There's nothing sweeter and juicier than a vine ripened cantaloupe picked fresh from your garden on a warm summer's day.
Melon vines love to run, so in small spaces plant bush-type varieties or set plants on the edge of the garden where the vines can run onto the lawn.
If you've got the room, you've got to grow cantaloupes. These melons are technically called muskmelons, but we all know them for their round green fruits with brown netting and sweet salmon or orange colored flesh. A cantaloupe freshly picked from the garden is warm, sweet, and juicy. It's great served chilled for breakfast or chopped and mixed with other fruits for a light dessert at dinner. I like to put some cantaloupe in my fruit shakes in the morning for a sweet taste, along with bananas and other summer fruits. You can even make a cool melon soup from fresh cantaloupes to compliment a late summer meal.
Although cantaloupes do sprawl and take up room, each vine can reward you with 3 to 4 melons each. In our 6 foot diameter melon patch, my wife Wendy and I were able to harvest almost 20 melons one year. We had to start doing the unthinkable and giving them away, we had so many.
So find a spot in your garden or lawn next year to start some melons. Here's a primer to get you off on the right foot.
Cantaloupes like room, heat, and water. While you can locate them in the garden, since they vine and take up so much space, I like to create a separate cantaloupe patch in the lawn or plant them along the edge of the garden and train them to vine into the lawn. That way prime real estate in the garden isn't used up by melon vines and leaves. Also, locate your patch near a water source. Melons are water hogs and need moisture to produce fruits up to 10 pounds, depending on the variety. Of course, find a spot in full sun, protected from cool winds, and on fertile ground.
Cantaloupes are sometimes grouped as Eastern or Western types. Eastern cantaloupe varieties feature rounded 5- to 7-pound fruits with sutures, netting, and a large seed cavity. Western cantaloupe types are oval-shaped 3- to 5-pound fruits without sutures and have coarse netting. It's mostly a distinction for commercial growers. You can grow either type anywhere in the country.
Here are some of the best cantaloupe varieties to try in your garden. They all mature in 75 to 85 days after planting from seed.
'Alaska Hybrid' – This early maturing, 4 pound, orange-fleshed fruit is good for northern areas with short growing seasons.
'Ambrosia Hybrid' – This 5-pound cantaloupe has sweet salmon-colored flesh and the vines are resistant to powdery mildew disease.
'Athena Hybrid' – These 5- to 6-pound, salmon-colored fruits are crack resistant and grow on disease resistant plants.
'Hales Best' – This is an heirloom cantaloupe that's early maturing with 4-pound, orange-fleshed fruits.
'Halona Hybrid' – These disease-resistant plants produce 5-to 6-pound, sweetly flavorful fruits with bright orange flesh. They mature even earlier than 'Earliqueen'.
'Honey Bun Hybrid' – This new variety features 4 pound, orange-fleshed fruits that grow on short vines that only run 3 to 4 feet. They're perfect for a small garden.
'Jenny Lind' – A New Jersey heirloom, unique green-fleshed cantaloupe that produces 2-pound fruits with soft, juicy flesh. The fruits have a characteristic button on the bottom.
'Superstar Hybrid' – A large, 6- to 8-pound melon with aromatic orange flesh.
'Tasty Bites Hybrid' – A small, 1- to 2-pound melon with yellowish-orange flesh. This variety is a great size for individual servings.
Cantaloupes need heat, fertility, and water to grow their best. Find a location in full sun. Prepare raised beds a few weeks before your last frost date and amend the beds with a 1- to 2-inch thick layer of compost. In cool summer areas consider laying black or dark green plastic mulch over the raised bed to preheat the soil before planting. Cantaloupe seed germinates best in warm soils.
Melons make a healthy dessert when mixed with other fruits or eaten on their own.
Harvest melons when the netting turns brown and the fruit "slips" off the vine when lifted.
Either start cantaloupe seedlings indoors 3- to 4-weeks before your planting date or sow seed after your last frost date directly into the garden. Plant cantaloupes in hills or rows. Space hills 4- to 6-feet apart and sow 6 seeds per hill. After germination, thin to the three strongest seedlings. To plant in rows, poke holes in the plastic and plant seedlings or seeds 12 inches apart.
Young cantaloupes need consistent warmth to grow their best. Protect young seedlings in spring by covering them with a floating row cover during cool, windy days or if temperatures dip into the 40Fs at night.
Keep the cantaloupe patch well weeded and watered. Once the plants begin vining, the cantaloupe leaves will become so thick they will shade the soil, keeping it moist and preventing weeds from growing.
Apply at least 1-inch of water a week — more during periods of hot, dry weather. Adequate watering is particularly important during flowering and fruiting.
Cantaloupes are in the cucumber family and have this family’s characteristic separate male and female flowers. Pollination from bees is necessary to get fruits. Remove the floating row cover when flowering begins to allow bees access to the flowers. If you have a stretch of cloudy, cool weather when bees aren't flying or live in an area with few native bees, pollinate the fruits yourself. In the morning, take a cotton swab and collect the pollen from a male flower (the one with no small cantaloupe behind it). Then find a female flower (the one with a small cantaloupe behind it) and swish the swab in that flower. That should do the trick.
Fertilize your cantaloupe vines with a balanced organic fertilizer, such as 5-5-5, when the vines begin to run and at first fruiting. In a small garden, manually train the vines to run into a lawn or away from other plants. You can also trellis them up a fence by tying the vines to the fence with plant ties and supporting the developing fruits with panty hose or cloth.
Pests love cantaloupes, too. Control cucumber beetles early in the season with row covers, yellow sticky traps hung above plants, and sprays of pyrethrum in the evening when bees aren’t flying. Crush squash bugs eggs in early summer and also spray pyrethrum as a last resort to control this pest. Fence the cantaloupe patch to keep raccoons away. Cover individual fruits with hardware cloth or a wire cage if mice are active. Both animals love ripe melons and will let you know when it's time to pick by their activity. Plant disease resistant varieties if powdery mildew and wilt are problems in your garden. In a small garden you can also place individual fruits on cans or pots to keep them off the ground. They will be less likely to be attacked by pests and diseases. Rotate crops annually and clean up plant debris well in fall.
Cantaloupes are one of the easier melons to know when to harvest. Look at the ribbing. It will change to a darker brown color when fruits are ripe. Cantaloupes will also give off a sweet scent when ripe. Sniff fruits regularly when they are full size. The best method is to lift the fruits off the ground. A ripe cantaloupe will "slip" of come off the vine easily when ripe. Cantaloupes can be stored for about 1 week in the refrigerator, but I think they're best eaten as quickly as possible after harvest.