The taste and aroma of a vine-ripened melon picked fresh from the garden evoke the essence of summer. Just as we revel in the long, hot days so too do the sweetening melons tucked among the broad leaves of their spreading vines. One bite of a juicy, just harvested melon and you can practically taste the summer sunshine! And when you grow your own, not only can you pick your fruits at the peak of perfection, you can also enjoy a wider variety than is typically available at the supermarket.
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 indoors 3-4 weeks before it's 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 earlier than recommended, as smaller plants 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.
As soon as you put seeds or plants in the ground, cover the bed with a row cover. Be sure to seal the edges where the cover meets the soil well so pests can't sneak under. This will keep out some of the most troublesome pests such as cucumber beetles while the plants are young and most vulnerable. You'll need to remove the cover once the first female flowers appear so that bees can get in to pollinate.
Melons are heavy feeders. Sidedress with a balanced fertilizer just as the vines begin to run or when they are about 12-18 inches long.
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.
Melons need a consistent supply of moisture as they're growing, so water deeply when the top few inches of soil are 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 their sugar content and boost the sweetness of the melons.
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.
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.
Q: Every year by the end of the summer the leaves of my melon plants are covered with a powdery white growth. How can I prevent this?
A: Your vines are infected with powdery mildew, a common disease on all members of the Cucurbit family. Those white patches comprise the strands and spores of the fungus. Unlike many other kinds of fungi, the spores of powdery mildew need high humidity but dry leaves in order to germinate, which is why the disease is often prevalent in many areas in the dry, warm weather of late summer. Mildew can kill the leaves, leaving ripening fruits at risk of sunscald, and melons on affected plants may have a poor flavor or fail to ripen well. Choosing powdery mildew resistant varieties is a good first step in controlling this disease. Giving vines lots of space to ensure good air circulation is also helpful. Spraying plants with one part milk mixed with nine parts water can help to slow the spread of the disease. In warm, humid, but dry weather, water plants during the day to wet leaves and keep spores from germinating. Clean up the garden well at the end of the season to reduce the number of overwintering spores. If the problem is severe on your plants every year, consider preventative sprays with an appropriate fungicide. Be sure to read and follow all label instructions and precautions.