With the extended statewide dry spell, researchers at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Uvalde and elsewhere have been focusing their attention on improving varieties of more drought-tolerant crops, particularly melons, said the center’s administrator.

“We’re looking into improved varieties of melons, such as cantaloupe and honeydew, and are growing and assessing some Spanish and Italian specialty melons that are relatively new to this area,” said Dr. Daniel Leskovar, Texas AgriLife Research vegetable physiologist and interim center director.

Leskovar said the goal of the research is to identify and produce melons with consumer-preferred characteristics, such as size, shape, color, texture, firmness and sugar content, as well as identify or develop other traits to improve them.

“In our melon breeding program, we’ve been evaluating the more well-known Texas-grown cantaloupe varieties for several years, but we’ve only been evaluating the possibility of commercially producing Spanish, Italian and other specialty melons for the past few years,” he said.

He said in addition to melon look, feel and taste, he and other researchers have been assessing overall food quality, yield, and disease and drought resistance.

“We’ve been interested in the possibility of specialty melons such as Tuscan-type melons with orange flesh, Galia-type melons with green flesh and canary types with near-white flesh, from the perspective of how they might fare as a high-value, high-income crop for Texas producers,” he said. “We’ve also been examining the effects of factors such as deficit irrigation on their growth and productivity.”

Leskovar said in spite of this year’s drought, the center’s fields dedicated to melon production saw “exceptional growth and yield.”

From center production data, Leskovar estimates that early or “right” planted melons, those planted from mid-March to mid-April of this year, would have produced up to 85,000 kilos of total production of melons per hectare. Later-planted melons were estimated to have potentially produced about 50,000 kilos per hectare.

“From these totals, we had up to 75 percent marketable melons,” Leskovar said. “We grew these melons using drip irrigation and are assessing the use of varying amounts of irrigation to determine the effects on melon growth. Melon production is similar to that of peppers in that drip irrigation is the key, along with proper bed population and mulching of the beds.”

Researchers at the center are using scientific technology to take vegetative growth measurements to determine how the melons cope with varying levels of irrigation, as well as differing soil types and levels. The mini-rhizotron technique is used to image root development, a portable photosynthesis system measures gas exchange over the leaf area, and soil moisture sensors assess water dynamics around the plant root systems.

“These measurements are used to determine whether the roots are developing properly and achieving adequate soil penetration, as well as the effects of the variables we are using in our investigations on plant physiology,” Leskovar said.

Melon varieties were planted at three different locations including a study at the Uvalde center where plants were given 50 percent and 100 percent irrigation to determine effects on yield, quality and root management, said Sat Pal Sharma, graduate research assistant at the Uvalde center.