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Make Room for Melons.

By Skip Richter
Contributing Editor

There is nothing like a vine ripened melon picked right from your own garden. Bite into a slice of sweet juicy watermelon on a hot July day, smell the aroma of a vine ripe muskmelon, or savor a sweet honeydew or specialty melon you grew yourself and it's love at first bite.

WHY GROW YOUR OWN
While melons are readily available in the grocery store there are many reasons to grow your own. Home growing allows you to try many new varieties and old heirlooms not available in the supermarket. Organic gardeners can avoid using any pesticides or synthetic fertilizers on their melons.

Flavor is another reason to grow your own. While a muskmelon will continue to ripen after harvest, sugar content no longer increases after it is detached from the vine. Let's face it, for a melon to be put in a field truck, rolled down the belt of a packing house, boxed and trucked across the country it needs to be a little less ripe than one that need only be hand carried from the garden to the back porch! And last but certainly not least, it's just plain fun to grow your own at home. There's a sense of accomplishment in growing it yourself.

SPACE ISSUES
Many gardeners have avoided growing melons because of the space required. A single plant of some melons can grow into a sprawling patch 20 feet across. Unless your garden is large there may not be room for including a traditional melon patch in the summer plan.

Vertical growing allows almost any gardener to find a space for melons. There are many advantages of going vertical with your melon vines. Space is the most obvious. What may have engulfed a 10 to 20 foot wide swath through the garden can be trellised to take up no more than a 3 foot wide "footprint" of garden space.

A sprawling melon patch means there is a lot more ground to keep weed free. Once melon vines enter an area weeding can become more difficult. With trellised melons the small space beneath the vine is easy to access for weeding or better yet mulching to deter weeds.

Walking through a melon patch to inspect or harvest fruit usually resembles some new slow motion dance or an outdoor version of the game Twister as we carefully turn and step to avoid crushing a vine. Melons laying on the ground are more prone to rotting and attack from certain chewing pests such as pillbugs and sowbugs. The foliage too is more prone to disease because of splashing soil and reduced air movement. The foliage of vines on a trellis dries out quickly after a rain and is generally less prone to problems.

MELON CULTURE
Melons are not that difficult to grow if provided with a few basic growing conditions. First of all they need good sunlight. Leaves need sun to make carbohydrates and without it yields will suffer and flavor will be disappointing at best.

Melons grow best in a well drained loamy soil. Sandy soil is great if you make sure to provide adequate added nutrition and frequent watering. Clay can be improved with compost to help increase its internal drainage. If your soil is heavy clay you may do best to create a raised bed by importing some loamy or sandy soil mixed with a generous supply of compost. This effort need not be justified for the melons alone as such a bed is great for fall strawberry planting, for summer southern peas as well as for several other garden crops.

Plant melons when the soil warms up in mid spring. This would be about mid April in north Texas, late March to early April in central parts of the state and mid to late March along the coastal region. Prior to planting work 1 to 2 cups of a complete fertilizer into the soil per 50 square feet of garden bed area. If using an organic product double the rate to 2 to 4 cups per 50 square feet. For trellising, plant two seeds every 3 to 4 feet for muskmelons or 4 to 6 feet for watermelons. Thin to one plant in each location a week or so after the plants emerge. Optimum spacing will vary with species of melon, variety and soil conditions.

You can get a little head start on the season by starting transplants for setting out into the garden about 2 to 3 weeks later. Just don't grow them for too long in the seedling tray as large melon plants don't respond well to transplanting.

Keep the seeded areas moist until the seeds sprout, then water as needed to maintain even soil moisture. Melons can take our summer heat but need moist soil to grow and bear well. Gardeners in sandy soils will find regular watering to be especially important. Watermelons can develop blossom end rot, just like tomatoes do, when soil moisture varies from one extreme to another.

After the plants have four true leaves (the two original "seed leaves" don't count) fertilize them again at about half the above rate. Then install the trellises if you haven't already done so. In light sandy soils the vines may benefit from one more fertilization when the vines grow to about 2 feet long.

TRELLISING THE VINES
Melon trellises can be made of many different materials as long as they are strong. I have seen everything from hog fencing to wooden lattice. My favorite system for trellising melons is to use livestock panels (16 feet by 4 feet) and steel posts driven into the ground. The panels can be set upright or leaned slightly toward the support posts.

Drive at least three steel posts per 16 foot panel into the ground about 8 inches away from the row of plants along the shadier side. Then set the panels so the base sits on the soil about 8 inches away from the plants along the sunnier side of the row and lean the tops over against the posts. Attach the panel to the posts with jute twine or wire. This creates a slightly leaning panel which provides good sun exposure and seems to help to keep the fruit toward the lower, shadier side of the trellis. Another option is to lean the panels against an existing fence such as a privacy fence.

Livestock panels are very strong, last forever, and are easier to handle and store than wire. A 16 foot section is difficult for one person to handle so you might want to cut it into two lengths with bolt cutters. You'll find many uses for these 4 feet by approximately 8 feet panel sections in the garden.

As the melons grow they'll need some encouragement to train them onto the trellis. Melons are poor climbers and can grow quite rapidly. Plan on going out every day or two and orienting the vines on the trellis to create a solid fill of vines and foliage. While they have tendrils to help them attach to the trellis you will probably want to tie them to it here and there as they grow. Pieces of hosiery cut across the leg into inch wide strips work great. They are easy to tie and give a little to allow the vine room to grow.

Planted at the spacing mentioned above melons will more than fill a trellis during their growing season. I find it best to train the main vine up the trellis and orient the side branches more horizontally. In good growing conditions you'll find the vines reach the top of the trellis fairly rapidly and can be allowed to grow back downward again.

