Growing Melons: Choosing Varieties, Planting, and Storing

Reader Contribution by Michael Feldmann
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Sliced Cantaloupe And Honeydew In Bowls
Photo by Pexels/karolinagrabowska

Sweet, juicy, melons are one of the special pleasures of summer breakfasts and cold lunches. Their flavor, aroma, and high amounts of vitamins A and C make melons a healthy delicacy. Most of the melons we grow, including muskmelons, honeydews, casaba, and Crenshaws, are variations of the same species (Cucumis melo).

Watermelons are less closely related but are grown the same way. Small watermelons (Citrullus lanatus) and orange-fleshed muskmelons, often called cantaloupes, are easy crops for beginning gardeners. Some melons require more gardening skills or a perfect climate, but all are grown in much the same way.

Choosing Your Favorite Melon Variety

The most popular melons are green-fleshed honeydews, watermelons, and orange-fleshed muskmelons. For gardeners seeking something different, there are many other choices — green- fleshed muskmelons, orange-fleshed honeydews, and seedless or yellow-fleshed watermelons.

Muskmelons are the easiest to grow. Place high priority on resistance to powdery mildew in areas where this disease is common. Powdery mildew typically develops while the melons are ripening and robs them of flavor.

Unless you are really cramped for space, try long-vined cultivars, not short-vined or bush-type ones. Long vines usually are associated with superior flavor and texture because they have more leaves and can put more energy into fruit production. If you grow short-vined cultivars, thin fruits to two per plant to keep the leaf-to-fruit ratio high.

Most muskmelons have soft-textured flesh; cultivars described as very firm-fleshed, or crisp, will have flesh that crunches like a cucumber. Slow-growing, crisp-fleshed casaba and Crenshaw melons need substantial heat. They are best grown where summers are long and warm.

Very large-fruited watermelons need a long warm season, too, but small icebox types will grow in all but the coolest climates. Seedless watermelons are grown just like seeded ones, but seeds have to be started indoors and pampered through the germination process.


 

Montreal Melon is an old-time favorite.
Photo by Flickr/martindelisle

Growing in the Garden

All melons grow best in light, sandy soil with a pH of 6.0 to 7.5. In regions where minimum night temperatures average above 55 degrees Fahrenheit for less than three months, sow seeds of all types of melons indoors about one month before night temperatures can be depended upon to stay above 55 degrees and daytime temperatures above 80 degrees, then set them into the garden when the required temperatures are reached.

Elsewhere, sow seeds of all types directly outdoors when the temperatures reach 55 degrees at night and 80 degrees in the daytime. When growing seed-less varieties, always plant a normal seed-type watermelon nearby to pollinate them so they can produce fruit; set the seed types in a separate hill to make sure that all the pollinating plants are not pulled up when thinning. The watermelon variety Sugar Baby is often used for this purpose because it produces an abundance of pollen.

To prepare a hill for melons, dig a hole about 1 foot deep and 2 feet across; dig into the bottom of the hole a 4- to 6-inch layer of compost or well-rotted cow manure. Replace the topsoil until it forms a gentle mound about 4 inches high. Space hills for large watermelons about 10 feet apart, for all other melons 4 to 6 feet apart.

Transplant seedlings started indoors two to a hill. When sowing seeds directly outdoors, plant six to eight seeds on top of each hill in a circle about 12 inches across; set the seeds about ½ inch deep. When the seedlings appear, cut off all but the two best.

To protect seedlings from hard rain, insects, and late frosts, and provide warmth to speed growth, cover them with translucent wax-paper caps available for that purpose from garden supply stores.

Fertilize every two weeks, scattering about 1/3 cup of 5-10-5 fertilizer around each hill. Water the plants in dry weather. Because melons lie on the ground, a mulch of hay or straw helps prevent rot. Also, melon roots are shallow and are easily damaged by cultivation; if a mulch is not used, hoe no deeper than 1 inch when weeding. Do not move the vines; they too are easily injured.

Gathering the Melon Harvest

One of the trickiest aspects of growing melons is knowing when they’re ripe. Many muskmelons develop a thick netting over the rind, and the rind beneath becomes a lighter shade of green, or even yellow, as they reach full maturity. Other melons “slip” from the vine when ripe. With “full slip” types, harvest after the melon forms its scar where the stem attaches to the fruit; you should be able to pull the melon free with a gentle tug.

Watermelons are tricky, too. When ripe, the curled tendril at the stem end dries to brown, the underside of the melon turns yellow or cream-colored, and the melon will yield a deep, resonant sound when thumped. Or you can be scientific and count off 35 days from the time the fruit sets and grows.

Most melons will ripen a little more for two or three days after they’re picked. Store melons at room temperature until they are ripe, then you can place them in a refrigerator for several weeks. 

Propagating Melons by Saving Seeds

To save seeds from non-hybrid cultivars, allow a melon from a disease-free plant to ripen until the vine dies back, or the melon softens. Scoop out the seeds, wash them in warm water, and allow them to dry for several days. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.


Michael Feldmann is a farmer and writer in Oklahoma, who studies agriculture and has worked as a journalist for magazines and newspapers around the country. His writing has been published in Acres USA, Rural Heritage, Farming magazine, Farmers Weekly, Permaculture magazine, MOTHER EARTH NEWS, and as a column in Poultry World. Read all of Michael’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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