Summertime and melons go hand in hand.
Whether watermelons, cantaloupes or the less common honeydew, these members of the Cucurbit family grow well in Arkansas gardens -- but they do need room to grow. They produce prolific vines.
Melons are tender, warm-season vegetables closely related to cucumbers and squash. Unlike squash and cucumbers, which are eaten when they are immature fruits, melons require a longer growing season and are generally eaten when they are mature, allowing the flesh to become sweet.
The rind is tough but not hard, and the flesh is always watery. Most are eaten raw, but some are cooked, particularly in soup. Most melons will store at room temperature maybe a week, and not much longer refrigerated.
All melons except for watermelons belong to Cucumis melo, the same genus as cucumbers. These melons have thick walls and hollow centers containing loose seeds and fibers. Muskmelons (cantaloupes), honeydew, crenshaw, casaba and other more obscure melons are included in this genus species.
Watermelons, although closely related, are in a different genus: Citrullus lanatus. Watermelons are of African origin and have solid, almost uniform flesh all the way through, with seeds embedded in the flesh.
By weight, watermelon is the most consumed melon in the United States, followed by cantaloupe and then honeydew.
While most Americans think they know cantaloupes, the true cantaloupe has a rough, warty outer skin and is rarely grown in the United States. Muskmelon is the true name of what we have here, describing the aroma or musk of the ripe fruit.
A ripe cantaloupe (muskmelon) gives off a very sweet smell, while the honeydew, crenshaw and casaba lack any distinctive odor, making it more difficult to know when they are ripe.
Melons can be grown in all parts of Arkansas and are usually planted from late April through early June. Most gardeners plant them from seed, but these days you can find transplants at local garden centers.
HOW TO GROW THEM
Melons grow best in deep, well-drained, sandy loam soil with plenty of organic matter. Heavy soils with a lot of clay often cause small, weak plants that produce fewer melons.
You need four things to grow melons:
Many gardeners have avoided planting melons because of the amount of space they require. A standard melon patch can easily be 20 feet across or more, and plants are typically spaced 6 to 12 feet apart.
If you don't have that much real estate to devote to growing melons, grow them vertically.
Provide a trellis or plant them beside a chain-link fence. But do be prepared to help them cling to the trellis or fence. Melons are poor climbers on their own, but if you use soft ties to attach the vines to the support, they can easily be trained to grow upward.
Once they begin to set fruit, you will also need to provide some support for its weight -- slings made from strips of cloth, old pantyhose and other, more ingenious methods have been used. The idea is to keep the fruit attached to the vine without pulling the vine off the trellis.
Melons are long-season plants. Read your seed packet, as it will tell you how many days are needed from seeding to harvesting. Typically, you must wait 80 to 140 frost-free days for mature melons.
As with all cucurbits, melons have male and female blooms on the vine. Honeybees must pollinate every blossom to instigate fruit. Poor pollination can result in small or misshapen fruit. A partly pollinated vine will result in a melon that can have a normal shape, but it will ripen at a smaller size and contain fewer seeds than normal.
Flowers usually open shortly after sunrise. Female flowers are receptive to pollen throughout the day, although most pollination takes place before noon, especially when temperatures are high.
The flowers close in the afternoon, never to reopen, regardless of whether they were pollinated or not.
Rainy and windy weather reduce bee activity, which can cause poor melon production due to inadequate pollination.
Fertilize melons lightly at planting and then side-dress when the vines begin to run. Another light application of fertilizer can be applied after fruit is set. Don't over-fertilize, as too much will give you excessive vines and less fruit, and it can lower the quality of the fruit.
Moisture is most critical during planting and fruit set. Extremes in moisture (too much rain or an extended drought) can cause melons to suffer, especially in heavy soils.
Drip irrigation works the best, because it keeps the leaves dry. If you can supply only overhead irrigation, make sure you finish watering early enough in the day so the foliage dries before the sun sets. Wet foliage overnight can lead to disease.
Melons need adequate water during fruit set and development, but prefer dry soil in the last week or two of development. Two to three weeks prior to harvesting, start reducing how much water you give your plants. Plants may wilt some in the afternoon, but as long as they recover in the evening, they have enough moisture to continue production.
Too much water (even as rain) can result in bland fruits or melons that split open. Drier conditions concentrate the sugars, leading to sweeter fruit.
BIG AND NOT SO BIG
The watermelon is one of the largest vegetables we eat. Watermelons commonly weigh 18 to 25 pounds, with the world's record melon tipping the scales at 350 pounds. But small-fruited "icebox" varieties such as Sugar Baby and Tiger Baby are grown for individual consumption, with some as small as 1 to 3 pounds at maturity.
While we typically think of a watermelon as being pink or red, there are yellow-, orange- and even white-fruited varieties. Watermelons can be round or oblong, solid green or striped, seeded or seedless (seedless watermelons are not actually without seeds, but the seeds are mostly immature, white and very soft when the fruit is ripe).
Watermelons are 92 percent water and 8 percent sugar.
CANTALOUPE VS. HONEYDEW
Most varieties of cantaloupe grown in Arkansas have salmon-colored flesh, but there are green- and white-fruited varieties.
Cantaloupes, or muskmelons, have a netted rind. An average melon usually weighs between 3 and 5 pounds, although newer varieties can produce much larger fruits. The record is more than 64 pounds, but that melon was grown in Alaska.
Honeydew is a round melon with an almost white rind that may be slightly green or slightly yellow. The flesh will be white, pale green or pale orange, and firm.
Knowing when these melons are ripe takes some experience.
• Watermelon: The outer rind should begin to dull; the curly tendril attached near the stem will turn brown and dry; and the underbelly should turn a creamy yellow. Once you have checked these signs, then thump away, since thumping is not a reliable determiner of ripeness.
Also, knowing the average time a particular variety should ripen will help you start looking -- just remember that weather and care can shorten or lengthen the process.
• Cantaloupe: Most cantaloupes require 30 to 35 days after the small fruits are set. The outer rind of a cantaloupe will change color from a gray-green to yellow-tan, and the netting pattern will become more pronounced. The melon will also develop a crack where it is attached to the stem. If ripe, the melon should detach quite easily. You will also smell that typical musky, cantaloupe odor when the melon is ripe.
• Honeydew: Honeydews can take a bit longer than cantaloupes. They may or may not produce the crack at the stem, but the rind should become much lighter in color -- almost white. The blossom end (opposite the stem) should be somewhat soft when the flesh is ripe.
Depending on when you plant, melons usually start ripening in Arkansas in late July to early August, and that's when you'll find them ripe at local farmers markets. Two festivals celebrate the watermelon -- the 41st annual Hope Watermelon festival is Aug. 10-12, and the 37th Cave City Watermelon Festival is Aug. 11-13.
So if you don't plant any melons, check out a farmers market or a festival.
Janet B. Carson is a horticulture specialist for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.
HomeStyle on 06/17/2017