Growing Melons – Get Sweet Satisfaction
If you’ve ever tasted a freshly picked, ripe melon, you know just how sweet and deliciously scented it can be. Commercially produced melons are usually harvested about a week before full maturity, which is when they produce the most sugar—and a good reason for growing your own melons.
Growing your own also gives you the widest possible choice. I love to experiment with new types, unusual forms, odd colors, and different flavors. I think the main reason most Canadians grow melons, however, is the challenge—something you try when you find growing other things too routine. Just about anyone can grow lettuce or tomatoes, but there are a certain satisfaction and cachet in being able to say you grow your own honeydews or watermelons. Although melons are better suited to hot climates—Georgia and Arizona—than to Canadian gardens, it is possible to grow them practically anywhere in this country. Even in my Zone 4 garden situated on a cool, north-facing slope, melons do fairly well, although some years are better than others. Generally, I get a really good crop every two years.
Growing Melon with Climatic Factors
Native to tropical Asia and Africa, melons are naturally long-season plants that thrive in the heat. Growing them in most Canadian gardens requires not only effort but also a bit of deceit—you have to trick the plants into believing they’re growing in the tropics. If you succeed, they’ll reward you with plenty of sweet fruits. If they even suspect they’re growing in Prince Edward Island or Alberta, you’ve lost them.
Hardiness zones aren’t the major factor in determining your success: it isn’t how cold the winters are that matters, but how long and warm the summers. The prime growing area for melons is central Canada, notably Southern Ontario, where summers are usually long and hot, and in the central valleys of British Columbia, where summers are long, hot, and dry.
Even Prairie growers, in areas where summers are relatively long, won’t have too difficult a time. In coastal areas of British Columbia, the Atlantic provinces, and parts of Quebec, however, the summers are theoretically long enough, but temperatures rarely reach the 24 to 35˚C that melons like. And in northern areas, there’s the double whammy of short summers and cool nights.
Don’t let that discourage you.
With a little work, you can extend your summers and even make them warmer, giving your melons the conditions they require.
What to Melon Plant
Most gardeners in Canada should plant cultivars recommended for short-season climates; those needing fewer than 75 days to maturity are best. (The number of days to maturity listed in catalogues or on seed packets indicates results under ideal conditions; I find that adding about 20 days is more realistic.) Only in Southern Ontario and in hot-summer areas of British Columbia are main-season varieties a wise choice. Both hybrid and heirloom varieties are readily available: hybrids are especially early, but heirloom types have a long history of proven results.
What are Different Variety Melon Types
True melons are botanically known as Cucumis pepo, a category that includes a range of sweet-flavoured fruits, usually round to oblong and with or without ribs or netting. Their flesh can be any colour from green to orange. Here are the main categories:
A hard-shelled melon is rarely grown in this country. What Canadians call “cantaloupes” are really muskmelons.
A small grey-green melon, often with darker green ribs. Its flesh is usually deep orange, sweet, and highly aromatic.
A large melon with a greenish rind heavily overlaid in netting, and sweet, green, aromatic flesh. Galia seeds sold in North America are usually a cross between Galias and muskmelons—true Galias are a long-season crop, best in hot climates. Varieties such as ‘Passport’ are adapted to short-season areas.
A smooth-skinned, yellow to white melon with sweet, unscented, white to orange flesh. Short-season varieties are available.
Like a large honeydew, with a yellowish rind and pale green to somewhat orange flesh.
This common melon is also the earliest and easiest to grow in areas where summers are short. Its netted skin is usually ribbed, and the salmon-coloured flesh has a sweet taste. Some varieties have the typically musky scent that gave the fruit their name, but most have little odour.
Other true melons
Other true melons include such tropical types as casaba melons and Persian melons (both C. Melo), and horned melons (C. metuliferus), none of which is particularly interesting for short-season climates.
Watermelons belong to a different genus entirely, Citrullus (C. lanatus). They have smooth rinds in a variety of colours; from light green to nearly black to striped, and come in many shapes from round to distinctly oblong. The sweet, crunchy flesh is usually red and punctuated by numerous flat, black seeds, but yellow and orange strains exist, as well as seedless ones. As the name suggests, the flesh is more than 93 percent water.
Finally, the so-called bitter melon (Momordica charantia) looks more like a cucumber than melon and is best treated as one. Likewise, the Chinese watermelon or Chinese preserving melon (Benincasa hispida) is actually closer to squash than a melon.
Melon Planting Seedlings Outside
Deciding when to plant out is critical. In many areas, the air never does warm up appreciably, so trust the soil temperature instead. If it’s warm to the touch (at least 21˚C), you can go ahead, spacing plants about 60 centimetres apart. If you plant in rows, leave about two meters between the rows.
If you prefer beds to rows, make them 150 centimetres wide by at least 150 centimetres long, spacing plants 60 centimetres apart, with paths between beds about 45 centimetres wide. You can also grow melons up a south-facing wall, attaching the stems to a sturdy trellis. I grow vegetables and fruits, melons included, in the flower garden, where creeping stalks ramble every which way.
Be sure to keep melon flowers at least three meters away from the flowers of relatives such as squash or cucumbers, because cross-pollination can result in bitter-tasting melons.
