunnels for melon production under New England conditions. Low tunnel melon production systems were investigated in New Hampshire many years ago using open-pollinated varieties (Loy and Wells, 1975), but the recent hybrids developed for New England conditions have not been tested in tunnels (Loy, 2013). The objective of this study was to compare performance of low tunnel, high tunnel, and open field production systems across multiple muskmelon cultivars under southern New England conditions. Production under each system was evaluated for earliness, yield, and fruit quality.
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