How to Grow Melons
Few things say “summer” like a juicy slice of melon. Watermelons, cantaloupes, and other melons are a great addition to the garden. With a little preparation now, you can be enjoying a sweet harvest by July! Watch our video on How to Grow Melons where Tricia shows you how to grow the best melons at home.
Selecting and Starting Your Seeds Melons fall into two different categories: watermelons (members of the genus Citullus) and muskmelons, which are often simply referred to as melons (members of the genus Cucumis). Their requirements are similar, although there are some differences in cultivating these yummy cousins. Among the muskmelons, there are many varieties to choose from including Cantaloupe, Persian, Canary, Casaba, Honeydew, Piel de Sapo, and crosses such as Crenshaw (Casaba x Persian). All melons are warm-season crops, and so they do not tolerate cold temperatures. They can be started indoors two to three weeks before the last frost date (for more on how to start seeds indoors, read this). Transplants can be set out after the danger of frost has passed and nighttime temperatures are consistently above 50F. Before transplanting, water muskmelons minimally, and watermelons deeply. Once transplanted, water all plants moderately. It's also a good idea to give your transplants some liquid kelp at the time of transplanting. They can also be planted directly into your garden after danger of frost has passed. Plant seeds at a depth of ½” every 3 to 5 feet. Water seedlings moderately. If a cold snap threatens your plants, it’s a good idea to give them some extra protection (read this for great options).
Site Selection and Soil Preparation All melons need full sun in order to thrive. Plan your melon patch for the hottest, sunniest part of your garden. If you live in a cool climate, you may want to use mulch plastic to increase your soil temperature. Melons like it hot, with their ideal soil temperature around 65 to 80F. Make sure you give each plant a full 3 to 5 feet to sprawl, as they will grow into big creeping vines. If space is limited, you can trellis the vines instead, and support their fruits in slings. Melons like moderately rich, fertile soil with good levels of organic matter. The soil should be well drained to help prevent disease. Ideal soil will have plenty of phosphorus and potassium, and a pH of 6.0-6.8 for muskmelons, and 5.5-6.5 for watermelons. To prevent diseases, it is suggested that you rotate your melon patch, and don’t plant melons in the same spot for five years.
Summertime Care Summer heat will lead to rapid growth in your melon vines. As the season progresses, keep your plants moderately watered. Once fruit begins to form, decrease the irrigation to provide low but even amounts of water. Mulching your melon vines can help prevent weed competition, and also help conserve water in the soil. You can mulch with plastic, which would additionally help with warming the soil, or you can mulch with natural materials such as cocoa hulls. Monitor your melon patch for pests and disease throughout the growing season. If you selected seeds of melon varieties that are disease resistant, you’re now a step ahead of the problems which melon growers are often faced with. Cucumber beetles are also common pests for melons. Not only do they eat the plants, they also spread diseases such as Bacterial Wilt. Cucumber beetles can be difficult to control; traps and sprays that target these bugs are available. Fusarium is a fungus that affects the roots of the plants and then spreads throughout the vine. Diseased plants become stunted, and eventually wilt and die. There are no effective treatments for this fungus; it can be prevented by selecting resistant varieties, not over-watering your garden, and practicing crop rotation. Powdery mildew looks like a white powdery coating on the upper surfaces of melon leaves. Though the powdery mildew may not kill your plants, affected vines’ growth will likely be stunted and fruit production will suffer. For more information on melon pests and diseases, check out University of California IPM, and Clemson University.
Harvesting Depending on the variety you select for your garden, the fruit will be ready to harvest in 90 days or more from the time of planting. Most melons are ready to harvest when the rind changes color to the final ripe appearance and gentle pressure separates the stem from the vine, and typically have a sweet aroma. However, some melons do not slip or become fragrant, such as Jaune Canary. These should be judged ripe by appearance and when the blossom end softens. Watermelons are ready for harvest when the tendril closest to the stem turns dry and brown and the stem turns brittle. Most melons do not store well. However, there are some good keepers, such as Piel de Sapo. This melon is sometimes called Santa melon because it can keep until Christmas when stored in a cool, dry place. While they are best eaten fresh, it is possible to preserve your melons when your garden is producing more than you can eat. You can cut melons in chunks and freeze them in light syrup. They can be dried in a dehydrator to make sweet candied melon, or mashed and dried into fruit leathers. The rind of watermelons makes excellent pickles. With a little more effort, you can also turn your watermelons into wine. You can find recipes for all this and more from Mother Earth News.