If you want to start a summer day off just right, take a spoon and half a slightly chilled cantaloupe melon, go outside and sit on the steps. Now, eat.
Juicy, sweet and supremely satisfying, cantaloupes are good for you, too. A 1 cup serving of deep orange-fleshed cantaloupe provides a full day’s quota of vitamins A and C — even children think it’s a tasty treat.
Want to grow some in your garden? That’s a great idea, because many of the best-tasting cantaloupes are too delicate to ship, though they often hold up well on short rides to and from the local farmer’s market.
The melons that most of us call “cantaloupes” are actually muskmelons, which have distinctive netted skins and a musky odor. Botanically speaking, “true” cantaloupes, such as ‘Prescott Fond Blanc,’ have little or no netting and often have prominent ribs. Both types of melons are in the cucurbit family, which includes cucumbers, pumpkins and squash.
In keeping with their Middle Eastern ancestry, these melons crave warmth and sunlight, so early summer is the best time to start a melon patch.
Gardeners can grow varieties with green flesh, orange flesh or a mixture of both colors. Fruit size also varies considerably from one variety to another. Softball-size ‘Minnesota Midget’ (orange flesh) or ‘Eden Gem’ (light green flesh) will scramble up a trellis with little help, making good use of space in a small garden; or you can let the rampant vines of ‘Old-Time Tennessee' sprawl into a calf-deep green carpet, punctuated with lumpy 12 pound fruits bigger than footballs.
Growing great melons by any name sometimes humbles even the most experienced gardener.
“Melons are finicky, and success is never guaranteed,” says Amy Goldman, who is the author of Melons for the Passionate Grower (Artisan, 2002).
A dedicated seed saver, Goldman has grown hundreds of varieties, and she thinks every gardener should join the fun. “People don’t know how good a melon can be, because the commercial ones at the supermarket are not fine-flavored varieties to start with, and they are harvested when they are still green,” she says. “Melons don’t get any sweeter after they are harvested. In a garden, you can leave them on the vine as long as possible, so they can pick up that last surge of sucrose.”
Melon varieties respond differently to various weather patterns, so Goldman suggests trying three or more varieties to increase your chances of success. Ryan Morris, owner of Country Roots Farm, also thinks diversifying varieties is the best way to experience different tastes and colors. Two of Morris’ favorite orange-fleshed varieties —‘Schoon’s Hard Shell’ and ‘Canoe Creek Colossal’— are best suited to his region’s low humidity levels, but both Goldman and Morris like the green-fleshed ‘Jenny Lind’— despite her tendency to “pout” when the weather is not to her liking. Check with your seed supplier for help determining what will grow best in your area.
All the varieties named thus far are open-pollinated (OP). A few OP muskmelons offer some disease resistance, such as ‘PMR Delicious 51,’ recently released by Cornell University’s Vegetable Breeding Lab (PMR stands for powdery mildew resistant). You probably will want to experiment with a few varieties before you start saving seeds, but working with OP types helps to keep worthwhile varieties in circulation, enables you to select the best seeds for replanting and removes you from the biotech loop dominated by companies that are mainly interested in selling synthetic agricultural chemicals.
But, if you live in a humid area where insects, mildew and other afflictions put heavy pressure on your plants, the melon best suited to your garden may be a hybrid variety, such as disease-resistant ‘Savor,’ which is less likely to split than other Charentais types, or ‘Sweetie,’ which features swirls of orange and green flesh and resists wilts and mildews. Hybrids don’t breed true from seed, but that doesn’t matter to the increasing number of fans behind ‘Sugar Queen,’ a big, vigorous muskmelon that produces well in a wide range of summer climates. Some folks say ‘Sugar Queen’ is to orange-fleshed muskmelons what ‘Silver Queen’ is to sweet corn — both hybrids are vigorous and dependable, with a sweet, luscious flavor that makes them popular choices among gardeners.
Cantaloupes prefer sandy, well-aerated soil and need consistent moisture until the fruits begin to ripen. Melon vines do spread, but you don’t need a huge garden to grow several varieties. Different varieties of cantaloupe and muskmelon can cross-pollinate, and this sharing of the pollen supply makes it possible to mix varieties within a plot. Six plants will produce about as many melons as most families can eat, and those plants can be a combination of three different varieties, provided you’re growing them to eat and not to save seeds. When you’re ready to save seeds, you’ll need to hand-pollinate selected flowers, a delicate process that Goldman explains in detail in her book.
In the deep, sandy soil at Sand Hill Preservation Center in Calamus, Iowa, cucurbit expert Glenn Drowns grows melons in hills spaced 6 feet apart. Goldman goes with 8 feet or more between hills, with two plants per hill. “Melons like to be crowded. They are very gregarious,” she says. In melon-growing lingo, a “hill” may not actually be much of a hill. Rather, it’s a planting hole enriched with about 4 gallons of good compost, which is raised when first prepared and tends to flatten as the season progresses.
Both Drowns and Goldman grow their melons on black plastic mulch, which has a long track record of increasing melon yields, especially in cool summer climates. Field trials comparing biodegradable black paper mulch to black plastic in New York state, Wisconsin and Nova Scotia indicate that melons produce best with black plastic, but there are alternatives. Newspapers covered with an organic mulch — such as chopped leaves or weathered sawdust — will suppress weeds and retain soil moisture, and you can help keep ripening melons nice and warm by placing them on a black rock or dark-colored plastic plate.
