Melons can be difficult for the backyard gardener but the rewards are significant. Store bought melons are frequently weeks old. And while melons hold their flavor for an extended time, nothing compares to a fresh picked melon.
General Growing Conditions
Although there are some varieties that differ, melons take a lot of space. One watermelon or cantaloupe vine can spread over a six foot square area or more. This makes them nearly impossible to grow for the backyard gardener with limited space. Additionally, they require a very warm climate. If you live in a short summer area or where the night time temperature consistently falls below 60 degrees it will be difficult to grow melons.
Melons may be planted as seed directly in the garden after the soil warms. Or, for earlier melons, start seed indoors in peat pots 3-4 weeks before the last frost date.
Melons are heavy feeders so the soil should be loose and supplemented with aged steer manure and compost before planting. Plant 3 or 4 seeds 1 inch deep in hills separated 6 feet apart. Water well and mulch area to hold water. If you live in a cool climate or have short summers, warm the soil by placing a sheet of black plastic over the planting area 2 weeks before planting.
Melons will crossbreed so do not plant near other different types or cultivars. To be completely safe from any cross-pollination, keep them away from other family members including cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins.
Care of Melons
Melons require a lot of water when developing, as much as 2 inches a week. In the heat of summer, this may require watering twice a day. The soil should be moist 1 foot deep, but not soggy. When watering, water at the root zone, not on the leaves. When the melons are the size of a tennis ball, place them on a board or straw to get them off the ground. Also, at this stage reduce the watering slightly to produce sweetness in the melons. Water heavy when young and moderate when more mature.
Fertilize every two to three weeks, using an all-purpose fertilizer, such as 5-5-5. Add several inches of compost to all root areas monthly.
If the first blossoms on your plants are falling off without setting fruit, do not worry, this is normal. The earliest flowers are male (pollen-bearing), so cannot set fruit. Only the female (pistillate) flowers can develop into melons. If the flowers do not set fruit later on it is probably due to a lack of pollination. Bees are the primary source of pollination so encourage their presence in your garden. (See article on ATTRACTING BEES TO YOUR GARDEN).
It can be very frustrating to nurture your melons for weeks and then harvest a melon that is not ripe or over-ripe. There are various methods to determining the proper time to harvest. Some gardeners use color, smell or thumping on the melon to decide when to pick. But the most reliable method is to gently tug on the stem of the melon. If it comes off with little effort, it is ready to harvest. If you feel resistance, do not pick. When the melons reach full size you should test the stem every day until it separates easily.
Occasionally you may pick a melon at the proper time but it is not as sweet as you expected. This is usually due to conditions beyond your control. Weather conditions are the primary cause. Too much heat (difficult to do), too little heat, too much water (rain) can all cause a melon not to be sweet, even though it is ripe. About all you can do is reduce watering if you have heavy or extended rain.
Pest and Disease
To reduce the chance of last years pest or disease from appearing in this years crop, do not plant melons in the same area for two or three years. Some of the common problems are:
* Fungus diseases, including Alternaria leaf spot, powdery mildew, anthracnose, and downy mildew.
* Insects: such as cucumber beetles and aphids
* Mosaic virus
Check with your local garden shop for products to eliminate these problems. In most cases there are organic products designed to eliminate pest and disease. We encourage you not to put poisonous chemicals in your garden.