Melon vines take up too much garden space. This past summer, we grew all of ours away from the vegetable beds. I planted them under fruit trees where they had room to roam.

In the photo above, a Sweet Crimson watermelon is growing “under” a young Hellen avocado tree. And in the photo below, the watermelon is being enjoyed, to say the least.

Big brother eats the heart out.
Baby girl uses the rind for teething.

I planted that watermelon seedling on June 27, and the partnership of watermelon plant and avocado tree worked great because they both needed lots of water through the summer heat. They also complemented each other’s sun needs, as the avocado tree grew up to gather light while the watermelon ran laterally, away from the Hellen tree, to soak up rays on the ground. Incidentally, the avocado tree enjoyed the watermelon’s leaves shading the ground and cooling the soil — especially during those intensely hot early July days. I handwatered the watermelon plant for the first week or two, but then the mini-sprinkler on the avocado tree irrigated the watermelon as it watered the avocado tree from then on.

I also grew honeydew melons under another avocado tree, which did great. Melons and avocado trees are an excellent combination. Other combinations of plants under fruit trees that I’ve tried have not always worked so well.

Keys to finding good vegetable-fruit tree combinations: consider water needs

Last fall, I planted garlic under my SpiceZee nectaplum tree and this combination didn’t work well. It was the rain’s fault. No, really it was my fault for expecting rain. The garlic began to grow, then it turned to winter and I stopped watering the fruit tree because it had lost its leaves and only needed minimal soil moisture, but the rains never came to take care of the garlic. In spring, I ended up with tiny garlic heads.

Of course, I could have watered the garlic individually, but the point in planting under fruit trees for me is in saving something: space, water, time, work. It would have worked better if I’d planted the garlic under a citrus tree since you still need to water citrus trees through the winter if there’s no rain.

Consider light needs

So you must coordinate the water needs of the vegetable plant (or melon vine, etc.) and the fruit tree. Also, you must coordinate the light needs of the two. The garlic, for example, must be planted under the south side of a citrus tree. It is growing through the winter. If it’s on the north side, it will be shaded most if not all of the day.

The north side of a tree can be put to use, however, as it will stay cooler and moister through the winter. Last winter while I was pruning my grapes, I put a cutting into the ground under the north side of a Fuji apple tree, where it grew splendidly without any further attention. (This winter, I’ll dig up the grape and plant it elsewhere in the yard. Here’s a post on propagating grapes with cuttings.)

Consider walking paths

Under the south side of an adjacent Pink Lady apple tree, I planted a couple strawberries. I’m glad I only planted a couple because we still need to walk around the tree to harvest fruit. Strawberries all around under the tree would get trampled, especially by the kids.

See both apple trees in this photo:

Grapevine growing from cutting on left, now in shade again since it’s fall. Strawberries on right.

Consider mulch

One of my favorite vegetables to put under fruit trees is potatoes. The reasons are that potatoes love to grow surrounded by mulch, and I love to mulch my fruit trees. You just scoop back some mulch, drop a potato, and cover it back up with mulch. A few months later, after the potato plant has grown up and then died, you scrape the mulch away again to find new tubers. Since they form within mulch, the potatoes are very clean already. That’s a bonus.

Potato plant on left, plus some zinnia flowers on right — all under southern canopy edge of Reed avocado.

A video showing my routine:

I used to plant more sweet potatoes under trees, but I do that less now since harvesting sweet potatoes takes more digging and disturbing the tree roots. The trees never showed that they minded, but I still figure it can’t be good to do that to them often. (Here’s a post on planting sweet potatoes under avocados.)

Consider permanent companionships

No longer do I sow cilantro in vegetable beds. Here is one case where I’ve completely switched over to planting only under fruit trees. I’ve got a few permanent patches of cilantro where they grow during winter and spring, set seed and die off through summer, then with the first fall rains they grow again. Cilantro is so reliable at self-sowing, I’ve found. This cycle has been running for a handful of years now, with no end in sight.

(There’s a photo and a video of one such cilantro patch in this post.)

It’s like free cilantro every winter and spring. Onions grow well under fruit trees then too. Now, if only those were the seasons in which tomatoes and peppers grew, we could have permanent salsa patches. I’d put one under the lime tree, and a couple under avocado trees to complement guacamole. If only.

Planting too many vegetables under a fruit tree

Can you go overboard and plant too many vegetables (etc.) under a fruit tree? Maybe. I may have broken the limit this summer of what could be grown well under a large Valencia orange tree in my yard. Between the spring and now in fall, under that single tree’s canopy edge has grown peas, tomatoes, beets, bananas, coffee, raspberries, pumpkins, avocado seedlings, potatoes, onions, apricot seedlings, what else am I forgetting?

There were a few problems encountered. One was that the light wasn’t quite sufficient for everything to grow well. It was just too crowded. Another was that I couldn’t seem to keep enough water in the soil to satisfy all those plants during the summer heat. I had to add extra water by hand all the time, and that’s not saving water or time.

So I’ve scaled back here in fall, and I’ll scale back further for next summer. Here is the orange tree and friends as they grow today:

Tomatoes to the west, one banana mat, and raspberries on east side (which enjoy shelter from afternoon sun).

What a novel idea!

I came up with this notion of planting vegetables etc. under fruit trees, by the way. All by myself. I’m so clever.

Oh, wait. Take a hike in the hills and you’ll notice everywhere small plants growing under trees. A couple years ago, I took this photo of wild currants and blackberries growing under the eastern canopy edge of these coast live oak trees. They must’ve learned this from watching my raspberries under the orange tree. Copycats.

Wild currants and blackberries beside live oak trees in Santa Ysabel Preserve.

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