“Here in the buggy Midwest, it’s always a good idea to start plants indoors,” Drowns says. “Set them out when they get two true leaves, and grow them under a floating row cover until they begin to flower. The row cover keeps the insects off to prevent inoculation with disease from dirty-mouthed cucumber beetles.” These beetles spread bacterial wilt. If you don’t have a row cover, you can stitch together an alternative using tulle (available at craft and fabric stores for about $1 a yard). Or you can spray your plants with Surround — a feeding deterrent that coats the plants with a fine film of clay, which makes them less appetizing to insects.
When you remove the row covers, bees and other pollinators will work the open flowers, but expect plenty of striped and spotted cucumber beetles as well. Big, healthy plants can tolerate a bit of feeding, but because the beetles transmit bacterial wilt, you may decide that the only good cucumber beetle is a dead one. You can put a big dent in the local population of this pest by sucking them up with a cordless vacuum cleaner. Practice on weeds until you learn how to handle the vacuum without mangling leaves, and work late in the day, when pollinators tend to be less active.
From the time they start flowering until the fruits approach full size, melons benefit from regular watering. “Hope for dry weather as the melons ripen, because hot, dry weather at that time increases sweetness and overall flavor,” Drowns says. Too much water dilutes flavor and contributes to problems with cracking, and many a melon planting has been lost to fruit rot when heavy rains arrived just as fruits were ripening.
Impatience also can lead to disappointing results, because cantaloupes and muskmelons need to ripen fully before they’re picked. Muskmelons give a clear clue when they’re ripe: The stem separates itself from the fruit, which is first evident as a crevice between the stem and fruit (half-slip stage). Within days, the fruit separates cleanly at the slightest tug (full-slip stage). A forced slip is when bad weather, fruit splitting, raccoons, deer or other natural factors force you to gather almost-ripe melons a few days early. Muskmelons picked at the forced-slip stage often taste good, but not as great as if they’d ripened all the way.
True cantaloupes seldom slip, but they often change colors as they ripen, with the rind typically morphing from green to golden yellow. They also develop a distinct fragrance that’s most noticeable at the blossom end, and the leaf closest to the fruit fades to yellow — a sign that the plant has slowed its nutrient supply to the fruit. When harvesting melons that do not slip, cut them from the vine and leave a small stub of stem attached. You can store them at room temperature for a day or two, or in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Experience will teach you the art of harvesting melons. Morris thinks sampling melons out in the garden is an experience that should not be missed. Some melons taste best when they’re still warm from the sun, others are improved by chilling, and many develop their best flavors at room temperature. If you grow a few yourself, or acquire tempting varieties through your farmer’s market, then you’ll have exactly what you need to start summer days just right — with a spoon in one hand and a cantaloupe in the other.
The most powerful challenges to growing great melons are various diseases, including the four described below. Act quickly at the first sign of disease or insect infestation; prevention is often possible, whereas curing a badly infected plant is not. Serenade, the organic fungicide suggested below for powdery mildew and gummy stem blight, is based on a special strain of Bacillus subtilis, which is a common airborne bacterium found in many environments. When spraying any substance on melon leaves, add a few drops of dishwashing detergent to help the spray stick to the leaves.
If plants become seriously infected, immediately remove all affected tissues from the garden — discard them and don’t use them in compost.
Bacterial wilt: Caused by Erwinia tracheiphila, a bacterium that is transmitted by striped or spotted cucumber beetles. It also affects cucumbers and occasionally gourds.
Symptoms: Leaves wilt a little more each day until vines die. When you cut an infected stem and touch the cut’s surface, threads of clear or milky bacterial ooze are often evident.
Control: Control cucumber beetles with row cover barriers or by collecting them with a cordless vacuum. As a last resort, spray plants with pyrethrum pesticide.
Fusarium wilt: Caused by Fusarium oxysporum, a soilborne fungus. Strains of the fungus are specific to melons. It thrives in wet weather and can survive in soil for years.
Symptoms: Plants of any age wilt rapidly and collapse completely within a few days. When an infected stem is cut, you’ll see a dark yellow or brown ring inside.
Control: Choose resistant varieties, use three-year rotations and grow melons in raised beds to improve drainage during wet weather.
Gummy stem blight: Caused by Didymella bryoniae, a fungus that can infect most members of the cucurbit family. It thrives in warm, wet weather.
Symptoms: Brown spots on leaves, soon followed by tan patches on stems that ooze drops of brownish sap. Vines slowly wilt and die.
Control: Use two- to three-year rotations for all cucurbit crops. In high risk areas, apply Serenade to melons every seven to 10 days to prevent disease outbreaks.
Powdery mildew: Caused by various races of the fungi Erysiphe cichoracearum and Sphaeotheca fuliginea, which thrive in dry weather.
Symptoms: Older plants develop white or powdery patches on leaves, which spread to stems and fruit, weakening plants and causing a loss of flavor. Powdery mildew fungi sometimes mutate in order to invade tissues of resistant varieties.
Control: Grow resistant varieties, which may become infected late in the season. At the first sign of infection, spray plants weekly with Serenade, horticultural oil or a mixture of one part water to two parts milk.
To learn more about the wonderful world of cantaloupes and muskmelons, consult Amy Goldman’s definitive book, Melons for the Passionate Grower. This book includes seed sources, detailed descriptions and splendid photos of more than 30 melons.
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