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Melons are one of those few crops that cannot be held in a freezer, but we are willing, and even pleased, to accept them as a transient seasonal delight. Corn we want every week, but melons somehow seem especially to be the very spirit of summer (if we actually had the ability to hold melons at peak quality for months at a time we might change our minds, but as it is we'll accept them as a gift of summer). But while they are available, we'll gobble them every chance we get.
There are at least 19 kinds of "melon"; our favorites--and, it seems most Americans'--are what Americans call "cantaloupes" and everyone else calls "muskmelons": the orange-fleshed melons. Outside America, "cantaloupe" refers to the Charentais-type melon, which--though it looks much like a muskmelon--is in fact a distinct type (Cucumis melo L., var. cantalupensis Naud). Some think Charentais melons are clearly the best in the world, others that they're good, but no better than many another sort. We think it's fun to test again every summer.
(Regrettably, many seedsmen, even good ones, do not distinguish Charentais cultivars, and act as if the kind were another variety of muskmelon.)
In our climate--summers short with warm days and cool nights--melons are something of a challenge, though not, thank heavens, a serious one. While one wants the best possible flavor in a melon, the very first requisite is to have a melon at all. Our search thus focussed on melons widely held to be suited for "northern gardens", which means early and very early types. But even with that restriction, plus keeping solely, as always, to open-pollinated types (as with so many vegetables these days, hybrids dominate the lists these days), there are not a few apparently excellent candidates.
(A truly excellent resource for those really interested in melons is Amy Goldman's book Melons for the Passionate Grower, which is to melons as Carolyn Male's book is to tomatoes--and Carolyn and Amy know one another.)
After reviewing the extensive melon literature, plus reviewing our (limited) prior experiences, we have settled on these five types for continuing trialling:
Noir des Carmes, orange flesh (green when immature), heirloom true cantaloupe type very highly rated by "melonists".
Minnesota Midget, orange flesh, old reliable type (1948), very early, not quite as small as the name implies; we've grown it before, and it's wonderfully delicious.
Jenny Lind, small, pale-green flesh; a reliable heirloom type.
Early Hanover, a good-sized muskmelon type, pale-green flesh, also heirloom.
Fordhook Gem, a green-fleshed "nutmeg" type that has no "musk" and is quite sweet--a gorgeous gem of a melon that is simply no longer available--what a condemnation of seedsmen.
All of those are described as "early" melons, and we seem able to manage to get some of each. The wonderful Fordhook Gem type mentioned above, while no longer carried by any commercial seedsmen (that we could find) is still available from private growers through Seed Savers' Exchange; you need to belong and thus get their annual directory, but it's a worthy cause anyway and that directory is a trteasure trove of useful information even if you never order a thing out of it.
There are certainly many other possibilities, but those seem the most likely best-eating types possible in our climate.
We need to bring all of our heat-preserving weapons to bear on melons if we are to grow them well, or at all, in this climate--but it can be done. That arsenal needs to include (besides careful cultivar selection) plastic mulches, drip irrigation, row covers, wind protection (notably important for young melon plants), starting seedlings indoors, and careful transplanting out.
When planning and planting, remember that your melons will come ready in a pretty narrow time window, and cannot easily be preserved; even if you like melon every day, be wary of overplanting.
Melons can take, depending on whom you believe, anything from 60 to 85 days from transplanting to mature, and they don't like cool weather: they are said to grow best at temperatures between 75° and 85°. Around here, the average daily high temperature dips to 75° right around mid-September, so ideally we'd like our melons to be fairly well done by then. For a 75-day melon type, which most "earlies" are said to be, that would mean transplanting out by no later than August 1st. Sigh of relief: we start seeing average daily highs of 75° and over as early as mid-June.
Our peak temperatures are around August 1st, so we can use that as the target for the mid-point of melon growth; allowing a very conservative 90 days for growth, that means setting out transplants around June 15th. That way, by September 1st we have already had 77 days--which sould be about enough--and by early to mid-September, when temperatures fall below optimum, they should surely be done.
Sources do not agree exactly on how long melon plants should be incubated indoors in pots before transplant, but the lowest figure usually seen is a full month, with some going up to as much as 2 months. On the one hand, the longer we grow them indoors, the bigger the jump we get on the season; on the other hand, melons are finicky about transplanting, and very much do not like having their roots disturbed. Still, if we use good-size peat pots--which do not require us to undo the root system to transplant--then 6 or so weeks looks like the right amount of time. Working back from that June 15th transplant date, then, means starting our seedlings around May 1st.
A couple of sources recommended using peat pellets (of the "Jiffy 7" sort) for starting melon seeds. It is certain that melons very much resent having their roots exposed or bunged about when the seedlings are transplanted, so the peat pellets seem a good idea. It is also a good idea to slightly overplant--use three seeds per pellet--then thin, culling to two plants a pellet once the seedlings are big enough to let you know who's who.
Try to keep the seeds at a high temperature, say 80° to 90° till they germinate (heat pads help here), and in the dark. When the seedlings emerge, lower the temperature to, and then maintain it at, about 75°; now supply light--16 hours under grow-lights of some sort is a good idea. Be sure to not let the soil (or peat) dry out--keep it constantly moist. Applying diluted fish emulsion twice a week also helps.
