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Sunday, October 20, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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In the Garden: Melons need TLC to grow in the Inland Northwest

Many Inland Northwest gardeners might be surprised to learn that it’s possible to grow delicious melons here. (Susan Mulvihill/For The Spokesman-Review)
Many Inland Northwest gardeners might be surprised to learn that it’s possible to grow delicious melons here. (Susan Mulvihill/For The Spokesman-Review)

If you’ve ever tasted a homegrown, vine-ripened melon, you know what a life-altering experience it can be.

While many Inland Northwest gardeners think our season is too short for growing melons, let me reassure you that it’s very doable if you give the plants a little extra TLC.

My first foray into growing melons began many years ago when I spotted Alaska hybrid cantaloupes in a catalog. After learning they produce mature fruits in just 65 days, I purchased some seeds, planted them and was rewarded with delicious melons that summer.

In recent years, I’ve since switched to three other melon cultivars that have grown really well here: Tuscan Napoli cantaloupe, Arava honeydew and Ha Ogen honeydew. They are even more flavorful than Alaska hybrid.

As members of the Cucurbit plant family – which also includes cucumbers, squash and pumpkins – melons are a warm-season crop that prefers warm soil. In this region, an easy way to achieve this is by covering the soil surface with a sheet of plastic mulch. I’ve had particularly good luck with green solar mulch.

The primary purpose of plastic mulches is to increase the temperature of the soil. An added benefit is that they virtually eliminate the need for weeding.

To begin warming the soil, I place a sheet of mulch over the melon soil around the first of May. Since our drip irrigation system lays on the top of our raised beds, the plastic mulch goes over it and I pin down the sheet so it won’t blow away.

Also on the first of May, I start the melon seeds indoors. As soon as the seedlings have some true (mature) leaves, I begin the hardening-off process to acclimate them to the intensity of the sunlight and springtime temperatures. This involves putting them outside in an area that gets filtered sunlight for an hour, then bringing them back inside. On the second day, they’re outside for two hours, then back indoors. For a week, I increase the time each day by an hour as well as the amount of direct sunlight they are exposed to.

Once the danger of frost has passed, which is typically in mid-May, it’s time to plant the seedlings in the garden. To do this, I cut an “x” into the plastic mulch, dig a small hole and plant one, being careful to press the soil around the roots to eliminate air pockets. I space the seedlings 12 to 18 inches apart.

At planting time, I cover the bed with a sheet of floating row cover. This lightweight fabric allows sunlight and moisture to pass through it and increases the air temperature by a few degrees. After about two weeks, I remove the cover to allow pollinators access to the plants’ flowers once they start blooming.

Whenever I see that a small melon is developing on a vine, I trim the vine a few inches past where the fruit is attached. This causes the plant to focus its energy on the melon’s growth.

As harvest time approaches, there are three indicators of ripeness to look for: the melon will begin separating from its attachment to the vine, the melon skin changes to a lighter color, and yellow jackets start buzzing around as they can smell the melon’s sweet fragrance and want in on the action. When I see these signs, I know it is time to harvest and enjoy.

Learn more about growing melons in this week’s “Everyone Can Grow a Garden” video on youtube.com/c/susansinthegarden.

Susan Mulvihill is co-author, with Pat Munts, of “Northwest Gardener’s Handbook.” Contact her at Susan@susansinthegarden.com.

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