This is such a hopeful time in my garden. Nothing has gone wrong yet, no bugs have attacked and no weird weather has struck—yet. I just know that this will be the best growing season we have ever had. Gardeners are such optimists!
I dream of daytime highs in the 80's and warm nights this summer, making it a good season for melons. I struggle to grow them each year but even if I only get a few they are worth the effort. There is nothing as tasty as a home-grown muskmelon picked at its peak.
Favorite Melon Varieties
Plant breeders are developing new melons all the time, but when it comes to taste you can't beat the tried and true heirloom varieties. Some of our favorite muskmelons are 'Oka', 'Delicious', and 'Hale's Best'. For green-fleshed varieties we have grown 'Jenny Lind' and 'Ha'Ogen'.
'Sugar Baby' remains my favorite watermelon, probably because I actually get watermelons from them. 'Blacktail Mountain' has been recommended to me by friends and 'Moon and Stars', which has both yellow and red-fleshed types, is all the rage among heirloom watermelon lovers. I have tried unsuccessfully for years to grow a true French charentais melon—the holy grail of melons. It seems like those plants always get attacked first by the cucumber beetles and eventually die.
Growing Melons in the Garden
Southern gardeners are probably laughing at me right now but growing any heat-loving plant here in the frozen north is a challenge.
To give my melons a fighting chance I start them indoors in peat pots. They need a soil temperature of about 70 degrees to germinate, so bottom heat is necessary.
I plant 2 to 3 seeds per pot and once they are up and growing well, I clip off the weaker ones leaving just one strong plant per pot. It isn't advisable to plant them outside until night temperatures are above 45 degrees.
I make mounds of soil three feet apart that are enriched with compost and plant three per hill, pots and all. They are tap rooted and don't like to have their roots disturbed when they are transplanted. I pre-warmed the soil with black plastic and lay it down between the hills to keep the soil warm and weedfree.
The plants get covered with floating row covers to keep them warm and protected from the cucumber beetles. Once the plants start to blossom the row covers have to come off so bees can pollinate the plants.
When the vines are 2 1/2 feet long, remove the end buds to encourage branching.
Then comes the watering and watching for pests and diseases. What a long process but it is so worth it when the smell of ripe melon greets you when you walk into the garden.
Ripe muskmelons will slip off the vine when ready but the ripeness of a watermelon is harder to gauge. Many people swear by thumping but that has never worked for me. I use the tendril test; when the two tendrils nearest the fruit turn brown the watermelons are ready to pick.
To whet your appetite for melons even further, check out Amy Goldman's book Melons for the Passionate Grower. In it she provides pictures and descriptions of 100 varieties, complete with interesting anecdotes. One of my favorites is about the 17th century noblewoman who wrapped her growing melons with her fur coat to protect them on a frosty night. Unfortunately thieves stole the coat and the melons froze!