Melons are warm-season fruits, which thrive in temperatures of 70° to 80° F. They prefer slightly acid soil with a pH between 6.0 and 6.5. Melons are thirsty and hungry plants, so be prepared to provide ample soil moisture and plant nutrients for them.
Like other cucurbits, melons can easily crossbreed, so allow plenty of space between different types or cultivars. To be completely safe from any accidental cross-pollination, keep them away from other family members including cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins.
In mild-winter areas, sow seeds directly in the garden at the same time as you plant tomatoes—after all danger of frost is past and the ground is warm and has dried from its winter wetness. Make a small hill of rich, amended, well-drained soil and plant three to five seeds two inches apart and about one inch deep. Water well and watch them grow. Once the vines have two sets of true leaves, thin out the smaller or weaker vines, leaving the two strongest to grow on.
Some gardeners, especially those in cold-winter climates plant melons through black plastic mulch. The dark plastic absorbs heat, warms the soil early, conserves moisture, controls weeds, keeps some pests and diseases away, and makes harvesting a whole lot easier and cleaner.
Lay the plastic over the future melon garden in late winter to start warming the soil. Weigh down the edges or else the plastic will take flight. Check the temperature, and when the soil is above 60° F, you can start planting. Make five-inch, x-line cuts at least four feet apart on six-foot centers—if you grow in rows. If you commingle edibles and ornamentals, allow at least three feet in all directions around the cut-plastic x. Pull the plastic back and create a hill of soil (amended with lots of organic matter). Plant seeds, as above, or transplant melons that you started indoors.
Melons need a minimum of 1-inch of water a week—2 inches is better. Water melons in the morning, ideally at soil level using drip irrigation, so the leaves can dry before evening, preventing fungal diseases. In case of drought or water restrictions, watering is critical when the fruit starts setting and when the fruit is maturing.
Fertilize every two to three weeks, using an all-purpose fertilizer, such as 5-5-5. Add several inches of compost to all root areas monthly.
Some gardeners use an organic or inorganic mulch. The soil should be lightly moist—up to a foot deep. Transplant, then mulch around the plants.
If your plants are flowering but not setting fruit, don’t fret. The earliest flowers are male (pollen-bearing), so cannot set fruit. Only the female (pistillate) flowers can develop into melons. Female flowers are distinguished by the tiny bulb at the base of the flower. If the flower isn’t pollinated, the flower and fruit will eventually fall off the vine.
The best and sweetest melons ripen when the weather is hot and dry. In areas with humid summers, you can give melons a boost by planting them in soil that is very well drained and with ample space for good air circulation around the entire vine.
Occasionally a homegrown melon may not taste as sweet as expected. This may be due to an abundance of rain the three weeks prior to harvest. Melons need sufficient moisture while growing and fruiting, but prior to harvest, the best, sweetest flavor will occur if the plant is grown on the "dry" side. Cut back on watering the plant when you approach harvest, about 3 weeks prior to the main crop harvest.
Melons need heat to ripen properly. Yet on very hot days melons can overripen on the vine, giving them a waterlogged appearance. Most summer melons are fragrant when ripe. Sniff the skin; if you smell the flavor of the melon (the senses of smell and taste are interrelated), it is ripe for the picking. Another indicator for ripeness is when the stem separates (slips) easily where the vine attaches to the fruit. Cantaloupes are mature when the rind changes from green to tan-yellow between the veins.
Honeydew and other winter melons are ready to harvest when they turn completely white or yellow, and the blossom end is slightly soft to touch. Since they do not slip, cut the melons from the vine. They will continue to ripen for several days at room temperature once they are picked.
Poor flavor may be the consequence of the weather: cloudy during ripening, too hot, too much or too little water, or a combination of factors.
The sweetest and most flavorful melons are those picked ripe from the vine and eaten right away. They may not be icy cold, but the fresh flavor and perfume more than make up for the temperature difference. Go ahead, open a melon and eat it right in the garden—without utensils—and let the sweet nectar run down your chin. That’s the true taste of summer! Rinse melons purchased from grocery stores.
POSSIBLE PESTS & DISEASES
Like most other plants—ornamental and edible—melons are susceptible to a number of pests and diseases, some of which may be more prevalent in one area of the country than another.
In the garden, survival of the fittest prevails. If you put a healthy, vigorous melon transplant (or seed of a good variety of melon for your region), into rich, well-drained, soil that has been amended with plenty of organic matter, in full sun, with good air circulation, top dress it or fertilize, and provide it with ample water and enough room for the vine to run, the result will be a strong, healthy, well-grown vine, bearing lots of fruit. Take away any of its necessities, and the resulting plant will be weaker and/or stressed. A healthy plant is not going to attract pests and diseases; a weak one will.
YOU are the other key to success. Walk around the garden several times a week, paying attention to the vines, leaves, flowers, and fruit. Be on the lookout for any sign of pests or diseases. If you find something suspicious, identify the cause, and if necessary, fix the problem in the least toxic manner possible. The degree to which the plant is distressed—if at all—must be taken into consideration. Remember that what you think is a problem may be only cosmetic.
Prevention is the key to disease management. Use seeds from a reputable source. Give transplants a once-over before moving them into the garden. Be fastidious in fall cleanup; get rid of all parts of the plant, leaving bare soil that you can mulch, or plant for winter. At the first sign of disease, remove the infected part; remove and discard the mulch around the plant and replace it with fresh, clean mulch. Don’t plant any cucurbits in the same place within the last three years (crop rotation). With melons, an ounce of prevention may be worth hundreds of pounds of cure in healthy, delicious fruit.
Some of the most common adversaries you may face:
• Fungus diseases, including Alternaria leaf spot, powdery mildew, anthracnose, and downy mildew.
• Insects like cucumber beetles and aphids