Cantaloupes, or just lopes as we sometimes call them in the South, are not cantaloupes at all, according to Lynn Coulter in her book, “Gardening with Heirloom Seeds”. Real honest-to-goodness cantaloupes are grown in Europe but seldom are grown here, according to Coulter. What we call cantaloupes are really muskmelons.
Muskmelons are larger, sweeter, and usually more orange than true cantaloupes. They have a netted outer skin. Cantaloupes are warty with no netting and are small and round.
Who cares what we call them? All kinds of melons are worth the time it takes to grow them ourselves.
If you have the growing time and space, melons ripened on the vine are the best. Expect melons to take from 75-90 days for small melons to mature. For the humongous watermelon varieties, it can take upwards of 100 days.
Since you should sow most melons in very warm soil, they cannot go directly into the ground until the days have heated up the garden. In short summer areas (USDA Zones 3-6) you should plant your seeds indoors so that the plants have a running start into the summer heat.
Fill small (4 inch) clean pots with soil-less mix. Soak the pots of soil in a basin of water until the medium (soil-less mix) is wet all the way through. Place two seeds one-inch deep into each pot. Cover them with plastic wrap or a dome and grow them under lights on a heat mat.
Once the seedlings have a set of true leaves choose the strongest seedling of the duo and cut off the weaker one at the soil line, leaving one seedling per pot. Use scissors for this operation. Do not pull out the throw away plant for fear of disturbing the keeper.
Once the true leaves appear, you can also remove the plastic. The first leaves are “seed leaves” called cotyledon. They are food stores for the emerging plant and will dry up and drop off. Once this occurs, you should begin fertilizing your plants.
Outdoors, sow the seeds or started plants into a sunny area of the garden. If you are moving your started plants outdoors, be sure to harden them off by giving them a little more sun each day, for three to five days, before you plant them in their permanent spots. Although they take up a lot of room, you can set melons so that they will run in and around your other garden plants.
You might have read to plant melon seeds in hills. This refers to planting them together in a circular area. Contrary to popular opinion, this does not mean to raise the planting area into a mound, which I did for years, before Dr. Powell Smith, a Clemson University Extension Service Horticultural Agent and vegetable expert, set me on the straight and level, as it were.
Keep the plants mulched heavily and be sure to water them deeply if there are no soaking summer rains. Melons should have one to two inches of water a week. A drip hose works best. It keeps standing water off the leaves. Overhead watering and poor air circulation can cause mildewing of the leaves. Cut back on the watering once the melons have attained their full-grown size but not yet ripe. Drier conditions as they mature will produce sweeter melons.
Watermelons have a built-in foolproof ripeness indicator, sort of their own gauge attached to the stem. A little curlicue stem sticks out near where the watermelon attaches to the vine. When this turns brown, the watermelon is ripe. If it is green, do not harvest. The taste will be disappointing.
It would be so much simpler if Mother Nature had attached this ripeness barometer to all of the melons. Since she didn’t, you will have to rely on your eyes and nose to pick other melons at just the right moment.
Muskmelons aka Cantaloupes look a little yellow-orange under the netting when they are ripe. They also have that distinctive melon smell. You should not cut them from the vine. Push on the stem near the melon. If it is ripe, it will slide right off. If it resists, then leave it for a few more days of ripening.
Honeydews turn creamy or yellowish and a little soft on the blossom end when they are ready for plucking. They do need help getting off the vine so pack a pair of nippers when you are heading to the melon patch to harvest honeydews.
My favorite muskmelon to grow in the home garden is Ambrosia Hybrid. My dad grew it in Ohio many years ago and I grow it here in South Carolina. It also has become the favorite fruit of our resident box turtles. If you have yard turtles, you will need to put up some kind of a barrier around your melon patch. And, although they look really clumsy doing it, turtles can climb, so the barrier should lean out away from the garden patch but not so much so that it upturns any adventurous climbing turtles.
To keep our box turtles happy and well fed, we put out our watermelon rinds as a treat. When the turtles are finished, the rinds go on the compost heap. These turtles have an uncanny homing device that tells them the minute melon rinds are present. Be careful. Turtles might be watching in your garden.
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Every year, I challenge myself as a gardener to grow something I've never grown before and this year was no exception. As a professional garden writer, I was privileged to be given several exciting new varieties to trial. Additionally, in my travels this year, I had the chance to evaluate many more new plants in trial gardens across the country. The following new annuals, which will be new at retail in Spring 2017, received top ratings in my book.
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