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In the Garden: Melons worth the extra effort

Melons such as this Tuscan Napoli cantaloupe are easy to grow if you get them off to a good start. (Susan Mulvihill / The Spokesman-Review)
Melons such as this Tuscan Napoli cantaloupe are easy to grow if you get them off to a good start. (Susan Mulvihill / The Spokesman-Review)

Few gardeners in this region grow melons. They’ve likely been told our season is too short and rarely see anyone else growing them, so they don’t feel compelled to try. But it is possible.

I’ve been growing cantaloupes for years and have learned what it takes to pull it off. I’m willing to give them a little extra attention because the taste of a sweet, succulent, vine-ripened melon makes it all worthwhile.

The most important step is to choose a short-season cultivar. By that I mean one that will reach maturity in less than 80 days, but preferably much sooner than that.

Examples include Alaska hybrid (65 days), Minnesota Midget (60 to 70), Napoli (75), El Gordo (75) and Arava (70). Last year, I grew Napoli, which is a Tuscan cantaloupe, and Arava, a honeydew melon; the taste of each was out of this world, so they’re on my planting list again this year.

Melons are a warm-season crop. To be on the safe side, plant them after all danger of frost is past. I start my seeds indoors two weeks before transplanting them into the garden to give them a head start.

When planting the seeds, I get better germination rates by correctly orienting them. This means planting them with the pointed end down, so the sprouting seed won’t have to spend its energy trying to reorient itself. Often, the seedling doesn’t have the strength to survive this process. Correct orientation at planting resolves this problem.

Out in the garden, I add a little bone meal to the soil in the melon bed. It’s high in phosphorus, which helps plants bloom and set fruit. I then cover the soil with a sheet of red plastic mulch, which raises the soil temperature.

I transplant the seedlings into the bed between May 15 and 21, as long as there aren’t freezing temperatures in the forecast. To plant them, I cut an “x” into the plastic mulch, dig a small hole, insert the seedling and press the soil around the root system to eliminate any air pockets. The plants should be spaced 12” to 18” apart.

The next step is particularly important:

For the first two to three weeks, I keep the plants covered with floating row cover, a lightweight fabric that lets light and moisture get through and, more importantly, provides a few degrees of frost protection. Since melon plants are such heat-lovers, they really benefit from this early pampering. After that period, I remove the cover to give bees access to the flowers for pollination.

Melon plants rarely have insect or disease problems, so they’re quite easy to care for.

Once I see that small melons are developing on the vines – usually one or two per plant – I start trimming back the vines so they’ll devote their energy to growing and ripening the melons. There’s no point in allowing the vines to continue flowering because there won’t be time for those melons to ripen.

My plants grow in a 3- by-8-foot raised bed, and I usually end up with about 12 to 15 melons.

As the melons ripen, the rind lightens in color and a delightfully sweet fragrance is noticeable. Ripe melons will start pulling away from the vine.

I do hope you’ll try your hand at growing melons. The sweet reward is definitely worth it.

Susan Mulvihill is co-author, with Pat Munts, of Northwest Gardener’s Handbook. Contact her at Susan@susansinthegarden.com and follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/susansinthegarden.


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