Late summer is melon time in the garden. It's when cantaloupes, honeydews, and other melons reach the peak of flavor. Nothing quite compares to the meltingly sweet taste and heady aroma of a perfectly vine-ripened melon, so even though the vines take up a fair amount of garden real estate, they are well worth the allotment of space. And even if you are short on space, you can grow the vines on a trellis or other type of support for the biggest harvest from the smallest number of square feet.
What melons really thrive on is heat, so gardeners in southern sections of the county have the most options when it comes to choosing what to grow. But even in short-season areas, there are varieties that reach maturity quickly enough provide a reliable harvest.
Choosing What to Grow
As we just mentioned, if you live in a cooler section of the country, selecting melon varieties with the shortest number of days to maturity will help ensure that you enjoy a harvest before frost comes. In humid, warmer parts of the country disease problems may be more of an issue, so choosing varieties bred to have resistance to diseases such as downy and powdery mildew can be helpful.
Cantaloupes and other melons are all members of the squash family, with similar cultural needs. Plants thrive on warmth and won't tolerate any frost, so wait until the weather is settled, the soil is warm, and all danger of frost is past before planting seeds or setting out transplants, usually a couple of weeks after the last frost date.
In long-season areas, plants will do best if seeds are sown directly in the garden. But if your season is short, you can get a jump on things by starting seeds indoors in individual peat pots three to four week before it's time to set them outside. Bottom heat will help with germination.
All melons do best in well-drained, fertile soil amended with lots of organic matter, such as compost. Melons are hungry plants; give them a sidedressing with a soluble fertilizer like fish emulsion just as they begin to run or send out their vines and again just as the melons are beginning to form.
Tips for a Successful Harvest
Give 'em shelter. Cucumber beetles are common pests on melons and other squash family members in many areas of the country. Not only do theses pests feed directly on plants, they can also transmit the deadly disease of bacterial wilt. Young plants are most susceptible to damage. Prevent problems early in the season by covering plants with floating row covers to exclude the beetles. Covers will need to be removed once flowering starts so bees can get in to pollinate.
Raise 'em up. Melons that rest directly on the ground are more likely to develop fruit rots. Once they reach about the size of a baseball, raise the developing fruits up off the ground and rest them on an overturned coffee can, plastic container, a couple of bricks, or a rock. This will keep them clean, less likely to become diseased, and will help them ripen faster.
Give 'em a drink. Melons need a consistent supply of moisture to thrive. Water deeply when the top few inches of soil is dry. Mulch will help keep down weeds and conserve soil moisture. Don't be alarmed if the leaves of the melon vine wilt slightly in the afternoon heat, but if leaves are still wilted the next morning, it's time to water.
But not too much. Cut back on water as the melons reach their final stage of ripening -- about two weeks before harvest. This will help raise the sugar content and boost the sweetness of the melons.
Give 'em a pinch. In long-season areas, pinch off the tips of the main vinesin midsummer to encourage denser growth. The extra foliage will help protect the fruits from sunscald. In short-season areas, pinch off the tips of all the vines in midsummer and pick off flowers and any small melons that won't have a chance to ripen before frost. This will encourage the vine to direct all its energy into ripening the maturing fruits.
Pick 'em when they're ripe. Cantaloupes are ripe when the rind under the netting changes from green to tan and the stem slips or separates easily from the fruit. The stems of honeydews and other melons don't slip. Harvest honeydews when the rind feels smooth and waxy. Charentais melons become aromatic and the rind turns a warm yellow when they are ready.
Q: I have a small garden, so I'd like to try growing my melons up a trellis. But how does the vine support the heavy fruits?
A: Trellises are great space savers, but you will need to give the vine a little help in keeping its ripening melons aloft. There are lots of suitable kinds of support structures. A-frame designs are popular. But however you support the vine, you'll need to give each developing melon its own individual support. Place each fruit in a sling made from a section of old pantyhose, netting, fabric, or other material, then tie the slings to the trellis.