Growing melons takes a bit more of an investment, than say, growing lettuce. These lusty plants need several months of seriously warm temperatures to mature, so you probably won’t have time to grow a second crop in the space they occupy. Additionally, that space must be prime garden real estate – rich, loamy soil in full sun within close proximity to water. And, melons won’t tolerate cramped condominium living. No, these vigorous plants need at least twenty square feet per plant. Some watermelons can take as much as 100 square feet.
If you have a small garden or you live north of zone 5, you might decide the investment in time and garden space isn’t worth the effort. If you have a large garden though and live in an area with warm, long summers, growing melons is rewarding and surprisingly simple.
The first task in growing melons is preparing the soil. Spread at least three inches of manure or compost over the soil and till it in to a depth of eight inches. To get a head start on your crop, especially if you live in a colder area, place black plastic over the soil. This black plastic “mulch” will warm the soil by at least ten degrees so you can plant seeds earlier.
To plant outdoors, sow the seeds half an inch deep after the last expected frost. Sow four seeds in each hill and space the hills four feet apart. Thin the seedlings to one plant per hill when the plants stand four inches tall. You can also plant melons in rows, spacing them twelve inches apart with the rows five feet apart.
You can also start seeds indoors six weeks before the last expected frost. Plant the seeds half an inch deep in a seed-starting tray. Keep the soil moist and move the transplants outdoors when they have at least two true leaves.
Keep the soil evenly moist throughout the growing season. If you are using black plastic mulch, run soaker hoses underneath the plastic so water goes directly to the roots. Toward the end of the season, reduce the water, which will encourage ripening, but don’t allow the soil to dry out completely.
Cultivate weeds carefully and avoid stepping on the vines. Toward the end of the season, you might notice a white powdery film on the leaves. This is powdery mildew, and while unattractive, is rarely fatal, except in severe cases. Other common problems include downy mildew, fusarium wilt, and mosaic virus. To control these diseases, plant resistant varieties and avoid getting the leaves wet or working in a wet garden. Cut out and destroy any diseased portions and rotate your crop so melons grow in the same place only once every three years.
Borers, aphids, and striped cucumber beetles can do considerable damage and also spread disease. Spread floating row covers over a newly planted patch to keep them out. Hand-pick and destroy beetles and borers. In severe cases, control insects with insecticidal soap or rotenone.
How do you know when your melon is ripe? Common gardening lore suggests thumping a watermelon to determine ripeness, but in my mind, they all seem to sound the same. Instead, look at the bottom of the melon. It should have turned from white to yellow. Ripe melons also lose their glossy sheen. Cantaloupes have a distinct, sweet odor when ripe and slip easily off the vines.
In the North, your best bet for success is fast-ripening musk melons, or cantaloupes. If you’ve got your heart set on watermelon soon, try fast-maturing types. In the South, let out all the stops and grow a monster watermelon—you have the growing time to pull it off!