Learn how to plant and grow melons in your garden.
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My wife Wendy grows a big patch of melons (Cucumis melo) each year. Come late summer it’s a literal vigil to see when the first melon is
ripe. There’s good reason to be so interested. Fresh melons picked warm from the garden are sweet, juicy and certainly a decadent treat, much better than anything bought in the grocery store.
While melons love the heat, you can still grow these sweet treats in the Northeast if you select the right varieties and have the right growing conditions. And don’t limit yourself to the traditional cantaloupe (technically a muskmelon). Exotic melons are all the rage in the gardening world. Charentais, honeydews, crenshaw, and galia are some of the unusual melons available to grow that feature different colored flesh, unique flavors and sweet aromas.
Melons do take up space and need hot conditions and abundant water and fertility to mature. But once you find the right spot for your melons and have had success, they will undoubtably become a regular member of your garden each year.
When to Plant
You can plant melons directly from seed into the garden. Start transplants 4 weeks before your last frost date or purchase transplants. Whatever way you choose, plant seeds or plants when the soil is warm (ideally at least 60F). This usually is 2 weeks after the last frost date —May or June.
Where to Plant
Don’t skimp on sun and heat for your melons. Find the sunniest, warmest spot in your garden to plant. Consider planting near a south-facing wall or fence to protect young seedlings from cold spring breezes. Since melon plants like to vine or “run”, plant on the garden edge or in a location where they will have room to ramble.
How to Plant
Plant in raised beds that are covered with black or dark green plastic mulch. Create the beds and lay the plastic mulch on 2 weeks before planting to allow the soil to heat up. Amend the soil with compost before planting and forming beds. Poke holes in the plastic 12- to 18-inches apart in rows 3 feet apart and sow 2 to 3 seeds or plant one seedling per hole. You can also plant in circles or “hills” with 4- to 6- seeds per hill. Space hills 4 feet apart.
I like to plant melons on the edge of the garden near the lawn so the vines can grow into the grass. I stop mowing where the vines are growing in midsummer. Although it might look a little messy, it’s a good way to save space in your garden.
Care and Maintenance
Once the seeds germinate and the true leaves (second set of leaves) form, thin so there’s only 3 seedlings per hill or 2 seedlings per hole in the row. Melons are slow growing in early summer so cover young seedlings and transplants with a floating row cover until the soil and air warms. This will encourage plants to continue growing during cool days and night. Once the flowers form and the plants start to run, remove the row cover. The row covers also prevent some insects from attacking the plants.
Keep melons well weeded, especially during the first few weeks. Melons also need a consistent supply of water. Apply at least 1- to 2-inches of water a week, more during hot, dry, windy periods. Reduce watering a few weeks before harvest so the fruits taste sweeter.
Weed the plants well, especially during the first month of growth. Mulch the areas between hills or rows with a layer of straw, newspaper, or untreated grass clippings to keep the soil moist, prevent weeds from growing, and give the melon fruits a soft place to grow. Beside heat and water, melons love food. Fertilize monthly with a small handful of an organic product such as 5-5-5 per plant when vines begin to run and again when the first fruits form.
To save space, consider growing melons up a trellis or fence. You’ll have to support the heavy fruits with pantyhose or mesh attached to the fence, but it’s a way to grow these delicious gems in a space starved garden.
You’re not the only one that likes melons in the garden. These plants have a number of insects, animals and diseases to watch out for. Aphids and flea beetles will attack young plants. Spray insecticidal soap for aphids and cover plants with the floating row cover to control the flea beetles. Cucumber beetles and squash bugs are two major pests. Not only do cucumber beetles feed on melon leaves and flowers, they transmit disease to plants. Control these beetles with sprays of pyrethrum in early evening, traps, and by covering young plants with a row cover. Squash bugs love congregating on the underside of melon leaves. Handpick and kill these pests in the morning when they’re sluggish or spray pyrethrum.
Rotate crops, clean up plant debris well in fall, and select disease resistant varieties to reduce any problems with diseases such as powdery mildew and leaf blight.
Animals can sometimes be the biggest problem in the melon patch. Raccoons and mice love these sweet jewels. Protect individual fruits with a wire cage wrapped around it before they ripen. As soon as the fruits are ripe, pick. Leaving them in the garden may entice these critters to come have a look.
Speaking of harvest, you’ll know when you melons are ripe when they have a sweet smell, the fruits “slip” off the vine when lifted, and the skin changes to the mature color for that type. Some of the more unusual melons, such as crenshaw and honeydew, can be harvested early and matured indoors.
However, the best flavor is from a melon harvested at the peak of maturity in the garden and eaten immediately. There are hot summer days when a melon gets eaten right in my garden and never makes it to the kitchen.
It’s important to choose melon varieties adapted to our sometimes cool summers. ‘Halona Hybrid’, Delicious’, ‘Minnesota Midget’, and ‘Sweet Granite’ cantaloupes produce 2- to 3-pound, orange fleshed fruits and are well adapted to our cool weather. ‘Athena Hybrid’ is a disease resistant cantaloupe with a good shelf-life. ‘Rocky Ford’ is a green-fleshed, 2 pound, disease resistant, heirloom cantaloupe. ‘Savor Hybrid’ is a unique French charentais melons that produces 2-pound, orange fleshed fruits with a grey-green colored skin. ‘Arava Hybrid’ is a 4 pound galia-type that has light green flesh and a very sweet flavor. ‘Honey Orange Hybrid’ is an salmon-orange color fleshed honeydew that grows well in the Northeast.
Text excepted from the Northeast Vegetable and Fruit Gardening book.
Well the recent spate of hot summer weather has got my melons cranking. They’re putting on growth daily and soon I hope to have some juicy fruits to eat. While cantaloupes and watermelons may be one of the signs of mid summer, think about trying some unusual melons. This summer is a good time to taste test some of the specialty melons and take note of the ones you like for next year’s planting. Here are a few I think are worth trying.
The honeydew melon has a tan skin color and pale green or white flesh. Unlike cantaloupes, it doesn’t continue to ripen after picking so wait until this baby is fully ripe to harvest. Give it a good sniff in the market to make sure it’s mature. It has a sweeter and milder flavor than cantaloupes. If you want a melon flavor between cantaloupes and honeydew, try the Galia melon. It looks like a cantaloupe on the outside, but has pale green flesh on the inside.
Crenshaw melons have pale green skin and a salmon-pink colored flesh. The flavor is sweet and slightly spicy. It’s a long season melon so start this one indoors in spring and protect it from early and late season frosts.
Charentais melons hail from France. They look like a cantaloupe on the outside, but the inside has orange flesh with a sweet, almost tropical flavor and a strong aroma. Eat this one quickly since it doesn’t last long even in the refrigerator.
For watermelons, look for the yellow or orange fleshed hybrids and the icebox types. They mature faster and are easier to store. You can also grow them in square boxes or glass containers like the Japanese to create square watermelons that fit better in the refrigerator. Now that’s different!