What comes to mind when you think of melons? You may picture the ripe red watermelon or perhaps slices of cantaloupe topped with ice cream. Maybe you envision the summer salad — a cocktail of melon pieces of all kinds. Do you imagine the dripping juice dribbling down your chin as you bite into any of those delightful sweet fruits?
Maybe your mental image includes the drift of the melon scent in the warm August breezes as it ripens and becomes ready to harvest. Those delightful images are the motivation for the National Garden Bureau to declare this is the year to celebrate the myriad luscious, delectable large fruits we call melons.
The word “melon” refers to large round fruit of various plants, with sweet pulpy flesh and many seeds (honeydew, cantaloupe and muskmelon). These vining, warm-season fruits are members of the Cucurbitaceae — the gourd family that includes cucumbers and squashes. They grow best in areas with long summers.
Fortunately, some short season varieties will mature in Tooele Valley’s short summers. In late summer, we can enjoy these sweet delicious fruits fresh and warm from the garden or after they are chilled in the refrigerator.
There is no shortage of melons to choose from, and as you circle the world, you will find numerous types. The most popular melons in our area are cantaloupe, muskmelon and honeydew. Most are available from seed.
Melons fall into two genera: Curcumas, which includes all melons except watermelon, which is Corollas. Leaving watermelon for a future article, this article will discuss the Cucumis group, which can be called muskmelons or melons.
The fruits we call cantaloupes with tasty orange flesh and netted skins are in the group known as muskmelons.
The true cantaloupe is named for the town of Cantalupo near Rome, Italy, and is seldom grown here. It has a rough-water skin rather than a netted skin.
Honeydew melons are nearly as popular as “cantaloupe.”
Their smooth, white to greenish- white rinds open to green, white or orange flesh. The flavor and texture is similar to cantaloupe, but is more subtle and sweet.
Casaba melons with their oval shape, pointy end and wrinkled yellow skin will grow to four to seven pounds. The pale flesh is nearly white and is extremely sweet.
Crenshaw melons (also seen as cranshaw) are the result of a cross that includes Casabas and have a slightly more oblong shape than Casabas and weigh at least five pounds. The green rind is slightly wrinkled and turns to yellow as it ripens.
The fruit inside is a pale peachy orange and it has a strong spicy aroma.
Melons grow best in warm temperatures in both the soil and the air. Although they prefer slightly acid soil, the will adapt to our alkaline soils.
They are thirsty plants and require ample nutrients to produce well.
Sow seeds directly in the garden at about the same time you plant tomatoes — when all danger of frost is past and the ground is warm and dry enough to till. Plant seeds in a hill with three to five seeds two inches apart and about an inch deep. Water well and watch them grow. When the vines have developed two sets of true leaves, thin out the smaller or weaker vines, leaving the two strongest to grow.
Since our winters are very cold and summers short, plant melons through plastic mulch. Black provides weed control, but clear plastic heats the soil and hastens maturity. Both types conserve moisture, keep some pests and diseases away, and make harvesting easier and cleaner. You will probably have to lift the clear plastic once in the early part of the growing season to remove weeds under it, but as the summer weather gets hotter, the weeds tend to burn off. As the plants get larger, they shade the ground so that weed seeds quit germinating.
Some gardeners prefer to get a head start on the season by sowing seeds indoors to create transplants. Sow indoors preferably in peat pots to avoid disturbing the roots when they are transplanted. Do not let them grow large enough to begin vining before transplanting.
Allow about five weeks between starting seed and transplanting.
Harden off the plants for at least a week before planting them. Tear the peat pot down to its soil level when planting the melons. Otherwise, the rim of peat at soil line can act as a wick drawing moisture up away from the roots.
Water well with a watersoluble fertilizer solution.
Protect the tender transplants from cold weather with wallo’ waters or cover with one-gallon plastic milk jugs. Push it 1/2 inch into the ground for stability.
When the temperature rises during the day, vent the greenhouse by removing the cap.
When purchasing plants, follow the same guidelines as above.
Although melons grow on vines, some dwarf varieties lend themselves to container culture. Fill a large container — a half whiskey barrel is about the right size — with rich potting soil and plant a dwarf melon variety that grows only 3- to 4-feet long, producing a 4- inch fruit, and water. Decrease space requirement by growing the melons up a trellis supporting the fruit with nets made of old pantyhose or onion bags.
Provide melon plants in a garden or containers with an inch to two inches of water each week — using the higher amount in hot weather. Drip irrigation is a good way to provide the water at soil level to the roots — which need it the worst. Watering is critical when the fruit starts setting and when the fruit is maturing.
Fertilize melons every two to three weeks with an all-purpose fertilizer and add compost to root areas monthly if you do not use plastic or another inorganic mulch.
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.
The first flowers are male flowers — bearing only pollen. The female flowers appear a bit later. Male flowers grow from a slender stem. Female flowers have a tiny bulb at the base of the flowers. If the flower is not pollinated, the flower and tiny fruit will eventually fall off the vine.
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 in hot weather. That is the main advantage to clear plastic mulches, which hasten maturity.
Cut back on watering the plant when you approach harvest, about three weeks prior to the main crop harvest.
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. Cantaloupes are mature when the rind changes from green to tan-yellow between the veins. Another indicator for ripeness of the cantaloupe is when the stem separates (slips) easily where the vine attaches to the fruit when it is tugged lightly.
Honeydew, crenshaw, and similar melons turn completely white or yellow when they are ripe, and the blossom end is slightly soft to touch. Since they do not slip, cut the melons from the vine. Unlike cantaloupes, these 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.