Growing Cantaloupe in your garden is as easy as planting the right variety at the right time and following a few tips for harvesting lots of sweet melons. The first year I planted cantaloupe, I learned a lot about better ways to grow them and had much better success the second year. Here’s what I learned:
Planting Tip #1: Plant the right variety at the right time. Most melons are originally from low humidity desert areas where it is hot and dry. Bob Randall (“Year Round Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers For Metro Houston”) suggests that Ambrosia is the best Cantaloupe variety to grow in our hot, humid and sometimes wet climate. I concur. I’ve tried other varieties and I’m going to stick with Ambrosia until something better comes along.
Ambrosia has been Burpee’s top-selling cantaloupe for over 20 years because of its “luscious, extra-sweet taste, juiciness and nectarous aroma.” The flesh is thick, firm, and delicious right down to the rind (picked when mature instead of on the”green” side). The 6″ (or larger) melons average 5 lbs. each. Vines yield bumper crops and are mildew-resistant. My experience: I got lots of big, beautiful, sweet melons.
The Right Time to Plant: In metro Houston, the ideal planting window is between March 22 and April 14. You could try planting seeds as early as March 15th and as late as April 21st depending on the weather. In Montgomery County, the ideal planting window is March 22 through July 7.
The ideal soil temperature for seed germination is 75° to 90°. Plants will grow poorly until soil temperatures get above 70°. You may want to plant seeds indoors on a heat mat for maximum, rapid germination and set plants out into the garden when they have two pairs of true leaves. Be VERY careful not to disturb or damage the roots when transplanting (rootbound plants from nurseries or garden centers will not do well).
Plants grow best when daytime temperatures are between 65° and 80° and nighttime temperatures are above 65° but will tolerate daytime temperatures of 100°. Melons need 90 to 100 days of hot weather and the longest days of full sun to reach maturity so plant no later than June 1st to be on the safe side. Ambrosia takes 86 days to reach maturity.
Melons tend to ripen all at once on the same plant, so stagger your planting dates (every 7 to 14 days) to get a continuous harvest. Space plants 2 feet apart down the middle of your planting bed and gives the vines plenty of room to sprawl. Once plants begin to vine, lay down wet newspapers (3-4 sheets) to block weed growth and top with 3 to 4 inches of mulch (I prefer fresh chipped tree mulch).
Tip #2: If you can, grow cantaloupes up onto a trellis. Too many melon plants in close proximity or weeds or other vegetables will probably cause plants to get a fungal disease and die. Increased air circulation around leaves and stems will help prevent fungal and bacterial diseases from developing.
Tip#3: Melons need plenty of moisture while fruits are growing. Once cantaloupes start “netting,” or get close to maturity (count the days), do not water unless VERY dry. Lots of water or rain at this time aborts the sugar creation process, and the melons will have little flavor.
I found this to be very tricky with several plants in the same bed that had staggered planting dates. It is near to impossible to keep the younger plants well watered when you want the maturing plants on the dry side. So Tip #4: If you have raised garden beds, plant one “hill” of vines (1-2 plants), every 7 to 14 days, in several different beds so you can better regulate the watering schedule.
Tip #5: Contrary to what you read or may think, those big, heavy melons will not break off the plant prematurely when grown up on trellises and do not need slings made from old pantyhose for support. When the melons are ready to “slip” from the vine, the weight of the melon will let it “slip.” Bring the melons into the house and set them on your kitchen counter for a few days to finish softening and sweetening up.
If not trellised, keep developing fruits up off the soil or moist mulch by placing them on overturned saucers. The week before melons reach full maturity, check to see if they are ready to “slip” by pressing the neck of the vine away from the fruit. Don’t force it, but when it slips readily, take it into the house and set it on the counter for a few days as indicated previously