Marvelous Melons

What is more evocative of summer than the taste of a perfectly vine-ripened melon? This is the time of year when heat-loving cantaloupes, watermelons, honeydews and other types of melons reach their peak of flavor and sweetness. And even gardeners in short-season areas can enjoy the taste and aroma of a homegrown melon by choosing varieties that mature quickly enough to provide a reliable harvest.

Cultivating Melons

Cantaloupes and other melons are all members of the squash family, with similar cultural needs. Plants thrive in warm weather and won't tolerate any frost, so wait until the soil is warm, the weather settled, and all danger of frost is past before planting melon seeds or setting out melon plants.

Most melons do best when direct-seeded where they are to grow in the garden. But if you garden where the growing season is short, you can start seeds 3-4 weeks before the time to set out transplants. Melons don't take easily to transplanting, so use biodegradable pots to minimize root disturbance and don't start plants more than a month before outdoor planting time, as smaller transplants make the transition more easily. It's also a good idea to pre-heat the soil before planting by covering the melon bed with black or IRT mulch for a couple of weeks before plants go in.

The other exception to direct seeding is seedless watermelon hybrids. These varieties need very warm soil to germinate well and rarely make a good stand if direct seeded. Start them indoors, ideally on a heat mat, in biodegradable pots.

Give melon vines plenty of space and rich soil that is high in organic matter. Dig in a couple of inches of compost and plant where the vines will get full sun. If you're short on room, you can grow smaller melon varieties up a trellis of some sort, but be sure to support each individual developing fruit with a sling made of netting, old pantyhose, or a similar material tied to the trellis.

Choosing What to Grow

If you live in a cooler part of the country, choose melon varieties with the shortest number of days to maturity to ensure a good harvest. Plants need to be ripening when the weather is still warm, not just before frost hits. In warm, humid areas disease problems may be more of an issue, so look for varieties that have been bred for resistance to diseases such as downy and powdery mildews.

Here are just a few of the many delicious melons we carry.

'Caravelle' (77-80 days) — Round, sutureless, even netted, 3 1/2 pound melons with a small seed cavity and orange flesh with excellent flavor.

'Charlene' (80-85 days) — This blocky, Charleston Gray-type watermelon has sweet, red flesh and is tolerant to Fusarium wilt.

'Honeydew Greenflesh' (112 days) — The sweetest of all melons, its light emerald green flesh is thick, juicy, and tender.

'Banana' (90-95 days) — This 16-24 inch long, banana shaped melon has sweet, juicy, salmon colored flesh.

'Sugar Queen' (85 days) — A very high yielder, these melons turn copper orange when fully mature and have sweet, light orange flesh.

'Sunny' (85 days) —This seedless watermelon has very sweet, yellow gold flesh. The round or oval fruits average 16-20 pounds.

Tips for Ripening Melons

Raise them up: Melons that rest directly on the ground are more likely to develop fruit rots. Once the melons reach the size of a baseball, rest them on an overturned coffee can, plastic yogurt container, a couple of bricks, or a rock. This will keep them clean, reduce disease problems, and help them ripen faster.

Cut back on water: Melons need a consistent supply of moisture as they're growing, so water deeply when the top few inches of soil is dry. But cut back some on watering as the melons reach their final stage of ripening -- about 2 weeks before harvest. This will help raise the sugar content and boost the sweetness of the melons.

Pinch vines and fruits: In long-season areas pinch off the tips of the main vines in midsummer to encourage denser growth. The extra foliage will help protect the developing fruits from sunscald. In shorter season areas, pinch off the growing tips of all the vines in midsummer and pick off flowers and any small melons that won't have a chance to ripen before cool weather.

How to Know When Melons are Ripe

Cantaloupe: These melons are ripe when the rind under the netting changes from green to tan and the stem slips, or separates, easily from the fruit. The melon will also have a nice aroma and the blossom end will have a little give when you press on it.

Watermelon: These are ripe when the curly tendrils on the stem near where it attaches to the fruit have changed from light green to dry and brown. The spot where the melon rested on the ground should be yellow, not white or light green, and the rind should be tough enough that it is hard to dent with a thumbnail.

Honeydew and other melons: The stems of honeydews and other melons don't slip when ripe. Harvest honeydews when the rind feels smooth and waxy and is beginning to take on a creamy color, and the fruits have a nice aroma. Charentais melons become aromatic and the rind turns warm yellow when they are ready.

Question of the Month: How to Grow Seedless Watermelons

Q: How are seedless watermelons grown? And where do the seeds to plant them come from?

A: Seedless melons are hybrids that are the result of a cross between diploid plants with 22 chromosomes per cell and tetraploid plants with 44 chromosomes per cell. The incompatibility of the chromosomes produces triploid plants that don't set viable seeds (although you may find a few small, white, undeveloped seeds that can be eaten along with the flesh). These seedless hybrids don't produce enough viable pollen to ensure good pollination and fruit set, so a seeded watermelon pollinator variety should be interplanted with the seedless ones. In a home garden, plant one seeded vine for every two seedless ones.

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