A Cornucopia of Cantaloupes
By: Susan Littlefield
There is nothing quite like the meltingly sweet flavor and heady aroma of a truly ripe cantaloupe. And the best way to sample such a delectable treat is to grow your own. Cantaloupes and related melons such as honeydews are easy to grow as long as your keep their four requirements in mind: heat, water, fertile soil and bees.
But first we should point out that cantaloupes aren't really cantaloupes! True cantaloupes are tropical fruits with green flesh and hard rinds that are rarely sold in this country. What we think of as cantaloupes, fruits with orange flesh and tan, netted rinds, are really muskmelons. However this naming quirk came about, as a gardener you only need to know that cantaloupe and muskmelon are two names for the same type of melon. Related melons include the honeydews with pale skin and green flesh, the French Charentais melons with deep orange flesh and a honey-like flavor, and the Mediterranean types, such as the Israeli melons, that generally have yellow skins and sweet, aromatic, pale green or white flesh.
Cantaloupe and Melon Varieties
Gardeners in northern parts of the country should choose melons with the shortest number of days to harvest. Especially in warmer areas, choose varieties that are resistant to diseases such as downy and powdery mildews and anthracnose.
Growing Cantaloupes and Other Melons
No matter the type of melon, their cultural requirements are similar. In cooler parts of the country (USDA Hardiness Zones 3 and 4), it's a good idea to give your melons a jump on the season by starting them in peat pots 3 to 4 weeks before you set them out in the garden. Plant a couple of seeds in each pot and snip out the weakest when the seedlings are two inches high. Set them out when the weather has warmed, usually about a week after your last frost date. Be sure to harden them off before you put them in the garden.
In warmer areas, melons do best if sown directly where they are to grow. Plant seeds one inch deep in hills, which simply means 4 to 6 seeds set in a one-foot diameter circle, not a raised area. When seedlings are a couple of inches high, thin to two seedlings per hill. Space the hills 6 to 10 feet apart for vining varieties; 2 to 4 feet for bush types.
But first you need to get your soil ready. Spread a 3 to 4 inch deep layer of compost and a slow-release or organic fertilizer on the melon bed and work into the top 6 to 8 inches of soil. In northern areas, you may want to warm the soil by covering the bed with black plastic.
After your seedlings are up and the soil is warm, mulch the bed with an organic mulch such as straw to keep weeds down. This way you won't need to worry about damaging the vines as you attempt to weed among them. In cooler parts of the country, keep the black plastic down all summer to give your melons toasty toes. Just cut squares out of the plastic and pop the peat pots in. This method works best if you lay soaker hoses or drip irrigation tubing down before you roll out the plastic.
Vining melons take up a lot of room in the garden. For the most efficient use of space, erect an A-frame trellis for the vines to grow up. Just remember you'll need to support developing melons in slings made of old pantyhose, fabric or netting.