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GROWING MOUTHWATERING MELONS
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Watermelon and cantaloupe that are available year-round at the supermarket can never compare in flavor to those you grow in your own garden. All too often, they taste like the rind. Putting time and effort into growing mouthwatering melons in your own back yard pays real dividends. And it’s easy once you know how to do it.
When my folks were growing up during the Great Depression, they didn’t have much money to spend on sweets. So, they headed for the fruit orchard, the watermelon patch, or sat on the porch eating honey that came from Grandpa’s beehives. Watermelon and cantaloupe, (a.k.a. “muskmelon”) were highly prized, and carefully guarded. My Dad told stories of neighbor kids raiding their melon patch at midnight, and running for it with a big watermelon under each arm.
STARTING MELON SEEDS
Vine crops are notoriously hard to start since the seeds are hard to crack open. Soaking them in water for a few days to sprout them before sowing in soil gets things off to a better start.
Soak 3 to 4 layers of paper towels in water and arrange the seeds evenly over the towels. Carefully roll the paper towels up and place them inside a very damp terry cloth towel. Enclose everything inside a large plastic bag. Place it on top of the refrigerator where it will be out of drafts.
Wait 24 hours, then check them. Watch them every few hours to see when they sprout. Depending on the variety, it might not take long. Don’t forget about them. Be careful when handling the sprouted seeds so you don’t snap the shoots off. They will not re-grow.
Start seeds indoors in individual planting pots 3 to 4 weeks before planting time in your area of the country. If you plant outside, you could do this 2 to 3 weeks earlier than usual. Just use hot caps or grow tunnels for protection from the weather. Plant a few radish seeds for insect control.
Melons don’t like to have their roots “messed with.” Plant the individual seed pots directly into the garden without separating the roots.
HOW TO PLANT?
Plant melons in a long single row placing the seeds about the length of your hand apart. Cover seeds with 1 inch of dirt. As they sprout, pinch out the plants that don’t look as healthy as the others. Watermelons require more space than cantaloupes. They can often reach out 8 feet.
Cantaloupe and watermelon are long season plants: They take a long time to mature. In the North, you want melons to ripen before cool weather and frost sets in. In the South, you want to plant early so you can harvest them before really hot weather sets in. Cantaloupes especially don’t like humidity!
Melons of all varieties are “heavy drinkers.” They are made mostly of water, so if they don’t get enough moisture, they won’t amount to much. Water frequently, and watch them daily. They also require well drained soil. In other words, they want their feet dry, but still want plenty to drink. Well-drained sandy soil is best for successfully growing watermelon and cantaloupe, or grow them in raised beds.
When the yellow blossoms form on the plants, you need to side-dress them with one tablespoon of fertilizer per plant. Just sprinkle it around the plant and scratch it into the soil. Don’t fertilize after the small fruits are developing.
Weed them carefully at this time, since they are soon to spread out and become so bushy, it’ll be hard to step into the melon patch to pull weeds. The large leaves will soon help to “shade out” weeds.
Pick the fuzzy ends off the melon vines, but don’t touch the blossoms. This prevents the plant from expending energy on producing a longer vine and more foliage. All the vine’s energy will go into the fruit itself. This practice helps to hasten the melon harvest.
SPEED UP THEIR RIPENING
In July, set the young melons on upside-down tin cans. It will warm them up faster than if you leave them on the ground. It also means the sunlight can get to them easier, and for a longer period during the day.
If melons are left on the ground, the foliage will shade them, so they’ll take longer to mature and ripen. Also, frequent watering could cause the melon to rot. Lifting them up on large tin cans helps prevent that. This is like making the day longer.
The tin can method is not necessary down South since they usually have more than enough heat. Paint the cans black, and they’ll absorb more heat and won’t rust.
WHEN ARE THEY RIPE?
Cantaloupes are ripe when they easily separate from the vine. You can also smell the aroma, which will be strong, sweet, and almost intoxicating. This is the easiest, and surest, way to test for ripeness. Some varieties of cantaloupe are green or pale yellow when ripe, so it’s hard to test ripeness just by color alone. Never squeeze or thump cantaloupes.
Watermelons are ripe when the small coil end of the vine nearest the melon dries up. It shrivels up like a curly pig’s tail and turns brown when they are ripe. If you knock on a watermelon, and it sounds sharp like someone knocking on a door, it isn’t ripe. When it sounds dull, like rapping on the floor, it is ripe.
Another sign of ripeness in watermelon is the color of the spot where it rests on the ground or tin can. As the melon ripens, that spot turns from white to a deep, creamy yellow, then yellow-orange, when it’s ripe. The shiny surface of some varieties will dull somewhat when ripe.
SERVING WATERMELON AND CANTALOUPE
Melons can be hollowed out and filled with fruit. A friend loves to eat half a cantaloupe filled with cottage cheese which is drizzled with honey. Melon balls keep well in freezer containers so they can be enjoyed long after the season is over.
I used to photograph weddings, and an artistically carved watermelon filled with fruit and decorated with fresh mint sometimes adorned the refreshment table, right next to the wedding cake.
Any way you serve them, your neighbors are bound to envy you. And after the melon season is over – – – tell them how you did it!
HAPPY PLANTING! Susan