Melon

All melons are highly regarded for their sweet taste combined with an explosive honey muskiness which many other fruits, even store-grown melons do not possess. They are often seen as a gourmet dessert and fast becoming a flavour for beverages, desserts and ice-creams. These fruits, always sun-ripened pack plenty of vitamin C and antioxidants into every bite, combining great taste with great nutrition.

We tend to think of melons as a tropical plant, best grown in the warmest, most humid and sunniest of climates. They are a crop that adapts readily to growing in the UK however and even have the potential to produce plenty of fruit. If you are thinking of growing melons then be sure to provide the best conditions for their growth though.

Variety Types 

There are a wide range of varieties to choose from. Three types of sweet melon can be considered and there must be at least one to meet your special requirements. 

Canteloupe melons, with their orange flesh are the best ones for us to grow in the UK. We also grow honeydew types, which have firm yellow flesh, and musk melons, which must be grown in a greenhouse. Watermelons are treated separately because they are the most tropical growing of all.

Most melons can grow under milder cooler conditions, best in a cold frame or greenhouse.  Some find success growing against a sunny sheltered wall with a cloche covering them. Some will produce small mini-fruits whilst others are large yielding plants which are big enough to feed a whole family.  If you are fortunate to have the space then growing melons at home is highly rewarding. Always make sure they are watered regularly and often with plenty of sun and lots of heat. The greenhouse is best rather than outside because high humidity can be achieved.

Melons require at least two or three months of heat, which makes growing them in northern parts a challenge, but not impossible. By using a black ground cover to warm soil and floating row covers to trap warm air near plants, gardeners in any part of the country can count on cutting into the home grown goodness of melons.

Sowing Requirements

Sow two seeds 1.5cm (1/2in) deep from mid- to late April until early May, in a propagator or on a sunny windowsill at 18-21°C (64-70°F). Use multipurpose compost for best results. The seedlings appear after three weeks. Remove the weakest seedling following germination. Maintain a temperature of between 18 and 21 Centigrade to maintain optimum growing conditions.

Harden off by acclimatising plants to outdoor conditions from late May to early June, once there is no danger of frost, and when they have three or four true leaves.

Growing Needs

Melons are tender plants at the best of times, so require a warm, sunny spot with high humidity. In the UK it is best to grow in a glasshouse, polytunnel or under a cloche or in a cold frame.

Provide melons with a rich, fertile, moisture retentive, deep and well-drained soil for growing on. 

Three to four weeks before planting, prepare the ground by removing weeds and incorporating up to two bucket loads of organic matter. Give a modest dressing of general purpose fertiliser. Water well and cover in clear polythene for a week before planting to warm the soil. 

Pinch out the growing point when the  fifth strong leaf has formed to encourage side shoots. When the shoots appear, retain the four strongest and remove the others. The side shoots make the plant stronger and more sturdy.

In a cold frame, train the four shoots into an X shape. Under cloches, train one pair each way. It is also possible to arrange the vine onto black polythene which allows for warming up. All varieties benefit from being trained vertically up some supporting netting or trellis.

In very sunny weather, shade indoor crops with netting or whitewash on the glass. Keep well watered at all times. Humidity from this point onwards is your friend as they revel in it. When fruits are the size of walnuts, feed with a high potash potassium liquid fertiliser every 7-10 days. Stop feeding and reduce watering when the fruits start to ripen and foliage dies back.

Increase ventilation so that there is good air movement and remove shading once plants become established, but remember to re-apply shading later in summer if temperatures exceed 25ºC.

Pollination

Make sure you ventilate when the plants are in flower, as this will allow simultaneous pollination of fruits. Vines bear male and female flowers. Male flowers open first, joined by female blossoms about a week later. Female flowers have a small swelling at the base of the flower. When vines start to bear male and female flowers, remove any protective covers so bees can visit the flowers.

It’s best not to pollinate by hand as the small flowers are delicate, but occasionally it might be necessary – female flowers have a small undeveloped ‘fruit’ behind them; male flowers do not. One male flower pollinates four females.

Ripening

When fruits are gooseberry size, select the best four on each stem and remove all other flowers, fruit and leaves. Stop the side shoots two or three leaves beyond these fruits, pinch out the main growing tips and remove new growths as they appear. This allows the vine to focus growth on the remaining fruit and for helping with ripening off.  In many cases the harvest will need plenty of extra support to carry their increasing weight. Place the fruit on a tile or piece of wood to prevent discolouration or even rotting.

The fruit is ready for picking when you notice a characteristic scent in the air. You will also notice cracked skin around the stem. Tghis is the time for harvesting. Cut the connective tissue to avoid damaging the yield and eat as soon as possible to enjoy the flavour at its fullest.

Common problems

Powdery Mildew

Powdery Mildew: Appears as a white powdery deposit over the leaf surface and leaves become stunted and shrivel. To reduce the incidence, keep the soil moist and grow in cooler locations.

Glasshouse red spider or two spotted mite

Glasshouse red spider or two spotted mite: Leaves become mottled, pale and covered in webbing, on which the mites can be clearly seen; leaves also drop prematurely. As these mites thrive in hot, dry conditions, so mist plants regularly. Use biological control in the greenhouse.

Harvesting

Harvest when they produce the characteristic melon fragrance and the fruits start to crack near the stem. Store melons in the refrigerator for up to a week if needs be. If you have extra melons on hand, dice or cut the flesh into balls and freeze for slushies or cold soup.

Varieties

‘Amber Nectar’ AGM: Oval fruit of good size. Ripe fruit flesh is orange with very good flavour.

‘Edonis’ AGM: Early ripening F1 hybrid. Oval to globular fruit with bright orange, juicy flesh and good disease resistance.

‘Lavi Gal’ F1: A yellow, medium-sized melon with a creamy refreshing taste.

Musk type ‘Durandal’ AGM: F1 hybrid with small, flattened globe-shaped fruit and sweet orange flesh. Early to midseason.

Musk type Early Dawn’ AGM: Early ripening F1 hybrid. Oval fruit with dark green grooves and heavy cork netting; flesh orange when ripe.

Cantaloupe ‘Fastbreak’: Early cropping, high yielding and disease resistant, with pale green skin and sweet orange flesh.

Cantaloupe ‘Ogen’ AGM: Popular, like ‘Sweetheart’, for a cold frame or unheated greenhouse. Golden yellow when mature with light ‘netting’. Sweet flesh.

Cantaloupe ‘Sweetheart’ AGM: Early ripening; globular, medium sized, cream-coloured fruit with orange flesh.