Here's a question we've heard before: "What kind of watermelon should I get if I don't like that mealy texture?" We've also heard, "My grandma grew Crenshaws when I was a kid, but mine never had the same flavor." Melons really can be as good as they were in our childhood memories, and they're almost always way more delicious than the ones you get at the supermarket, especially if you go for an heirloom variety. You just need to give a little extra love and attention when growing melons from seed.
That doesn't mean they're a hassle! Sure, you'll have to set aside a substantial part of your garden to make room for their sprawling vines, or set up a trellis to make use of vertical space. But the end of the day (er, summer) every square inch and extra few minutes you dedicate to your cucurbits will pay off in bragging rights when you cart your watermelons, cantaloupes, and lesser-known heirloom melons to neighborhood barbecues and camping trips.
These are our recommended tips for growing the sweetest, juiciest melons, with links to excellent references if you want to fine-tune your mad melon-growing skills.
Choose the right melon variety for your climate
More than anything else, melons require a long growing season with plenty of heat during the ripening stage. Having said that, in 2018 a North Carolina man grew a cantaloupe that broke a Guinness World Record set in 2004 by—drumroll please—an Alaskan gardener, whose melon topped out at 64.8 pounds. The Alaskan fella had to grow that monster in a greenhouse, of course, and since the bees were still huddled in their hives, he had to hand-pollinate the blossoms.
But remember, size isn't everything. Neither is quantity, but we'll get to that later.
Every melon requires a certain number of days to mature, and your growing season is determined by the days between your last spring and first fall frost, and average temperatures throughout the spring and summer. Your chosen melon variety should fit well within this timeframe. You can start them indoors to extend your season, but at the tail end, you'll need lots of sunshine and dry heat. Be sure, when you're researching melon species, that the advertised maturity date is from planting to harvest, not from flower emergence to ripening.
Map out your melon patch
Do you have lots of room? Some cucurbit species grow vines up to 20 feet long. Most average "only" about 10 to 15 feet (3.66 meters), but they all need plenty of room and air circulation. You can train some smaller varieties to grow on vertical trellises or arches made from rigid galvanized cattle panels to maximize small gardens while providing some shade to leafy greens or other heat-sensitive species.
We recommend that you install drip emitters to provide your melon plants with consistent, controlled irrigation during the growth phase. Be sure to choose a spot within reach of an outdoor spigot, or at least where you can access them for regular hand-watering. And of course, they require full sun. Period.
The purpose of building hills or rows is to provide a greater surface area around the root system for optimal heat absorption. This also helps keep the vines from smothering and shading the root crowns. The moats around or furrows between the plants allow water to saturate the deeper roots, but we actually prefer placing the drip emitters a few inches away from the base stem. This is particularly helpful if we're growing our vines on trellises.
Optimize your soil
Poor nutrition is one of the top flavor killers. They need rich soil and the right balance of minerals.
If you truly intend to become a melon nerd, we suggest you lay down the groundwork (yeah, we meant to do that) in early fall. Work plenty of aged manure and compost into the top 12 to 18 inches of soil. The most massive melons have taproots that grow up to two feet deep, and lateral roots can spread nearly as far as the vines themselves. You don't have to bring in yards of material; just ensure your plants have plenty of nutrients within a four-foot area around watermelons and two to three feet diameter around cantaloupe-sized melons.
At this point, you may wish to use plastic, paper, or bark mulch to protect the soil from winter weather compaction and erosion, especially if you get a jump on building hills or mounds...but we recommend holding off on the "terraforming" until the biological matter has had a chance to break down.
Sweetness is graded on the Brix scale, which measures the percentage of solids (everything that's not water) in juice extracted from fruit. Those solids include not just sugars, but amino acids, proteins, minerals and vitamins—in other words, fruit that is sweeter also has more complex flavors and a better nutrient profile. (Modern Farmer)
If you didn't add compost and manure before winter sets in, do it as early in spring as you can but be extra careful that it's aged. Too much nitrogen can trigger weed growth, and while you want your melons to grow plenty of foliage, they need the right balance of phosphorus to produce healthy blossoms. Phosphorus also ensures healthy root development and can be used up early in the growth period.
It's important to do a soil test to ensure you provide your melon patch with the ideal nutrients and chemistry. Aim for a pH between 6.0 and 6.5. The University of Minnesota's agricultural extension warns that soils with higher acidity (lower than 6.0 pH) cause the leaves to be yellow, and can prevent fruit from setting.
Nutrient management throughout the growth, flowering, fruiting, and ripening stages is essential to growing the most flavorful melons. Yara International, a company that assists relief agencies in providing food security to underdeveloped countries, has a fantastic, comprehensive, and easy-to-read-while-drinking-box-wine page explaining the role certain minerals play in melon production, with an emphasis in the fruit's nutrition value as a food source. Pay particular attention to what they have to say about phosphorus, boron, zinc, and magnesium.
