Although it would be hard, if pressed to name my favorite fruit, I'd have to pick a watermelon. Biting into a truly ripe, juicy slice is like biting into summer. One taste of its crisp, sweet flesh and I feel like it's one of those a hot July days when I was a kid and school vacation seemed endless.
So it's probably no surprise that I've grown melons in my garden and probably equally unsurprising that, given the northern areas in which I've gardened, it has been something of a challenge. My first attempt at melon growing was many years ago with cantaloupes in a garden in western New York State. My plants actually got their start in Vermont, on the windowsill of my college dorm room. I planted seeds in peat pots and carted them back to upstate New York at the end of the school year and set them in my garden at home. All summer long the vines grew and the melons got bigger, but they still weren't ripe when, in late August, I had to head back to school. A few weeks later, just before the first frost, my mother called. My cantaloupes had ripened at last. ″They were delicious,″ she informed me. Somehow it wasn't the same as having tasted them myself!
I learned that melons can take a long time to ripen and to choose fast-maturing varieties that do well where the growing season is short. For example, I've had success with 'Sweet Granite' cantaloupe, a variety that was bred for cool areas and is one of the earliest to ripen with 70 days to maturity. I've also had good luck with 'Sugar Baby' watermelon , which produces small, round melons that ripen reliably in short-season climates.
Melon Sowing and Growing
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. And don't plant seeds or set out transplants until the weather is settled and the soil is warm, a week or two after your last frost date.
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. 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 and will also trap a little extra heat. 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 plants with a balanced fertilizer just as the vines begin to run or when they are about 12-18 inches long. Melons also 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 their sweetness.
Melons that rest directly on the ground are more likely to develop fruit rots. Once the developing melons reach the size of a softball, rest them on an overturned coffee can, plastic yogurt container, overturned plastic flower pot, or something similar. This will keep them clean, reduce disease problems, and help them ripen faster. In short season areas, starting about a month and a half before your fall frost date, pinch off any flowers that form. These won't have time to produce melons that will ripen before frost; removing them directs all the plant's energy into ripening the fruits already on the vine.
And now we come to the question that puzzles so many gardeners -- how do you know when your melon is ripe and ready to pick? With cantaloupes, the rind under the netting will change from green to brown, the fruit will have a nice aroma, and when you gently lift up the stem, it will begin to separate or ″slip″ where it attaches to the fruit.
Judging the ripeness of other melons is a little less straightforward. Some folks say when you thump on a ripe watermelon and hear a dull, hollow sound rather than a ringing tone it's ready to eat. But this can be a pretty subjective assessment. Look for these other clues when judging the ripeness of watermelons in your garden. The spot where the melon rested on the ground should be yellow, not white or light green; the rind should be tough enough that it is hard to dent with a thumbnail; and the curly tendrils on the stem near where it attaches to the fruit should have changed from light green to dry and brown.
The stems of honeydews and other types of 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.
Even if, like me, you're a short-season gardener who may never grow a melon to rival one ripened in the heat of the Deep South, choose your varieties well and give your vines some TLC. You'll be able to harvest your fruits at the peak of perfection and taste the summer sunshine in every bite!