Melon: A Growing Guide

This sweet summertime snack tastes better when it's homegrown.

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The succulent flavor of vine-ripened melons is worth the special effort it takes to grow them. Homegrown melons outshine those from the grocery store because melons pack up on sugar during their final days of growth—commercial melons just can’t compete because they’re picked a little green for shipping.
 
Most melons need nutrient-rich soil, plenty of sunshine, and at least 3 to 4 months of warm weather. Melons can take up lots of space. A single watermelon vine, for example, can sprawl across 100 square feet and produce only two fruits; muskmelons, on the other hand, can provide at least a dozen fruits in a 16-square-foot area. If you have limited space, try bush cultivars, or grow standard types vertically on a strong fence or trellis.
 
Types: What we call cantaloupes are actually muskmelons. This class of melon has pumpkin-like ribbing and skin covered with a netting of shallow veins. Its fragrant flesh ranges from salmon to green. ‘Athena’ and ‘Pulsar’ are popular cultivars for home gardens. True cantaloupes, grown mostly in Europe, have orange flesh and rough, scaly skin with dark, distinct veins. 
 
Winter melons (also a type of muskmelon) ripen as the weather starts to turn cool and will keep for fairly long periods if stored properly. This group includes honeydews, crenshaws, casabas, and Persians. These larger, more oval fruits have waxy skins that can be smooth or wrinkled, with less-fragrant flesh. 
 
Winter melons require a growing season of well over 100 days and are more susceptible to diseases, but they’re certainly delicious. Honeydews such as ‘Earlidew’ have smooth, creamy white skins and lime green flesh that takes on a slight golden tinge when mature. Crenshaws have salmon pink flesh with a distinctive flavor. The tenderness of their dark green skins makes them difficult to ship. Casabas have wrinkled, golden skins and white flesh that stays sweet and juicy over a long period. Large, round Persian melons have thick, orange flesh.
 
Watermelons fall under a different botanical classification, Citrullus lanatus, but they thrive under the same cultural conditions that other melons require. Compact cultivars such as ‘Sugar Baby’ and ‘Petite Treat” (which is also seedless) are perfect for smaller home gardens. ‘Petite Yellow’ is one of several small yellow-fleshed cultivars for home gardens. 
 
Planting: Melons need the sunniest spot possible with plenty of air circulation to help them dry out quickly after rain and prevent disease. Melon roots usually extend from 2 to 10 inches into the earth, but some go as deep as 4 to 5 feet. Therefore, the soil must be loose and moisture retentive but well drained. Since melons will be one of the last things you plant in your vegetable garden, you might want to give them an extra boost by working 2 to 3 inches of compost into the planting area. 
 
Vines may not set fruit if they are chilled as seedlings, so don’t plant until the soil has warmed to between 70° and 80°F. Get a head start by planting seeds indoors in 4-inch peat pots. Start them just 2 to 4 weeks before transplanting, because seedlings that develop tendrils or more than four leaves may have difficulty later in establishing roots. Sow several seeds ½ inch deep in each pot, and place the pots in a south-facing window or other sunny spot. Provide bottom heat if necessary to bring the soil temperature to 75°F. Thin 2-inch-tall seedlings to the strongest plant by cutting the others off at soil level. A few days before planting, harden off the seedlings by setting them outdoors in a sunny area during the day and bringing them in at night.
 
You can grow large crops in rows, but most melons seem to do better in hills. For most cultivars, space hills 4 to 6 feet apart; vigorous growers like watermelons may require 6 to 12 feet between hills, while some bush types need only 2 feet.
 
When planting directly in the garden, sow six seeds per hill no earlier then 2 weeks after the last frost date. Thin to two or three plants per hill, or in short-season areas, thin to only one plant per hill, so it won’t have to compete with the other vines for nutrients.
 
In colder climates, lay black plastic or black paper mulch a few weeks prior to planting or transplanting to warm up the soil and keep it warm once the plants are in the ground. Anchor the mulch securely to keep it from shifting and covering young plants. You can also use hotcaps, such as plastic jugs with the bottom cut out, to keep seedlings warm.
 
 
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