While there are many types of melons, most American gardeners only know a few of them. The most common is the muskmelon, called a cantaloupe by most people, though that name properly applies to the French Charentais types with smooth gray skins and more or less prominent radial stripes (muskmelons have the “netted” skin we see in the markets). Honeydew melons (at least some varieties) can also be grown throughout most of the country. They have a smooth, grayish green rind that whitens as they mature. Then there is a whole range of exotic types like Crenshaws, Casabas, and Persian melons, which are suitable only for the really warn, long-season parts of the country. Finally, there are watermelons, which are actually not melons at all, but members of a different plant species.
The whole Squash family (Cucurbitaceae) is almost as crazy as as the Cabbage family (Brassicaceae) as both have a large number of wild relatives, have been cultivated and “developed” by humans for centuries and cross pollinate readily (unlike the members of the Tomato family (Solanaceae) which are more frequently self-pollinating, and thus less “promiscuous”.
Like their relative the cucumber, we put melons in the second part of our rotation, but give them an extra dose of compost or well-rotted manure to make sure they have the nutrients for quick vine growth in early summer.
You can direct-seed melons, but you need to wait until after the last spring frost. The seed should be sown three seeds to the foot, 1/2 to 3/4 inch deep, in a single row down the center of the bed; or in rows three to six feet apart. Because of the need to get a jump on the season, we start the plants indoors in large soil blocks or cell trays a couple of weeks before planting time. Don’t push it: rootbound seedlings will never amount to much, and the plants will grow fast under cover. They can then be set out one foot apart after the soil is fully warmed. When transplanting, make a small depression in the soil, fill it with a mixture of fish fertilizer and liquid seaweed—a tablespoon of each per gallon of water—then quickly set the plant’s root ball right down in it and pull a bit of dry soil back over the spot. The roots resent handling, so let the liquid settle them instead of packing the soil by hand.
Cover the bed immediately after planting with a floating row cover, to keep off cucumber beetles. If they find the seedlings at this stage—and they always seem to come out of hibernation within a few days of melon planting time—they can kill the plants in a matter of days. Keep the cover on until their first reproductive cycle is over, and you’ll lessen the damage quite a bit.
With cucumbers it’s a snap to trellis the plants, but if you want to get melons up off the ground you’ll have to make provision for supporting the fruits. Most of the common varieties “slip,” or detach themselves, from the vines at maturity and would be damaged when they fell to the ground. The most common method is to use nets made of old stockings or onion bags. With the true French cantaloupes this is not a problem, as they stay attached to the vine until cut loose.
Melons need plenty of water when they’re young, but once the fruits have reached the size of a baseball you should stop watering. Too much water at ripening time ruins the flavor, and they don’t really need it by then. Melons develop a deep root system soon after they begin to flower, and so are able to fend for themselves. One of the benefits of drip irrigation when growing melons is it allows you to get plenty of water to them when young without getting the foliage wet. That’s a great help in avoiding foliage diseases like powdery mildew, which thrives on wet leaves.
Do not harvest your melons until they are fully ripe; melons do not improve in flavor once off the vine. It’s easy to tell when a muskmelon is ripe: the background color of the netting flushes yellow, and the stem separates from the vine with only a slight tug. The other kinds do not “slip” like muskmelons, and you’ll have to learn to recognize the signs of maturity. Honeydews and some of the Oriental melons turn white; most of the others develop a yellow or tan cast to the rind. All become soft to the touch on the blossom end, and most will smell ripe to an experienced sniffer. Become one! When ready they will need to be cut from the vine.
Making melon recommendations is difficult; a cultivar that is well adapted to one region may not do well in another. For muskmelons I advise asking knowledgeable local gardeners what they grow and then experimenting. Nonetheless, here are a few of the more unusual types you might like to try, regardless. Charentais is the classic French melon. You may wish to try the original, but there are now many improved hybrid Charentais cultivars on the market. Green-fleshed Middle Eastern melons can also do well, even in what would normally be considered marginal areas; try Galia or Passport. Some smooth-skinned Oriental melons we’ve had good luck with are Snow Crown and Sun; both of these are real kid pleasers. All of these are non-slip types that can be trellised.