These tips and tricks make enjoying these summertime stars easy.
I planted two ‘Ambrosia’ cantaloupe plants in the garden last year and much to my surprise I was met with great success. I harvested over 30 melons from those two plants but, honestly, I got lucky. I have tried to grow melons in the past—honeydew, cantaloupe and watermelon—but I was never very good at it. Now I understand what I was doing wrong: I planted from seed and I planted too early in soil that was too cold. Last year I planted already-started plants, I planted late, after the soil was warm, and we had ample rainfall.
Creating conditions melons love
The basic cultural requirements for growing most melons are heat, full sun, and nutrient-rich, well-drained soil. Most commercial operations grow in sandy soils but if you have more clayey soil, amend your planting area with lots of composted manure to improve drainage and increase soil fertility. Since the mature fruit is about 90% water, it’s not surprising the developing melons like water, but you want the soil to be well-drained. About one inch of rainfall a week is adequate. It is also a good idea to add some sort of mulching material; we use newspaper or paper feed bags, which will decompose and can be turned back into the soil when the season ends.
In many melon-growing areas, the two main pests to contend with are cucumber beetles and powdery mildew. Keep an eye out for the little striped beetles and try to squish them in the cool of the morning before they become active. Chose powdery mildew–resistant varieties and plant in full sun with adequate spacing between plantings; about two feet should do it. If you do find yourself overwhelmed with pests and disease try using neem oil, a botanical pesticide; it works both as an insecticide and fungicide. Since melons take so long to mature, they are not an easy crop to do over if the first plantings fail, so do pay attention to pest pressures.
How to know when they’re ripe
After the cultural requirements are met, the next lesson is in patience, about 65 to 85 days to reach maturity for melons, a few take as long as 100 days. The ultimate question then becomes how do we know when the fruit is ripe? In the garden or at the farmers market, you will see a multitude of techniques people use to test for ripeness. Some squeeze, some push on the belly button of the melon, others sniff the end or check the underside of the melon for the perfect couche (the spot where it rested on the ground while growing). Well, it turns out not every technique works for every melon type.
There are many types (please see sidebar) but we will stick with the big three, for now. The melon that we refer to as a cantaloupe is actually a muskmelon, Cucumis melo. Then there is the honeydew, Cucumis melo, inodorous group; and the beloved watermelon, Citrullus vulgaris. To simplify it further, melons fall into one of two categories: smooth-skinned or rough-skinned.
Smooth-skinned melons have no scent, so determining ripeness by the sniff test won’t work. Instead, the best indication for smooth-skinned melons is checking the spot where the melon rested on the ground, what the French refer to as the couche. If the couche has turned from green or white to a creamy color, the melon is ripe and you can cut it from the vine—this is called “forced-slip.”
The ubiquitous honeydew is in this group, so make sure it has even color all over. Canary melons are too, with their bright yellow skin, round or oval with white flesh.
French Charentais have beautiful mottled skin in a variety of hues, slightly fluted and round, and very sweet orange flesh. This one is a little different and needs to harvested forced-slipped when the leaf at the stem of the melon turns yellow. It can also be grown out past maturity for use as a decorative gourd.
Crenshaws, an old American favorite and considered superior in taste to all other melons, are also smooth-skinned. Oval with greenish-yellow skin and light pink flesh. Wait for the skin to lighten up before harvest; do not pick when dark green, it is not ripe. Smooth-skinned but wait to harvest at full-slip.
Piel de Sapo, or Christmas melons, have mottled green skin that resembles a toad’s (hence the name, Spanish for “skin of toad”). Small and round, typically, with white flesh, with a sweet floral flavor not unlike honeydews. Use all techniques on this one because it depends on the variety; some are ready at full-slip, others need to be cut from the vine.
Watermelons, while smooth-skinned, have a few more indicators that make it easy to tell if they are ripe. The skin will harden and become noticeably waxy and the tendrils of the plant will shrivel and begin to turn brown. Plus, there is that thump test… I have never really gotten the hang of that but I am told that if the thump sounds hollow then the melon is ripe.
Melons with rough skin, like muskmelons (aka cantaloupes) have a scaly skin, also called netting, and a floral scent when ripe, thus the “musk” part of their name. Rough-skinned types are the easiest to check for ripeness. First, look for the melons that have pronounced netting and where the background has turned from green to tan. These indicate ripeness, so give the melon a slight tug and if it pulls easily from the stem, leaving no stem in the belly-button, it is ripe. This is called “full-slip.” So, if you are a rough-skinned melon, you are ripe when you slip free from the vine.