If nothing else, you'll want to feed your melon plants with a balanced fertilizer every couple of weeks throughout the growing season to prop up those nitrogen and phosphorous levels.
Give them a head start
Plant your melon seeds in 4" pots six to eight weeks before your last frost, following planting instructions for each species. Wait until the soil has warmed up to at least 70°F before you transplant them in your garden; cool temperatures will stunt root and foliage growth. You can start your plants indoors even earlier if you keep them under fluorescent lights for eight to ten hours each day, though you may need to move them to 8" pots to prevent them from becoming root-bound.
You can direct-sow your seeds immediately after your last frost if you have a long growing season, though they won't really get started until the soil warms up.
Dark mulch—either bark or plastic—will absorb heat in early spring, keeping the roots warm while holding weeds at bay.
Triage melons as they grow
Remember when we mentioned "quality over quantity?" Some melon species are incredibly prolific, growing one fruit for about every foot of vine. But it takes a lot of energy and nutrients to maintain maximum production, and if a plant's spread too thin, flavor and texture suffer.
We like to coddle the first fruits that set, selecting a few melons that are roughly the same size and stage in development, and discarding the rest. We shoot for one small-variety melon for every two to three feet of leafy vine, and one watermelon per four to eight feet. That's on the conservative side, and note, the melons don't have to be evenly spaced along the vine.
If you want to stagger your harvest, choose the first melons to emerge on one plant, younger melons on the second, and so on. Take notes on how each crop tastes, and record the maturity rate and weather during the ripening time if you want to go next-level gardening geek
Let them get thirsty
Wait. What? Didn't we tell you to consistently water your melons? We did, and we meant it. But 10 to 14 days of drought right before the harvest will concentrate the melon's sugar content. We recommend a gradual reduction in irrigation once the fruits appear. You'll know if you need to add more water if the leaves are wilted in the morning, but it's normal for them to lose a bit of oomph on hot afternoons. It's important never to let plants in the flowering stage go without water.
The water withdrawal technique works best if you raise melons in the same phase of development, for obvious reasons.
Watch for cooties
Fend off powdery mildew—that icky white stuff on the leaves—by watering your melon plants at ground-level. Overhead watering causes dormant spores to splash from the soil onto the foliage, and high humidity fosters fungal growth. Give your plants plenty of room for air to circulate, trim back your vines if necessary, and destroy any infected leaves by burning them or throwing them away. Do not add them to your compost pile!
Clemson University has an excellent guide to melon insect pests and the diseases they spread, and we like Texas A&M's guide to cucurbit foliar diseases. Healthy melon plants from good genetic lines will tolerate moderate pest infestations and fungal issues, but you'll want to keep an eye out for problems and deal with them before they become disasters. There are many DIY and commercial organic treatments for powdery mildew and insect pests, and we recommend having one ready before your plants get going.
You can keep your melons looking pretty by putting straw underneath them as they grow. This is important if you get mid-summer rains, or if you live in a particularly humid area. Moisture's an issue, but most folks don't realize that mineral imbalances are often the main reason fruits rot on the vine.
Rodents, skunks, and raccoons might raid your melon patch. Spearmint helps repel furry critters, as well as some insect pests. Scatter dried spearmint around your melons, or set some potted spearmint nearby.
Know when to pick 'em and how to store 'em
Watermelon, honeydew, cantaloupe, and muskmelon have different ways of signaling ripeness. Here are a few tips that apply to most, if not all, melon varieties:
- The stem should release with a gentle twist; do not wait for it to fall off the vine on its own.
- The threadlike tendrils near the fruit should be crisp, dry, and brown.
- Cantaloupe "netting" should be rough and pale, and the underlying skin should be yellow or gold—not green.
Once you pick your melons, you can store them in the refrigerator or cold cellar for up to two weeks. Again, this depends on the variety. You'll get the very best flavor if you eat them the same day you bring them in from the patch. Don't count on melons to continue ripening after harvest!
Choose fresh melon seeds from disease-resistant stock
Even if you follow all these tips, you won't get delicious, juicy melons if you try to grow them from stale, substandard seeds. We choose our varieties based on hardiness, texture, and flavor, and none of our watermelon or specialty melon species are genetically-modified (GMO).Have you ever tasted a tiny Tigger melon? What about the early-maturing Saskatchewan? If anyone tells you that you can't grow melons in your area, take it as a challenge. They can eat crow, while you munch on some of the best heirloom varieties available today. Contact us at Seed Needs if you want our recommendations for growing melons from seed in your region!