Make Room For Melons

There is nothing like a vine ripened melon picked right from your own garden. Bite into a slice of sweet juicy watermelon on a hot July day, smell the aroma of a vine ripe muskmelon, or savor a sweet honeydew or specialty melon you grew yourself and it's love at first bite.

Why Grow Your Own

While melons are readily available in the grocery store there are many reasons to grow your own. Home growing allows you to try many new varieties and old heirlooms not available in the supermarket. Organic gardeners can avoid using any pesticides or synthetic fertilizers on their melons.

Flavor is another reason to grow your own. While a muskmelon will continue to ripen after harvest, sugar content no longer increases after it is detached from the vine. Let's face it, for a melon to be put in a field truck, rolled down the belt of a packing house, boxed and trucked across the country it needs to be a little less ripe than one that need only be hand carried from the garden to the back porch! And last but certainly not least, it's just plain fun to grow your own at home. There's a sense of accomplishment in growing it yourself.

Trellising The Vines

Melon trellises can be made of many different materials as long as they are strong. I have seen everything from hog fencing to wooden lattice. My favorite system for trellising melons is to use livestock panels (16 feet by 4 feet) and steel posts driven into the ground. The panels can be set upright or leaned slightly toward the support posts.

Drive at least three steel posts per 16 foot panel into the ground about 8 inches away from the row of plants along the shadier side. Then set the panels so the base sits on the soil about 8 inches away from the plants along the sunnier side of the row and lean the tops over against the posts. Attach the panel to the posts with jute twine or wire. This creates a slightly leaning panel which provides good sun exposure and seems to help to keep the fruit toward the lower, shadier side of the trellis. Another option is to lean the panels against an existing fence such as a privacy fence.

Livestock panels are very strong, last forever, and are easier to handle and store than wire. A 16 foot section is difficult for one person to handle so you might want to cut it into two lengths with bolt cutters. You'll find many uses for these 4 feet by approximately 8 feet panel sections in the garden.

As the melons grow they'll need some encouragement to train them onto the trellis. Melons are poor climbers and can grow quite rapidly. Plan on going out every day or two and orienting the vines on the trellis to create a solid fill of vines and foliage. While they have tendrils to help them attach to the trellis you will probably want to tie them to it here and there as they grow. Pieces of hosiery cut across the leg into inch wide strips work great. They are easy to tie and give a little to allow the vine room to grow.

Planted at the spacing mentioned above melons will more than fill a trellis during their growing season. I find it best to train the main vine up the trellis and orient the side branches more horizontally. In good growing conditions you'll find the vines reach the top of the trellis fairly rapidly and can be allowed to grow back downward again.

Additional fertilizing will most likely not be needed in good soil conditions but be ready to apply a little extra if the vines appear to be lacking. Excessive nitrogen will result in delayed maturity and poor fruit quality.

Maintain good soil moisture but don't keep it excessively wet. Drip irrigation works best. As an alternative in heavier textured soils you can build 3 foot diameter berms of soil around the plants and between plants down the row. This makes it easy to provide a good soaking by filling the berms with water. The berms prevent water from running off of the bed surface before it has a chance to soak in.

Harvest Tips

While I have generalized about melons as a group up to this point, when it comes to harvest things get more specific. It is important to harvest your melons at the proper time: too early and they lack flavor and sweetness, too late and they become mealy and lose quality.

Muskmelons yield their harvest over a longer time period requiring repeated harvests over several weeks. Watermelons generally ripen their fruit almost all at once for a much shorter harvest period.

Muskmelons are the types with a netted fruit surface which we commonly but mistakenly refer to as cantaloupes. Muskmelons naturally break loose from the vine when they are ripe. The spot where the vine attaches to the fruit begins to crack around the perimeter of what will be the "belly button" on the fruit, which is called "slipping." Once they are at about 3/4 to full slip they are ready to harvest. Most gardeners prefer to leave them until they reach full slip for the sweetest fruit and top quality.

A ripe muskmelon will detach when slight pressure is applied to the vine. As a muskmelon ripens the color of the fruit behind the netting turns from green to a creamy tan hue and the fruit gives off a rich aromatic smell.

Harvest honeydew melons when the rind color turns creamy yellowish white. When pressed gently at the blossom end the melon will be a little soft and the fruit will have a faint, pleasant odor. Charentais melons turn from grey green to creamy white when they ripen. Charentais melons and most honeydews do not slip from the vine and should be cut leaving about an inch of vine attached. Most other melons including Casaba and Crenshaw types must also be cut from the vine.

There are numerous other melon types and in recent years many new hybrids between types have appeared on the market making it difficult to generalize about how to determine the optimum point to harvest them. With these less common types it is best to read the information from the seed supplier and gain personal experience with a particular type of melon to determine the best harvest time.

Watermelons are a bit more of a challenge when it comes to deciding when to harvest the fruit. They do not detach naturally from the vine when ripe nor do they have a distinct fragrance. When watermelons are grown on the ground the spot where the fruit sits on the ground will change from green to cream colored when ripe. Trellised fruit won't show that distinct ground spot but some change in rind color or sheen may be discernable.

The tendril across from the watermelon on the vine will dry up. The ripe fruit develops a more dull, muffled sound when thumped. However the sound of various watermelons will be quite different and so it takes some experience with a particular variety to become better at judging ripeness, much less discerning the distinctive thump! Cut the watermelon from the vine leaving about an inch of stem attached.