Growing Melons

The National Garden Bureau has declared 2005 the year to celebrate the myriad luscious, delectable large fruits we call melons. Humankind has been enjoying melons, members of the curcurbit or gourd family, for more than 4,000 years. Within this family, melons fall into two genera- Cucumis (melons) and Citrullus (watermelon). Melons are believed to have originated in the hot valleys of southwest Asia—specifically Iran (Persia) and India. Early American settlers grew cultivars of honeydew and casaba melons back in the 1600s.

There are numerous types of melons available in various regions around the world. The most popular melons in North America are the cantaloupe, muskmelon and honeydew types. As gardeners travel, they eat new fruits and vegetables and wish to grow the tasty fruits eaten overseas. These unusual types of melons are available primarily from seed. Look for these distinct types in mail-order catalogs or seed packets sold in retail stores.

ANANAS- are oval shaped with medium-fine netting over pale green to orange rind. Very sweet, aromatic white flesh. One variety has orange-pink flesh. Average weight is three to four pounds.

ATHENA CANTALOUPES are Eastern U.S. cantaloupes. They are early maturing, oval-shaped; yellow-orange summer melons with firm, thick, yellow-orange flesh. The skin is slightly sutured with coarse netting. Average weight is 5 to 6 pounds. Left on the vine or harvested, the flesh remains firm.

CANARY- have bright yellow rinds and an oblong shape. Inside, the pale, cream-colored flesh is juicy, and the flavor is very mild.

CASABA- The oval shape with a pointy end, coupled with wrinkled yellow skin sets casabas off from other melons. As does its heft— weighing in at four to seven pounds. The pale, almost white flesh is extremely sweet.

CHARENTAIS- are French melons identifiable by their smooth, gray, or gray-blue rinds with sutures and orange flesh. Small, cut in half they serve two for breakfast.

CHRISTMAS- have a football shape, weighing upwards of 5 to 8 pounds. Cut through the yellow to green mottled rinds to reveal the palest orange or light green flesh depending upon the variety. Sweet flesh.

CRENSHAW- are a Casaba cross with a slightly more oblong shape, weighing at least 5 pounds. The slightly wrinkled green rind ripens to yellow. Inside, the flesh is pale peachy orange. It has a strong, spicy aroma.

GALIA- are Israeli melons that have netted rinds similar to cantaloupes but paler in color. The sweet pale green to almost white flesh has the consistency of a honeydew with what has been described as a spicy-sweet or banana-like aroma. When ripe, they slip from the vine.

HONEYDEW- second only to "cantaloupes" in popularity, have smooth, white to greenish-white rinds (some may be yellow) and open to reveal refreshingly sweet flesh that may be green, white, or orange. Its texture is similar to a cantaloupe, but the flavor more subtle and sweet.

MUSKMELONS, called cantaloupes by Americans, are the familiar melon with orange flesh and netted skin.

ORIENTALS- are small (weighing a little more than a pound), elongated yellow melons with white sutures, and sweet, pale peach to white flesh. Because the seeds are so small and the rind is so thin, the entire melon can be eaten.

PERSIAN- bigger than cantaloupes, have a dark green rind with light brown netting. As it ripens, the rind turns to light green. Bright pink-orange flesh has a delicate flavor. Unlike most melons in the Reticulatus group, Persian melons do not slip from the vine when mature.

TRUE CANTALOUPE has rough-warty (not netted) skin. This is the European cantaloupe, rarely grown in America.

WINTER- is the catchall name for the long-season, long-keeping (a month or more at room temperature) melons, including crenshaw, casaba, canary, and Christmas melons.

Growing Melons Melons are a summertime delight- sweet and juicy fruits- whether freshly picked or cooled in the refrigerator. They’re versatile- more than a dessert or snack- as an ingredient in salads, salsas, side dishes, entrees, and drinks. Even the ripe seeds, dried and toasted, make a healthy snack.

In the vegetable garden, melons are vining, warm-season plants, that grow well on most well-drained Nebraska soils. Light sandy soils, which warm up early in spring, are more suitable for growing melons than heavier clay soils. However, the lack of sandy soil should not be a deterrent to home gardeners who want to grow melons.

Melons are easily damaged by cold and definitely require warm soil and air temperatures for good growth, flowering and fruit set, so planting should be postponed until at least the first week of May in eastern Nebraska, mid-May in central Nebraska and late-May in the Panhandle.

Amending soil with compost before planting is recommended to add some of the nutrients required for growth. A sidedress application of 10-20-0 fertilizer at a rate of ½-1 cup per 100 sq.ft., or ½-1 tablespoon per hill, when the vines begin to run is usually sufficient for good growth.

Melons are normally directed seeded into a firm, weed-free seedbed. Seed spacing in the garden depends on the vine size of the varieties to be planted. Muskmelon is usually spaced 2-3 feet apart within the row, with rows 5 feet apart. Sow the seed only ½-1 inch deep.

Melons produce separate male and female flowers. Flower sex can easily be determined by looking for a tiny swelling or ‘melon’ at the base of the female flowers. Male flowers attach directly to the flower stalk without a miniature fruit at the base of the flower. Male flowers begin to appear 7-10 days before female flowers, producing the pollen necessary for fruit set.

Honeybees are important pollinating insects for melons, so care should be taken not to kill them with insecticides after the plants begin to bloom. Making any necessary pesticide applications in the evening will avoid the peak activity hours for bees and since melon flowers are only open for one day the inside of the next day’s flowers are less likely to be contaminated with pesticides.

Melons require consistent moisture during the growing season for good fruit development, at least one inch of water per week. An organic mulch covering the soil will help retain soil moisture and decrease disease incidence. Avoid excessive applications of nitrogen during early plant development, which often results in excess foliage production and poor fruit set. When applied close to or during fruiting, high nitrogen applications can delay harvest and may result in poor fruit quality or flavor.

Trellising melons allows closer spacing between rows and makes harvesting easier. Trellises must be sturdy enough to support the weight of mature vines and fruits, and each melon must be supported individually by a sling. Any material that dries quickly enough to prevent rot, such as old nylon stockings, cheesecloth or nylon net, can be used. Melons are ready to harvest when the underside, where the melon touches the ground, develops a yellowish color. The fruit should also have a dull sound when thumped.

Source: The National Garden Bureau, Inc.