Additional fertilizing will most likely not be needed in good soil conditions but be ready to apply a little extra if the vines appear to be lacking. Excessive nitrogen will result in delayed maturity and poor fruit quality.

Maintain good soil moisture but don't keep it excessively wet. Drip irrigation works best. As an alternative in heavier textured soils you can build 3 foot diameter berms of soil around the plants and between plants down the row. This makes it easy to provide a good soaking by filling the berms with water. The berms prevent water from running off of the bed surface before it has a chance to soak in.

SUPPORT YOUR MELON PATCH
By now you may be thinking, "Yeah but what keeps the fruit from pulling the vines off of the trellises?" Melon fruit do indeed require support and it's old hosiery again to the rescue.

Keep in mind that as a father of 5 daughters I am acutely aware of the fact that a new pair of hose will likely have a run in them before you even arrive at your first destination. There is little to be done with old hosiery but throw it away, unless you are planning on robbing a convenience store, so such recycled usefulness in the garden is a welcomed idea.

To make melon supports, cut a leg off of an old pair of pantyhose. Tie a tight knot in the hose about 8 inches from the toe end and more tight knots on up the leg about 8 inches apart. Then cut an inch below each knot to create the individual fruit supports. Slip a section of hose over a fruit when it is tennis ball to golf ball size and then tie it to the trellis pulling it up a little higher than it was originally as it will stretch the hose and sag down a bit as it grows in weight and size. Don't wait too long to attach the support as ripening muskmelons are ready to release from the vine and large fruit of many types of melons can pull the vine off of a trellis.

Hosiery works great for smaller melons such as muskmelons and if the hose are the heavy duty type (!) for the smallest of watermelon varieties. Heavier fruits such as watermelons will usually require something stronger such as a section of onion sack or other mesh material, or pieces of old T-shirt formed into slings by tying each end to the trellis. Use your imagination to come up with other support options.

Small fruited melons are definitely the easiest to trellis but if your trellis is strong and the supports up to the task even large fruited melons can be grown vertically. Just make sure the fruits are adequately supported as growth and wind movement can cause one to take a tragic "jump." Whatever melons you decide to grow, a trellis with supported melons growing on it is quite a conversation piece ... like your neighbors needed something to talk about anyway!

HARVEST TIPS
While I have generalized about melons as a group up to this point, when it comes to harvest things get more specific. It is important to harvest your melons at the proper time: too early and they lack flavor and sweetness, too late and they become mealy and lose quality.

Muskmelons yield their harvest over a longer time period requiring repeated harvests over several weeks. Watermelons generally ripen their fruit almost all at once for a much shorter harvest period.

Muskmelons are the types with a netted fruit surface which we commonly but mistakenly refer to as cantaloupes. Muskmelons naturally break loose from the vine when they are ripe. The spot where the vine attaches to the fruit begins to crack around the perimeter of what will be the "belly button" on the fruit, which is called "slipping." Once they are at about 3/4 to full slip they are ready to harvest. Most gardeners prefer to leave them until they reach full slip for the sweetest fruit and top quality.

A ripe muskmelon will detach when slight pressure is applied to the vine. As a muskmelon ripens the color of the fruit behind the netting turns from green to a creamy tan hue and the fruit gives off a rich aromatic smell.

Harvest honeydew melons when the rind color turns creamy yellowish white. When pressed gently at the blossom end the melon will be a little soft and the fruit will have a faint, pleasant odor. Charentais melons turn from grey green to creamy white when they ripen. Charentais melons and most honeydews do not slip from the vine and should be cut leaving about an inch of vine attached. Most other melons including Casaba and Crenshaw types must also be cut from the vine.

There are numerous other melon types and in recent years many new hybrids between types have appeared on the market making it difficult to generalize about how to determine the optimum point to harvest them. With these less common types it is best to read the information from the seed supplier and gain personal experience with a particular type of melon to determine the best harvest time.

Watermelons are a bit more of a challenge when it comes to deciding when to harvest the fruit. They do not detach naturally from the vine when ripe nor do they have a distinct fragrance. When watermelons are grown on the ground the spot where the fruit sits on the ground will change from green to cream colored when ripe. Trellised fruit won't show that distinct ground spot but some change in rind color or sheen may be discernable.

The tendril across from the watermelon on the vine will dry up. The ripe fruit develops a more dull, muffled sound when thumped. However the sound of various watermelons will be quite different and so it takes some experience with a particular variety to become better at judging ripeness, much less discerning the distinctive thump! Cut the watermelon from the vine leaving about an inch of stem attached.

CREATIVE MELON SPACES
Growing vertical opens up the possibilities of growing melons in the home garden and landscape. This space saving technique means you can find room to grow melons in medium to small sized gardens. It also means that melon enthusiasts can grow a lot more melons in a given space by planting several rows about 4 feet apart.

If you have a privacy fence around the property a sunny fence line can become a productive melon patch. Melons can also be grown adjacent to a patio or deck by planting them in a small bed beside the patio and using the trellis to create an outdoor wall to the patio or deck area.

Gardeners in apartments, garden homes and town houses without a spot of earth in which to garden can select a large container such as a half whiskey barrel and along with some trellis material create a melon patch on a sunny balcony or driveway. Use a quality potting mix for the container rather than garden soil and make sure the container drains well.

Container grown melons will require more frequent watering to prevent stress and lots of sunlight like their garden dwelling counterparts. They'll also need to be fed a little more often since their root zone is limited.

A full size (16 feet) livestock panel can be bent into an arch shape using stakes to hold the two ends in place on the ground. This creates an arch tall enough to walk under. Plant a melon on each side to create an attractive addition to the landscape or garden.

Use your imagination to come up with some other creative ways to grow melons in less space. Start with your favorite varieties but experiment with others to find which perform best for you and which spacings and cultural techniques work best in your garden's soil.



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