There is nothing quite like the meltingly sweet flavor and heady aroma of a truly ripe cantaloupe. And the best way to sample such a delectable treat is to grow your own. Cantaloupes and related melons such as honeydews are easy to grow as long as your keep their four requirements in mind: heat, water, fertile soil and bees.
But first we should point out that cantaloupes aren't really cantaloupes! True cantaloupes are tropical fruits with green flesh and hard rinds that are rarely sold in this country. What we think of as cantaloupes, fruits with orange flesh and tan, netted rinds, are really muskmelons. However this naming quirk came about, as a gardener you only need to know that cantaloupe and muskmelon are two names for the same type of melon. Related melons include the honeydews with pale skin and green flesh, the French Charentais melons with deep orange flesh and a honey-like flavor, and the Mediterranean types, such as the Israeli melons, that generally have yellow skins and sweet, aromatic, pale green or white flesh.
Gardeners in northern parts of the country should choose melons with the shortest number of days to harvest. Especially in warmer areas, choose varieties that are resistant to diseases such as downy and powdery mildews and anthracnose.
No matter the type of melon, their cultural requirements are similar. In cooler parts of the country (USDA Hardiness Zones 3 and 4), it's a good idea to give your melons a jump on the season by starting them in peat pots 3 to 4 weeks before you set them out in the garden. Plant a couple of seeds in each pot and snip out the weakest when the seedlings are two inches high. Set them out when the weather has warmed, usually about a week after your last frost date. Be sure to harden them off before you put them in the garden.
In warmer areas, melons do best if sown directly where they are to grow. Plant seeds one inch deep in hills, which simply means 4 to 6 seeds set in a one-foot diameter circle, not a raised area. When seedlings are a couple of inches high, thin to two seedlings per hill. Space the hills 6 to 10 feet apart for vining varieties; 2 to 4 feet for bush types.
But first you need to get your soil ready. Spread a 3 to 4 inch deep layer of compost and a slow-release or organic fertilizer on the melon bed and work into the top 6 to 8 inches of soil. In northern areas, you may want to warm the soil by covering the bed with black plastic.
After your seedlings are up and the soil is warm, mulch the bed with an organic mulch such as straw to keep weeds down. This way you won't need to worry about damaging the vines as you attempt to weed among them. In cooler parts of the country, keep the black plastic down all summer to give your melons toasty toes. Just cut squares out of the plastic and pop the peat pots in. This method works best if you lay soaker hoses or drip irrigation tubing down before you roll out the plastic.
Vining melons take up a lot of room in the garden. For the most efficient use of space, erect an A-frame trellis for the vines to grow up. Just remember you'll need to support developing melons in slings made of old pantyhose, fabric or netting.
As soon as you put seeds or plants in the ground, cover the bed with a floating row cover. This will keep out many of the most troublesome insect pests, such as cucumber beetles, while the plants are young. You'll need to remove the cover when the first female blossoms appear so that the pollinating bees can get in and do their work. If the melon flowers don't get pollinated, no melons will form. One way to increase your chances of good pollination is to plant some herbs with blossoms that attract bees nearby. Mints, thyme, borage and lavender are all good bee plants.
Melons are heavy feeders. Sidedress with a balanced fertilizer just as the vines begin to run (when they are about 12-18 inches long). Consistent watering will give you the best melon crop. But for the sweetest melons, hold back on water for a week or so before you start harvesting.
Cucumber beetles are found throughout the country. These 1/4-inch long, yellow-green and black, spotted or striped beetles chew holes in the leaves, stems and leaf stalks of melons, while their larvae feed on roots in the soil. In addition to their direct damage, these insects can transmit two diseases, bacterial blight and mosaic virus, to the plants as they feed on them. As mentioned before, putting a floating row cover over the bed until flowering will keep plants beetle-free for a while. Once the covers have been removed, pyrethrin sprays can help control the adult beetles.
Bacterial wilt, the disease carried by cucumber beetles, starts with leaves that wilt during the day, but recover at night. Eventually, the leaves wilt for good and die. If you cut a wilted stem near the base of the plant and squeeze the stem, you'll see a milky white sap that strings out in a thread if you touch the point of a knife to it and draw it out. There is no control for this disease, which is why it is so important to control the beetles that spread it. Remove and destroy any infected plants to reduce the chances of spreading this disease to uninfected plants.
The fungal disease anthracnose is a problem in the eastern half of the country. It causes yellow, water-soaked spots on the melon leaves that rapidly enlarge and turn brown and dry. The dead tissue falls out, leaving ragged holes. Fruits may also be infected with brown, sunken spots. This disease is most prevalent when the weather is warm and humid. Powdery mildew causes the upper surfaces of the leaves to be covered with powdery white fungal growths; the leaves then turn brown and dry. Leaves affected with downy mildew turn yellow and have hairy white, purple or black fungal growths on the leaf undersides. Warm, wet weather favors downy mildew; powdery mildew can be a problem in both dry and humid weather.
Choose varieties that are resistant to these diseases, especially in warmer parts of the country, clean up all plant debris well at the end of the growing season and rotate crops, with 2 years between any melons, squash or cucumbers, to minimize problems. Fungicides may also be used at the first sign of anthracnose or mildew; contact your local Cooperative Extension office for fungicide recommendations and read and follow all label instructions and precautions.
Getting the chance to eat a perfectly vine-ripened cantaloupe is, of course, the reason for growing your own. So when is it ready? When the rind under the netting changes from green to tan and the netting itself becomes more pronounced, lift up the melon and pull gently on the stem. If it starts to "slip" or separate from the fruit, it is ready to pick. It should also have a nice aroma and the blossom end should have a little give. Cantaloupes will continue to ripen off the vine.
Smooth-skinned melons like honeydew don't have a stem that slips when ripe, so you'll need to rely more on the fragrance of the fruit. Also, the rind of a ripe honeydew has a smoother, waxier feel than an unripe one. Honeydews will not ripen further after they are picked. The rind of orange-fleshed honeydews turns a pale shade of orange when ripe. The delicious Charentais melon will become very aromatic and its rind will lose its grayish cast and become a warmer yellow when it's at its eating prime.
Q. Some of the flowers on my melon vine bloom, then fall off without forming fruits. Why?
A. Melon plants and all members of the cucurbit family (melons, squash and cucumbers) produce both male and female flowers. The male flowers bloom on the end of a long stalk. The female flower isn't on a stalk; instead it's attached to a swelling that looks like a small fruit. After the female flower receives pollen from a male flower, this swelling grows into a full-sized fruit. The male flower eventually withers and falls off. So what you may be noticing is simply the spent male blossoms being shed. Often the male flowers start to bloom first, but eventually female flowers will be produced as well so pollination can occur.
If both male and female flowers are falling off and no fruit is forming, it may be that something is interfering with pollination. If the weather is cool and rainy, bees may not be active. If you spray insecticide when bees are flying, you may be harming your needed pollinators. If you do need to spray plants, do so in the evening when the bees are not flying.
If all else fails, you can play "bee" yourself. Before noon on the morning that a male flower first opens, pick it and remove the petals to reveal the stamens containing the yellow pollen. Find a female flower and brush the pollen-bearing stamens around inside it. You can fertilize 2 or 3 female flowers with one male blossom.