Planting is simple. Dig a hole for each peat pot, pop it in and cover it entirely with soil, mounding the soil up around the plant’s base if your soil tends to remain cool and damp, then water well (use tepid water).
If air temperatures are warm at planting time—at least 18°C—and remain so throughout the summer in your climate, you’ll find melons easy to grow. Elsewhere, you’ll need a method of keeping cool air off your plants. If you’re growing in rows, use a floating row cover; it’s permeable to rain but less so to cold. Make sure it’s loose so it can accommodate plant growth, and anchor firmly at the edges with rocks, bricks, or pegs.
Another option is to make a “greenhouse” over the row by bending two-meter-long metal rods or pliable bamboo stakes into half circles (or buy hoops from a garden supplier) and cover with a row cover or UV-resistant plastic. For individual plants, cloches or water teepees are effective, but only in climates where temperatures do warm up eventually, as young plants quickly outgrow them.
Insects and Diseases Control
Apart from a bit of mildew and leaf-spotting at the end of the season, which doesn’t seem to harm the fruit, I’ve never had major problems with insects and diseases. But I’m careful to grow only melons recommended as disease-resistant, and I use floating row covers early in the season which help keep insects such as the striped cucumber beetle, at bay. I also rotate all my vegetables, never planting melons anywhere I have grown them—or squashes or cucumbers—in the previous four years.
If insects are visible, spray with insecticidal soap or a homemade soap solution consisting of five millilitres of liquid soap or soap flakes per litre of water. Repeat every three to four days as needed. For insects that come out at night, try applying diatomaceous earth, a white powdery product derived from fossils, over the soil, leaves, and stems, making sure to cover both sides of the leaves. Reapply after rain.
Melon Plants Summer Care
Keep melons well watered through the beginning of the summer, but as fruit forms, allow plants to dry out between waterings. Don’t bother with supplemental fertilizing—melons are not heavy feeders and especially dislike nitrogen-rich fertilizers—unless the foliage appears yellowed, in which case a light spray of diluted liquid seaweed will help (see the product label for the proper dose).
I tend to mulch my garden, so I rarely need to do more than pull out the occasional weed. If you don’t mulch, cultivate cautiously: melons are shallow-rooted and easily damaged by a passing hoe. Even redirecting wayward stems should be done with care.
When bright yellow flowers begin to appear, it’s time to determine whether to hand-pollinate. It’s necessary if plants are undercover and not exposed to pollinating insects, or if constant rain at flowering time discourages bees. Each plant has both male and female flowers. To hand-pollinate, use a small paintbrush to pick up a bit of yellow pollen from a male flower (one with no ovary at its base), then dust it over the stigma projecting from the centre of a female flower (which has a rounded ball at its base, the future fruit). Male flowers are plentiful; female ones are few.
How To Prune Melon or Not to Prune
Many melon growers put great stock in pruning as a means of increasing the size and early maturation of melons. They pinch back new growth at the four-leaf stage, then again at the 10-leaf stage. Once the fruit is set, any new growth is removed. When I tried this, although the fruits were somewhat larger, they were no earlier, so I didn’t find the difference worth the extra effort.
The only pruning I do now is what’s needed to keep any melons I might be growing under glass within bounds—I sometimes use my cold frame as a summer greenhouse for melons. I cut off any wayward stems, notably those that reach outside my cold frame and keep me from closing it at night. However, if you’re going for the “biggest melon in the show” award at your county fair, you might want to experiment with pinching.
The one type of pruning that is universally accepted is to remove any late-season fruits that start to form: they’ll never have time to mature, so why let the plant waste its energy trying to produce them?
When to Harvest Melons
Once baby melons start to form, they grow quickly. Even if they’ve started forming weeks apart, all the fruits on the same plant tend to be ready within a few days of each other. Slip some straw under fruits to keep them clean, and turn them slightly as they ripen, so all sides are exposed to the sun.
Melons grown on a trellis or fence need extra support, or the weight of the fruit will tear the plant off its structure. As the fruit matures, make a sling out of old pantyhose, attach it solidly to the trellis, then nestle the fruit into it.
Now comes the hard part: deciding when to harvest. True melons change to their final colour when ripe. If in doubt, lift and twist slightly: the fruit will slip right off the stem when ripe. Watermelons aren’t so easy. Usually the tendril nearest the fruit turns brown when the fruit is ripe. Apparently, letting melons dry out the week before harvesting helps improve their flavour, but there’s no chance of testing that in my rainy climate. Melons are ready to eat as soon as they’re harvested.
Best Growing Watermelon Gardening Tips
Watermelons require care similar to that given melons such as honeydews and muskmelons, but need no watering at all once they’re established; native to the desert areas of Africa, watermelons like even more heat and are even more resistant to drought.
Quite new on the market are early watermelons, most of them smaller and more rounded than you may be used to. These are a good choice for growing in short-season areas.
Seedless watermelons (actually, the fruit contains tiny, edible, transparent envelopes where the seeds would have been) make an interesting subject of conversation, but so far there are no short-season types. Also, they’re expensive—the seeds cost three times more than other, normal watermelon seeds. Seedless watermelons result from hand-pollinated triploid seeds; you need one normal diploid watermelon plant for every two triploids to ensure pollination.