These tips help keep melons healthy and fruitful in the home garden:
1. Pollination ensures fruit set. Though cantaloupes, honeydews and other melons belong to the cucurbit family, which also includes squash and cucumbers, they will not cross-pollinate with one another. Cucurbits produce separate male and female flowers. If there are few bees available to do as nature intended, gently remove a male anther and brush it against the female stigma. Remember: humans can be pollinators, too.
2. Careful watering prevents disease. Melons are 94 percent water. Regular irrigation remains essential as vines, leaves and fruit emerge. Full, leafy plants produce the sweetest fruit, and healthy foliage is important. Overhead watering from hoses or sprinklers can cause fungal diseases and mildew, which in turn affects fruit quality. Before growing melons, snake soaker hoses throughout the bed. An inexpensive hose timer can help ensure one inch of water per week. On the hottest days, foliage may appear to wilt, but well-irrigated plants will recover when the sun goes down. Soil should never feel waterlogged. About one week before the first fruit ripens, reduce watering to just enough to prevent vines from wilting. This will prevent fruit cracking and sugar dilution.
3. Give melons a boost with fertilizer. Fertilize each plant with one tablespoon of nitrogen fertilizer (33–0–0) after blossoms appear, and again three weeks later. If you’re not using plastic mulch, layer three inches of organic mulch mid-season.
4. Trellising improves air flow and deters pests. Growing melons requires room. The vines quickly overtake garden space. To prevent overcrowding and improve air circulation, try a vertical support. Melons planted at the base of a trellis need only 12 to 24 inches between plants. A 16-by-4-foot livestock panel, supported by several steel posts, will bear most small to mid-sized melons. Tie vines to the support on a regular basis. When trellised fruits reach three inches in diameter, cradle them in slings made from stockings or netting. Fruit growing along the ground are more subject to rot and pests than hanging fruit. Elevate ground-sprawling melons on an overturned flowerpot, coffee canister, or straw mulch.
When growing melons, look out for cucumber beetles, aphids, squash bugs and squash vine borers. Nip these pests in the bud by handpicking them, or remove the damaged plants.
5. When is a melon ripe? Once fruit emerges, it ripens within 3 to 5 weeks. Knowing what the particular variety should look, feel and smell like will help you determine when to harvest.
True to their name, muskmelons’ scent gives the first clue to their ripeness. When the rind turns buff and mottled, look for a crack at the base of the stem. The ripe fruit will slip from the vine when gently turned.
Smooth-skinned melons, including honeydew, canary, crenshaw and casaba, should be cut from the vine when ripe. Their skin may feel hairy prior to taking on a smooth, waxy texture. The blossom end feels soft when gently pressed, giving off a floral, fruity scent.
Watermelons are ripe when tendrils closest to the fruit wilt and the rind transitions from shiny to slightly dull. Look for a large, cream-colored oval on the underside and the telltale alternating green stripes.