Growing Guide for Melons

By Dr. Mercola

Sweet, succulent and delicious, melons are one of the largest fruits, offering a completely unique flavor among all other fruit offerings. Why grow them yourself?

One reason is because commercially grown melons are picked at a slightly unripe state to survive being shipped long distances, and there’s also a good chance they’ll sit in a truck, on a skid in the back of the grocery store or in a bin among dozens of others, so they’re picked when they’re still a little green if growers and food chains want them presented for sale at peak ripeness.

However, the longer melons remain on the vine, the sweeter and more delicious they become. That explains why you’ve probably purchased what looks to be a perfectly ripe melon at the grocery store but found it rather bland once it was cut. The solution is growing your own. Can you imagine having vines that grow at the rate of a few inches a day and watching golf ball-sized melons forming that will turn into large, juicy, scrumptious food?

Melons contain fiber, vitamin B6 and folate, plus excellent amounts of vitamin C to fight infection and vitamin A for improved vision. In addition, flavonoids include beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin, which is a carotenoid absorbed into the retina that may provide light-filtering functions to protect against age-related macular degeneration.

Potassium in melons helps control heart rate and blood pressure and protects against stroke and heart disease. Manganese, also found in melons, is a cofactor for the enzyme superoxide dismutase, a powerful antioxidant.

Origins and Varieties of Muskmelons (aka Cantaloupes)

There are many types of melons; Horticulture at Oregon State University notes that although all melons are classified as Cucumis melo, what’s grown in the U.S. are the netted, aromatic and Persian (reticulatus) varieties. True cantaloupes are grown mostly in Europe (cantaloupensis), although most people in the U.S. call muskmelons cantaloupes.

Other cultivars are casabas, crenshaws, honeydews and late-maturing winter melons (inodorous), which are more oval with a waxy surface, smooth or wrinkled, and less fragrant. These begin ripening as the weather starts to cool and require a full 100 days on the vine. There’s also the snake melon (flexuosus), grown in Asia, and the Oriental pickling melon (conomon).1

Muskmelons can be identified by their vertical ribs and rough, camo-green skin that looks like it’s covered over with tight-knit, tan netting. Rodale’s Organic Life explains that true cantaloupes have orange flesh and rough, scaly skin with rough, distinct veins.2 In a nutshell, the history of cantaloupes is said to have begun in Armenia, from where they were taken to other parts of Europe, including Italy, where there’s a city called Cantalupo. All varieties have developed from centuries of constant cross cultivation. In addition:

“The original Cantaloupe was smaller and not quite as sweet as modern cultivars. Cantaloupes have been developed over time to achieve uniform size, improved flavor and disease resistance. This high level of consistency has contributed to the Cantaloupe becoming the most widely eaten melon variety in America today.”3

What Melons Need for Optimal Sweetness and Texture

Sunshine and warmth are worth their weight in gold for optimal melon growth. The requirement of a good three to four months of warm weather, plus soil that contains plenty of nutrients, are not too much to ask for these beauties to thrive and taste wonderful on your table. Planting tips include:

  • Planting seeds on mounds or raised rows called hills, around 6 to 8 inches high, will lead to better drainage (they don’t like to sit in water), and it helps growing melon vines retain the heat of the sun longer.
  • Seeds should be planted 1-inch-deep, 18 inches apart in hills that are about 3 feet apart. Again, if space is limited, fencing, trellises or other supports can be used to force the crop to climb upward instead of outward.
  • Keep the soil melons are grown in evenly moist, but not soaking, as that sometimes causes the fruit to swell suddenly and become watery. Too much rain or watering after drying out for a period can cause waterlogging, as well as cracking in the ripening melons, so try to keep the soil at a consistent dampness.
  • Before planting seedlings outdoors, harden them off by setting them outdoors in a sunny area during the day, then take them back in at night.
  • Soil that’s rich in organic matter is important to grow exceptional melons, so adding compost is wise. Maintaining a pH of 6.5 to 7.5 is about right for most garden plants.

