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Growing Melons

CanteloupeCall them cantaloupes or muskmelons, these sweet treats are a summer favorite. Their fragrant orange fruit make them the most commonly grown - and eaten - melons.

Honeydews ripen more slowly and are available later in the season compared to muskmelons. They have a smooth rind, subtler taste and are less aromatic. Honeydews have a greenish-white rind and light green fruit.

As members of the gourd family, melons can be slightly larger than a baseball or grow to more than 15-pounds. Rind color varies from pale white to dark green. The fruit can be pale yellow, light green or bright orange. Seeds fill the hollow centers.

Try planting both cantaloupes and honeydews this year. They're easy to grow and are planted the same way. The difference comes at harvest.

Planting seeds and starts

Melons do best in warm weather. The soil needs to be warm and dry, so plant them after the danger of frost has passed.

Some gardeners plant cantaloupes and honeydews through holes in a landscape fabric or black plastic. The material traps heat and warms the soil to encourage growth at the beginning of the season. The fabric also keeps vines clean and deters weeds.

In areas where a chill lingers, start the seeds indoors three to four weeks before transplanting them outdoors. Use individual peat containers to avoid disturbing the roots.

Plant melon seeds in six- to 12-inch mounds of soil. Sow three to five seeds two inches apart and about one inch deep. Space the mounds two feet apart in rows that are five feet apart.

When the seedlings sprout leaves, thin them to 18- to 24-inches apart. Melon vines take up a lot of space and the distance allows air to circulate freely.

Apply an all-purpose fertilizer every two to three weeks. Cantaloupes and honeydews benefit from slightly acidic soil with a pH of 6.0 to 6.5. Each month, add a few inches of compost to the root areas.

The vines require a lot of water, so give them up to two inches of water each week. Trickle irrigation at the soil level is best. Water the melons in the morning, so the leaves are dry by evening. That helps to prevent fungal diseases.

Honeydew melonWhile both male and female flowers grow on the same melon vine, bees are necessary for pollination and subsequent fruiting. The first blooms are the male flowers. They can't set fruit and will fall off. The female flowers appear a short time later. After bees pollinate them, the small bulb at bloom's base will develop into the melon.

If space is limited, cantaloupes and honeydews can be trained to grow up a trellis or fence. Use soft ties to secure them. Shortly after the melons start to develop, support them with mesh bags tied to the trellis. Otherwise, their weight could strain or pull the vine down.

Keep the maturing melons from touching the ground. Propping them up on mulch piles, flower pots or other similar items helps prevent rotting and pests.

Harvest time

Most melons ripen in late summer or early- to mid-fall. It's typical to get two to three melons per vine. Their sweetness largely is determined during the three weeks leading up to harvest. Water them less during that time, as it's the drier conditions that promote sweetness.

Cantaloupes are fragrant when they're ready to pick. The stem will separate, or slip, easily from the fruit. The green netted rind turns to tan-yellow. Sugar development comes from adequate ripening time on the vines. Don't pick them too soon. Sugars are stored in muskmelons until the stem separates. Once picked, they soften but don't sweeten further.

Pick honeydews when the rind turns a cream color. The blossom end will be slightly soft. Honeydews won't slip from the vine, so cut them off. Once picked, they'll ripen for several days at room temperature.

Harvest both honeydews and muskmelons in the morning after the dew has dried. Pick them every other day at the beginning of harvest and every day during peak season. Otherwise, some of the sweet crop likely will be enjoyed by wildlife and insects.

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