Gardeners know the joys of growing and picking a vine-ripened, juicy cantaloupe from their own gardens. Fresh cantaloupes (technically called muskmelons) are one of the pleasures of summer. This year, instead of growing the usual oval, orange-fleshed melon with tan skin and netting, why not try a melon of a different color? There are many unusual melon types that not only look different from the standard cantaloupe, they have flesh of a different color and flavor.
While the oval cantaloupe is the queen of the summer melon patch, the larger honeydew melons rival them for flavor and color. The 'Orangeflesh' Honeydew melon features 6-pound, round fruits with a crisp, sweet flesh. The 'Tam-Dew' Honeydew melon features sweet, green flesh and a rind that turns an ivory color at maturity. It's also tolerant of powdery and downy mildew. The 'Gold Rind' Honeydew melon features gold-colored skin, making it attractive to look at as well as to eat. 'Earli-Dew' melon is a green-fleshed honeydew that matures in only 80 days. It's a good choice for northern gardeners.
Melons don't have to be oval or round in shape. There are a number of novelty melons that feature unusual shapes and flavors. Ananas is a large, oblong-shaped fruit with an orange-beige rind and white flesh. This 5-pound melon has sweet, juicy, aromatic flesh. Banana melon produces 5-pound, banana-shaped fruits that are 16 to 24 inches long. It features a yellow rind and sweet, juicy, salmon-colored flesh. The round Israel melon has creamy-colored flesh and a yellow-orange rind with no ribs or netting on the skin.
Whether you're growing a traditional cantaloupe or one of the novelty melons, the cultural techniques for producing the best-yielding and best-tasting fruits are the same. Melons are in the Cucurbitacea family, similar to cucumbers and squash. They have male and female flowers on the same plant. For pollination to occur, bees need to visit both flowers while they are open. Therefore, it's best to grow at least a few plants of each variety to insure that pollination occurs. If bees aren't plentiful or if they aren't flying due to rainy weather, consider pollinating the fruits yourself. In the morning, take a cotton swab and swish it around the inside of a male flower (the ones without the swollen ovary behind the flower), then swish it inside a female flower (the ones with the ovary behind the flower).
Melons love heat and fertile soil. Before planting, amend the soil with a 1- to 2-inch-thick layer of compost. Plant after danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed to 60° F. You can plant melons in rows or hills, depending on your preference. If planting in rows, sow seeds 4 inches apart and thin plants to 8 to 10 inches apart after the true leaves appear. If planting in hills or mounds, sow four to eight seeds in every 2- to 3-foot-diameter hill, and thin so there are only two plants per hill. Space hills 4 to 6 feet apart.
Once the vines start growing, begin to fertilize with a complete organic fertilizer. When the vines begin to run and then again at first flowering, sprinkle a small handful of granular fertilizer around the base of each plant. Keep the melon patch well weeded and watered. Once the soil has warmed, consider spreading a 3- to 4-inch-thick layer of organic mulch, such as hay or pine straw, around the plants. The mulch will help conserve moisture and give the melon fruits a soft cushion to rest on while they mature. In cool summer areas, pinch off the tips of the vines after the initial melons have set fruit, and also pinch off small green melons in late summer since they won't have time to mature before frost. This will direct more energy to ripening the existing fruits.
Melon fruits love the heat. To get them to mature quickly, bury a tin coffee can near each fruit once they set. Place the can so the open end is down in the soil and it stands 4 to 6 inches above the soil line. When the fruits are the size of baseballs, gently lift each one onto a tin can. As the cans heat up during the day, they warm the melons and help them ripen faster.
Young melon seedlings often are attacked by cucumber beetles and flea beetles. Some gardeners have had success sowing a trap crop of radishes when they plant melon seeds. The radishes germinate quickly and provide food for the pests. It's easy to control the pests on the radishes with sprays of pyrethrum before the melon seedlings emerge.
Later in the season, powdery and downy mildew diseases can attack the melon leaves. The leaves will turn white and eventually die. Select disease-resistant melon varieties if mildew is a problem in your area.
Mice and other critters love ripe melons. Protect your fruits by surrounding them with hardware cloth or wire netting.
There are a few ways to determine when to harvest your melons. When the skin color turns from green to tan, orange, or brown, and the netting (if the variety has any) deepens, then the melon is ripe. Smell the blossom end of the ripening melon. If it smells perfumey, it's ripe. Finally, gently lift the melon off the ground. If the stem "slips" (falls off) easily, chances are the melon is ripe. Many melons will continue to ripen off the vine after harvest, so you can get away with harvesting a little early.
For more information on growing melons in your garden, go to the Virtual Vegetable Guide at www.willhiteseed.com/store/asp/guides.asp
Q. Each year cutworms attack my vegetable and flower seedlings as they emerge. Do you have any suggestions for controlling them?
A. Cutworms love to chew young transplants and seedlings. In the morning after the damage occurs, gently dig around the fallen seedling and you're likely to find the culprit hiding just under the soil. Prevent the damage by placing a cardboard collar around the stem of the new transplant. Just take an empty paper towel roll and cut it into 4-inch-tall cylinders. Cut one side so you can open it to place around the stem, and sink the collar into the soil about 1 inch deep. The collar will prevent the cutworms from circling the stem and chewing through it. For larger plantings, scatter bait made of bran, molasses, and Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstakii) into the soil. B.t. is a safe, organic, biological control. As the cutworms feed on the bait, they ingest the B.t. and die.