Annuals, Edible fruit, Vegetables
Thought to have originated in Africa. The principal types cultivated in the West are muskmelons (“cantaloupes”) and late melons. True cantaloupes are a type of hard-shelled melon rarely grown in North America. (Also see Watermelon.)
Muskmelons are ribbed, with netted skin and typically salmon-colored flesh; they are more widely adapted than late melons. Varieties include ‘Ambrosia’, ‘Burpee Hybrid’, ‘Earligold’, and ‘Sweet ’n Early’. Hybrids are superior to others in disease resistance and uniformity of size and quality. (Growing melons resistant to mildew and other diseases is particularly important in humid, coastal regions.) Seed packets and catalogs will usually tell you if the variety you buy is a hybrid. Other muskmelons include small, tasty, highly perfumed types from the Mediterranean, such as white-fleshed ‘Ha-Ogen’ and orange-fleshed ‘Charmel’ and ‘Charentais’.
Late melons are a varied group including honeydew, casaba, ‘Crenshaw’, ‘Honey Pearl’, ‘Persian’, and ‘Sweet Delight’. Because they need a longer growing season than muskmelons, they are less widely cultivated. They dislike high humidity and grow best in areas with hot, relatively dry summers (Zones 8, 9, 12–14, 18, 19).
To ripen to full sweetness, melons need steady heat for 2 1/2 to 4 months. Sow seeds in light, well-drained soil 2 weeks after average last-frost date; don’t rush it, since melons are truly tropical plants and will perish in even a light frost. In regions where summers are cool or relatively short, start plants indoors in pots a few weeks before last-frost date, then plant outdoors in warmest southern exposure. Row covers allow for earlier planting outdoors. Clear plastic mulch (in areas where summers are very short) or black plastic mulch under melons warms soil, speeds harvest, and helps keep fruit from rotting.
Though you can grow melons on sun-bathed trellises, the heavy fruit must be supported in individual cloth slings. These plants are best grown in hills or mounded rows a few inches high at the center; you will need to provide considerable space. Make hills about 3 ft. in diameter and space them 3–4 ft. apart; encircle each with a furrow for irrigation. Make rows 3 ft. wide and as long as desired, spacing them 3–4 ft. apart; make furrows for irrigation along both sides. Plant seeds 1 in. deep—four or five seeds per hill, two or three seeds every 1 ft. in rows. When plants are well established, thin each hill to the best two plants; thin rows to one strong plant per foot. Fill furrows with water from time to time (furrows let you water plants without wetting foliage), but do not keep soil soaked. Feed (again in furrows) every 6 weeks.
To determine if a cantaloupe is ready for harvest, lift the fruit and twist; it will easily slip off the stem if ripe. A pleasant, perfume also indicates ripeness.
Late melons do not slip from stems when ripe. Honeydews are ready to pick when the area where the melon rests on the ground turns from yellow to white. Harvest ‘Crenshaw’, casaba, and other late melons when the fruit begins to turn yellow and starts to soften at the blossom end. As ‘Crenshaw’ approaches maturity, protect fruits from sunburn by shading them on the southwest side with a wooden shingle.
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