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Q. I have a 'flat earth' plot in a community garden here in Shawnee. My 7-year-old son Jack loves cantaloupe (aka muskmelon) and demanded that we try to grow some this year, so the pressure is on me to deliver. I haven't tried to grow them before, but a couple of our other gardeners have told me they haven't had any luck with them. Back around May 1st, we started some plants from seed under the lights I use to start tomatoes. Now what? A few websites say to use black plastic to keep the soil warm. Do you have any advice?
PS: Thanks for doing your show. I listen to the podcasts as soon as they are available. I also liked your tomato book so much I bought a copy for my mom. This year I grew so many tomato plants I had enough to give away to six friends and family members. I would never have attempted anything that elaborate without you egging me on. Thanks again!"
---Chris in Shawnee, Kansas
A. Thank you, Chris; two copies of my tomato book; that's a cool dollar twenty in royalties!
Anyway, Chris already seems to understand that the "netted" melons you see in markets underneath signs that scream 'cantaloupe' are not cantaloupes, but muskmelons, a name that reflects their musky fragrance and flavor. The ones I see most often for sale are Western muskmelons. Most of the Western varieties are round, some are a little oblong, and all have orange flesh underneath a layer of green skin and very heavy netting. Eastern muskmelons have a much finer netting, orange skin, and are ribbed like pumpkins—sometimes dramatically so.
(Note: This is MY take on these two categories. As you will learn, there is no real consensus on this topic.)
True cantaloupes are personified by the French Charantais melons. They have no netting, and most have somewhat 'warty' rinds. (One classic variety is light green with much darker green striping running stem-to-stern on the outside.) Their flesh is also very aromatic, but; 'perfume-y' as opposed to musky. They are said to be the best tasting of all melons, and you'll likely only find them for sale at the occasional Farmer's Market.
Now, many of you out there may now be saying, "if they're really that hard to find, that's what Chris should have grown!" But his kid likes the supermarket melons, so those are what he should start with. (Otherwise you risk investing the entire summer only to have the kid say, "no; that's not the right thing!")
But the truth is that we really don't know what he actually has. He might have started the seeds of a Western muskmelon. But in this wonderful world of mixed-up nomenclature, you're going to have a much better idea of what you're growing by the specific variety name, as opposed to a seed company's classification of the 'type'. There are legitimate arguments over whether a certain melon is a musk, a cantaloupe, a honeydew or some kind of hybrid, intentional or otherwise (melons cross-breed as promiscuously as squash).
And it's not like there's a 'basic' one; there are dozens of different 'non-watermelon' melons out there in the trade, and seed companies must have a devil of a time trying to figure out how to present these things. Do you list what everybody calls a 'cantaloupe' as a muskmelon and confuse the heck out of people? Do you just punt and call them all 'tropical melons'?
Luckily for us here and now, all of these melons (basic scientific name: Cucumis melo) need the same basic things—full sun, warm soil and a solid 75 to 90 days of real summer weather.
Now, Shawnee is in USDA Growing Zone 6; a shorter season than we have in my home base of Philly. But if Kansas Chris gets his transplants into the ground the first week or two of June, he should have ripe melons by the time school starts up again. But wherever you live, you need to wait to plant until nights are TOTALLY and reliably in the 50s; these are seriously tropical plants; and it is not unusual to have nights drop into the 30s in late May in many growing zones. (With, of course, 90-degree days later the same week...)
You also need to be very careful when planting. These melons don't take movement around their roots very well, and most catalogs recommend direct planting of the seeds, which would require you to wait until the soil is nice and warm, and/or for you to warm the soil in advance with clear plastic and then be ready to keep the baby plants warm with some season extending devices. (A garden-sized grow tunnel would be perfect here.)
If you do start from seed, you have to add another six weeks to the 'days to maturity' date that's listed for your specific variety before you can expect to get ripe melons. (That's for any plant that isn't traditionally direct sown. The 'days to maturity' clock starts ticking for corn, beans and peas (which are always direct sown) as soon as the sprouts appear. But for melons, tomatoes, peppers and such, it starts six weeks after the seeds germinate.)
A raised bed is going to greatly increase the chance of success for this crop; and that bed's soil should be rich with the best quality compost you can find. This is also one of those rare instances where I do suggest covering most of the soil with black plastic to keep it warm. (Unless you live in Southern Florida; and then you could still use black plastic—to grow these things over what you laughingly call 'winter'.).
If you don't get the grow tunnels (which I strongly recommend you do; I love mine) at least protect the young plants with floating row covers, even if the seed is not direct-sown. These light fabric 'blankets' are great at keeping insect pests off, but they'll be of even more benefit here by keeping warm air trapped around the young plants early in the season. And I wouldn't remove the covers until each plant has several open flowers. (Then you have to remove them to let pollinators in or you won't get melons.)
After each plant has set a good amount of fruit, I strongly suggest pulling off any lesser looking 'runts' until you have a maximum of three or four melons left growing on each plant. Then pull off any new flowers that form after that to direct the vines' total energy into ripening up those fruits. If you overload a vine with too many fruits and let it continue making baby ones into August, you might not get those first ones to ripen up, especially in a short season climate.
And now to the master class: How will you know when they're ripe? One classic visual cue is the tendril nearest the fruit turning brown. But don't rely on that alone. Read the seed packet carefully and use the listed 'days to maturity' to estimate when you might expect your first melon to become ripe. Also: search the variety name online for advice—because some types have different cues than the 'tendril trick'. Whatever, you do, try and make sure your melons are ripe before you pick….
…And maybe light a candle to the Blessed Mother. It couldn't hurt!