Besides adding a few inches of compost to the planting area, master gardener Mark Abbott-Compton, featured in the video above, advises feeding the soil with organic potash, aka potassium, and adding an organic fertilizer made from deep-rooted comfrey plants. (Phosphorous fertilizers may damage not only your own soil over time but may contribute to harmful runoff, the University of Minnesota Extension (UMN) notes.4)

According to Grow It Organically,5 potassium provides the plants with higher and better immunity, flowering and fruiting, as well as nutrients. The Organic Gardener6 explains how to make a fermented comfrey extract that’s rich in potassium and nitrogen and acts as a natural pesticide.

Bits to Know About Growing (and Storing) Melons

Granted, melons do take up a lot of space. Comparatively speaking, just one watermelon vine can encompass as much as 100 square feet and net only two melons, while a 16-square-foot area can produce an average of 16 muskmelons. If space is at a premium where you live, there are bush varieties that grow upward on a fence or trellis rather than outward.

If a developing muskmelon is hanging rather than resting on the ground (and either is perfectly fine) it can get so heavy that the vine can snap about a week before the melon is actually ripe.

To prevent this, Abbott-Compton uses a novel approach: Find a pair of sheer pantyhose that can be slipped over the melon and simply tie the legs to points higher on the trellis to better support the melon’s weight. The tights will expand without impeding the melon’s growth, allowing it to remain on the vine for as long as it takes to develop peak ripeness.

You may wonder how to tell if your melons are “ready.” Abbott-Compton offers a few tips. One is to gently squeeze the melon, which will “give” slightly when it’s ripe. Another clue is its fragrance, which should smell like the fruit inside.

Alternately, Specialty Produce notes that muskmelons will feel heavy rather than hollow, and “should yield just slightly to finger pressure at its blossom end, which is opposite of its scarred end, where it was removed from the stem.” 7 On a muskmelon’s twining vines, you get two types of flowers. One type is a male and female, which produces the fruit, and the other is purely male, Abbott-Compton explains. UMN expounds on that bit of information with something quite fascinating:

“Cantaloupe flowers have a pollination window of one day. Pollen must be transferred from the male flower to the female flower on this day for seed set and fruit development. Fruit size and shape are related to the number of seeds set. Poorly pollinated flowers either abort or produce misshapen fruit.

The first blossoms often drop off muskmelon plants but this is not a problem. The first flowers to appear on the vines are male. The female flowers, which open later, have a swelling at the base that forms the fruit (the ovary). After bees pollinate these female flowers, the fruit develops!”8

Growing Melons in Different Gardening Zones

If your garden happens to be in one of the warmer climates, you can plant straight into the soil after any threat of a cold snap is over. You can test the soil temperature; at least 65 degrees F (and 70 to 75 degrees F is even better) is recommended to make sure germination takes place as it should. However, seedlings grown indoors that develop either tendrils or more than four leaves may have trouble getting established once you transplant them.

Melons have a longer growing time than some other plants, so it’s important to get the seeds into the soil as quickly as possible after the last frost in the spring. To warm up the soil (and keep it warm once the plants are in the ground) you can cover it with fabric or black paper mulch a few weeks before planting or transplanting.

Mother Earth News9 suggests anchoring row covers securely with bamboo poles or 2-by-2 lumber. You can also use plastic jugs with the bottoms cut out placed over young individual seedlings to keep them warm and protected from critters.

However, if you happen to live in one of the upper-U.S. planting zones, say, Zone 5B and lower, which denotes a shorter season, it’s helpful to know that planting several seeds one-half inch deep in 4-inch peat pots in a south-facing window or grow lights indoors works well for melons. Thin 2-inch-tall seedlings to the strongest plant by cutting off smaller starts at the soil level.