About a week before transplanting, start hardening off the seedlings: reduce both their water and their temperature (somewhat--not drastically!).
Your melon bed should have full sun all day long. Melons prefer light, well-drained, sandy loam--they hate "wet feet" or compacted soil. Prepare your melon bed by digging well and deep, incorporating generous amounts of organic material as you go, for melons need rich soil. The pH wants to be a bit lower than the usual 6.8--somewhere between 6.0 and 6.7, but even a little lower will not hurt them (watermelons can tolerate as low as 5.0).
Another thing your melon bed needs is at least some protection from wind, for young melon plants are easily harmed by brisk winds. You might grow a row of some fast-growing stalky plant--grain, for instance--somewhat to the windward of your melon bed, timing the planting to produce good growth by melon-transplant time; or you can consider some sort of mechanical windbreak.
Don't place a windbreak too close. Maximum benefit occurs at about 5 times the average height of the break; above 10 times, or below 2 times that height, there is little or no protection. Also, a windbreak that allows some air to pass through, like a picket fence (or a stand of grain) works better than a solid barrier of any sort. For a grain barrier, winter wheat varieties, rye, or oats make a good break--or spring barley for February plantings; sow thickly, 2-3 seeds per inch.
About two weeks before you expect to actually set the transplants out, lay down your drip lines, then cover the bed with plastic mulch (or vice-versa, as you prefer). You can use black plastic, the new IRT (Infra-Red Transmitting), or colored plastic--black is usual, but there's a lot of research going on with newer types. "Seal" the edges of the plastic by tucking them into the soil (or in any other clever way that occurs to you).
It's time to transplant, no matter what the calendar says, when your seedlings have two or three true leaves (some say as soon as the second leaf shows). Plant your seedlings out through the usual X-shaped cuts in the mulch. Try to make the cuts as small as possible, and only make them just as you're transplanting--that way, the mulch will better warm the soil both before and after transplanting. Be sure not to bare or joggle the plants' root systems when transplanting. They do not like such treatment, and will punish you for it. If you've used peat pellets for your seedlings, just plant the whole pellet. In a deep-dug bed, space plants at about 15 inches.
Water your transplants thoroughly to give them a good start in their new home. Immediately after, cover the beds with some sort of row-cover material (spun polyester has been recommended), for both warmth and insect protection.
Keep a close eye on your young melon plants if the weather is warm: if they are showing signs of overheating (such as wilting), peel back the row cover. You can probably remove it for good, even if the plants haven't set fruit yet, when daily highs settle down to at least the high 70s.
But if your row cover is still on when the plants first begin to flower--which you should notice if you are watching them as closely as you should--remove it at once so that pollination can take place. Some sources say that it's a good idea at this time to sprinkle some diatomaceous earth on the plant leaves, to protect the plants from cucumber beetles. (Some also say to spray the leaves with wetable sulphur during late summer, when the nights begin to cool down, to prevent powderly mildew, but many melon plants are awfully sensitive to sulpher; we wouldn't.)
Melons are not wind-pollinated: they need bees. If you aren't sure if you have bees, consider hand-pollinating with a fine brush. (Look elsewhere for advice on that topic.)
Watering melons is a distinctly two-stage process. At the outset, in early summer, while they're into their vegetative-growth phase, they need regular watering--though not to excess-- which is why a drip system is so important. (Check the soil: with plastic mulch, the soil should retain moisture well, so don't waterlog them.) Now: once the first fruit ripens on a plant, cut off its water, completely. Only if the plant looks positively wretched and shrivelling (a condition it shouldn't get to with that mulch) should you supply any modest further water. Fail in this and the resulting melons will be bland and not sweet at all.
If you mulch with plastic, fine; but if not, look closely at the melon photograph atop this page and you will see a small plastic triangle under the melon--melons should be kept out of direct contact with soil, lest they molder or otherwise get moisture-damaged.
Knowing when to pick melons is crucial. Almost half of a melon's final concentration of sugar occurs in the last week of maturation. During those crucial few days, the fruit passes from immature green to fully ripe. Some kinds are said to deteriorate seriously in eating quality as little as one day past their peak. On the other hand, to achieve the best flavor, sweetness, and size, melons need to stay on the vine till just that magic moment. (Curiously, many melons improve in flavor for about a day or so after being picked.)
Judging ripeness is not a simple eyeball task. As you get toward the expected ripeness time, check daily and harvest as necessary. Here, from one good source, are a few "techniques serious melon growers use to determine peak ripeness":
Check on the particular cultivars you may choose to grow to see if they are the sort that separate easily at the ripe stage.
Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful.
Although all melons are classified as Cucumis melo, several further botanical subdivisions are recognized. Some of these are:
Melons are of the family Cucurbitaceae, which includes their close cousins, cucumbers (in fact, some vegetables grown as "cucumbers" are really melons), as well as squashes of all sorts (including pumpkins), and of course watermelons.
We try not to reinvent the wheel: there is already a lengthy and detailed history of melons available on line (though it focusses on muskmelons, the American "cantelope").
Although we say "melon can't be frozen", of course it can--but only as chunks, in a heavy syrup, like any frozen sweet fruit; and that, we think, rather misses the point of melons.
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