From watermelons and muskmelons to honeydew and Asian melons, you’ll be stunned by the variety of colors and shapes melons can bring to your garden.
ILLUSTRATION: KEITH WARD
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Delicious and packed with nutrition, melons have delighted gardeners for about 2,500 years. Their rambling vines grow best in warm weather, and fruit flavor and texture improve if rain becomes less frequent as the fruits mature. Melons come in a wide range of sizes, shapes and colors, providing a multitude of options for summertime fare. All melons grow best in fertile, well-drained soil with a pH between 6.0 and 7.0.
Types of Melons
Finding the right melons for your garden will take some experimenting, because varieties that thrive in dry climates may fail under moist conditions, and vice versa. Check out our chart of melon types, which includes our recommended varieties of melons for home gardeners.
Watermelons mature after 80 to 100 days in hot, humid climates — they won’t grow well or taste good without plenty of warmth and sun. Watermelons tend to be the easiest melons to grow in organic gardens because of their pest and disease resistance.
American cantaloupes, properly called muskmelons because of their fruity fragrance, produce 75 to 85 days after planting. Some varieties have smooth rinds, but the most popular and nutritious varieties have orange flesh beneath heavily netted rinds.
Honeydew melons have smooth rinds over white or green flesh. Most varieties need about 100 days of warm weather to make a good crop.
Casaba and crenshaw melons are oblong with wrinkled rinds and juicy, salmon-pink flesh. Most varieties need more than 100 days of warm weather to produce high-quality fruits.
Specialty melons vary in size and maturation time, and some are much sweeter than others. Asian melons are fast-growing and productive, but aren’t as sweet as European or Middle Eastern varieties.
When to Plant Melons
Sow muskmelons, honeydew and other Cucumis melo varieties in prepared beds or hills after your last frost has passed, or sow seeds indoors under fluorescent light and set the seedlings out after about three weeks. Direct sow watermelon seeds in late spring or early summer, when your soil feels warm to the touch. In short-season climates, plant watermelon seedlings started indoors to get a jump-start on the growing season.
How to Plant Melons
Fertile, well-drained soil is essential to growing great melons. Prepare raised planting hills within wide rows or along your garden’s edge. Space 3-foot-wide hills 5 to 6 feet apart. Loosen the soil in the planting sites to at least 12 inches deep. Mix in a 2-inch layer of compost and a light application of organic fertilizer. Melons love composted manure (from cows, horses or poultry), which eliminates the need for supplemental fertilizer. Use a rake to shape the hills into 6- to 8-inch-high, flat-topped mounds, and water well. Plant six seeds per hill, poking them into the soil 1 inch deep. Ten days after sowing, thin plants to three per hill. If planting seedlings, set out three seedlings for each hill.
Consider installing protective row covers after you finish planting melons. Row covers benefit melons by raising soil surface temperatures, taming wind and excluding insects. Remove covers a week after plants begin to bloom so insects can pollinate the flowers (learn more about how to use row covers to protect plants and extend your growing season).
Harvesting and Storing Melons
Most muskmelons naturally separate (“slip”) from the vine when ripe, which means you can pick these melons with just a gentle tug. The rinds of some varieties of honeydew and watermelon change color when ripe, making it easier to learn the melon-picker’s art. Watermelons are ripe when the curled tendril nearest to the melon dries to brown, and when the melon sounds deep and solid if thumped. Pecking from birds often indicates imminent ripeness.
Keep muskmelons at room temperature for two to three days after harvesting to help bring out flavors, and then move them to a refrigerator. Always keep honeydew and Asian melons in the refrigerator. Watermelons stored in a cool place (about 55 degrees Fahrenheit) will keep for several weeks.
Saving Melon Seeds
To keep seed quality high, select a perfect fruit from the densest part of a planting of open-pollinated melons and mark the fruit for seed saving. You can set aside seed from all melons as you eat the fruits, then rinse the seeds and allow them to dry at room temperature for about three weeks. Select the largest, plumpest seeds for replanting and store them in a cool, dry place. If given good storage conditions, melon seeds can stay viable for at least five years.
Melon Pest and Disease Prevention Tips
Melons often face challenges from insects, namely aphids and squash bugs. Cucumber beetles also pose a threat, spreading bacterial wilt when their doo comes in contact with feeding wounds in the plants’ leaves. Watermelons are resistant to bacterial wilt, but other types of melons are susceptible. Your best defense is to use protective row covers.
Melon plants that stay full and leafy until the fruits ripen produce better crops, but powdery mildew can rob plants of their energy, which in turn reduces sugars, flavor and nutrition. In addition to using resistant varieties, some gardeners ward off powdery mildew by using a spray made of 1 part milk to 6 parts water, applied every two weeks during the second half of summer.
Melon Growing Tips
Learn how to grow melons using vigorous, disease-resistant hybrids. As your skills develop, switch to open-pollinated varieties so you can save your own seed.
All melons love rich compost, so try planting them in an old compost pile.
Grow honeydew and small-fruited Asian melons on trellises to save space: They’re great for vertical culture.
In the Kitchen
Fresh, lightly chilled chunks of melon need no further accompaniment on a hot summer day, but they do mix well with a variety of flavors. Melon salads often include mint, although oregano and basil also marry well with melon. Salty proteins — such as sardines, cheese, cured meats and smoked fish — work wonderfully with melons’ sweet juiciness. Making smoothies and other liquid concoctions is a refreshing way to use a bumper crop of melons. Muskmelons with firm flesh can be candied and dried, and try pickled watermelon rind for an old-fashioned delight. The deeper the orange of a melon’s flesh, the richer it is in vitamin A. All types of melon are good sources of vitamin C and fiber.