Then there’s the end of the growing season to consider. A Canadian melon grower asked the Almanac what to do with his nicely growing melons as frost was becoming imminent and wondered if it would bother his crop. The answer:

“Like all melons and ‘water-heavy’ fruit, cantaloupes are indeed susceptible to frost. You will want to cover them with blankets or towels at night to help retain the earth’s warmth and then remove same during the day so that they continue to ripen in the sun. Labor-intensive, but it can be done!”

It’s a good idea to record the day you planted so you can roughly figure the time of harvest, which is generally 65 to 86 days, according to Heirloom Organics.10 A cantaloupe can be refrigerated for a few days if it’s already ripe until you’re ready to use it, or if it’s not, stored at room temperature for few days until it is.

Natural Methods to Deal With Pests and Disease

One last bit of information that’s helpful is that along the growing process, a few problems, namely insects and disease, may cause problems for organic growers. Insects (which can actually precipitate disease) include squash bugs on young plants, squash vine borers that can tunnel through your vines, melon aphids and striped cucumber beetles (causing the most problems) that eat the leaves, stems and fruit.

Identifying the actual pest is important to remedy the problem without resorting to the use of chemicals. Make sure you examine under the melon vines’ large leaves for damage, such as curling leaves, and a sticky substance known as honeydew (ironically), as well as the bugs themselves. Home Guides11 suggests:

  • Suctioning them up with a portable vacuum and emptying them into a bucket of soapy water
  • Picking them off by hand and dropping them into a bowl or bucket of soapy water
  • “Spray[ing] melon vines with a strong jet of water from your hose, which is often enough to kill the majority of melon aphids, as well as small pests such as thrips and mites, that feed on the melon stems and foliage.”12
  • An insecticidal soap made from 3 teaspoons of liquid soap per 1 gallon of water, thoroughly sprayed on leaves every two or three days, plus after rainfall

Sawdust-looking droppings made by boring insects are a clue to their activity, as are wilted vines and/or holes in the stems. A naturally-occurring bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), only toxic to specific insects, has been used by organic farmers to control crop-eating bugs. It’s readily available in stores; mix per directions, fill a syringe and inject into the roots just above the soil line. (This shouldn’t be confused with the damaging way Bt toxin is being used in genetically engineered (GE) crops like corn and soy.)

As for disease, one is called damping off, caused by cold, wet soil. Another is bacterial wilt, which is self-descriptive. Powdery mildew is a fungal disease evidenced by white powdery spots on the leaves that can infect melons. You can buy seeds that are resistant to disease, and further protect your melons by not growing them for three or four years where members of the squash family have been grown.13

Control weeds to help prevent such diseases and get rid of them. Keep plants spaced properly, remove infected plants immediately and burn them. Always clean your tools and wash your hands and gloves after working in the garden. Rutgers University suggests Wollastonite powder, according to Organic Growers School, a site that stresses disease prevention as the very best remedy for growing melons or any other garden plant.14

Saving Your Seeds — Another Reason to Grow Your Own Melons

When picked at peak ripeness, the seeds are mature enough to harvest the seeds for future planting, per Heirloom Organics:15

  • Half the melon with a sharp knife, scoop out the inner seed lining and place the seedy pulp into a bowl.
  • Remove as much of the pulp as possible by hand to discard and add warm water to the bowl. Skim the surface of the water to remove floating seeds that won’t produce plants.
  • Rinse the rest of the seeds to remove any remaining sugar and pulp and place on a screen to dry.
  • Allow the seeds to dry for about three days, then place them in an airtight bag marked with the seed type and the date they were harvested. Place the bag in the freezer until next season.

Another reason to plant your own melons? There’s a real possibility that conventional farmers have used chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides in the growing of most melons found in supermarkets. Melons have also been the source of numerous foodborne disease outbreaks, including listeriosis. By growing your own, you’ll know they’re free of pesticides and are far less likely to be contaminated with disease-causing bacteria.

If you buy your cantaloupes, it’s best to look for organic, but if that isn’t possible they tend to be one of the least pesticide-contaminated crops. Currently, cantaloupes are No. 39 on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Dirty Dozen list16 of the most pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables.

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