Agricultural Sciences

Growing Melons Requires Patience, But Offers Great Rewards

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Watermelons, cantaloupes and other melons take months to grow, but patient and careful gardeners can produce superb crops, says a gardening expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

"Although there are a few areas in the state where growing seasons are too short, most gardeners can grow watermelons and muskmelons," says Peter Ferretti, professor of vegetable crops. "However, most Pennsylvania gardeners shouldn't try to grow Crenshaw or casaba melons, which are semi-tropical melons that require growing seasons with higher temperatures."

Ferretti recommends growing melons either from starter plants purchased at a reputable nursery or garden center, or indoors from seed started 19 to 25 days before they are needed for planting in the garden. Soil temperatures should be very warm. "Gardeners should plant around May 31 in central Pennsylvania," Ferretti says.

"Use pots made from peat moss, so you don't have to disturb the roots when planting," Ferretti says. "All you have to do is break the bottom corners of the pot, and the roots will spread out."

Because melon plants are vine-like, Ferretti advises spacing the plants well apart. "If you are planting in rows, plants should be every 2 feet apart in the row, allowing 6 to 8 feet between rows," he says.

Depending on the variety, melons will take from 75 to 90 days to develop. Each plant should produce three to five melons before frosts kill the plant in the fall. "This is not a crop for the impatient gardener," Ferretti says. "They take a long time to grow, and there's a small window of time in which to enjoy eating them."

Ferretti says melons require only moderate fertilizer, noting that gardeners should not add too much nitrogen to the crop. "Too much nitrogen delays fruit set and therefore fruit maturity and yield. It also increases the chance for leaf diseases. If too many leaves are diseased, not enough sugar will be produced, and the melons will taste like cucumbers," he says.

Melon plants have several insect pests to watch out for:

--Flea beetle. These insects will attack the plant as a seedling only.

--Spotted or striped cucumber beetles or corn earworm beetle. These pests can ruin a crop by eating large amounts of foliage. More important, however, is their role as a carrier of Bacterial Wilt. "As the bacteria build up in the plant's water transportation system, the plant's ability to absorb water is cut off, and the plant suddenly wilts overnight," Ferretti says. "It takes some time for the bacteria to accumulate, so the plant wilts just about the time it's ready to bear fruit."

Ferretti says beetles can ravage plants in just one night, so he recommends using a cover over young plants at night or spraying as soon as the seedlings are planted. The best insecticides are Marlate (methoxychlor), or Sevin and Malathion. He also says a general fungicide will eliminate fungal diseases in a small home garden.

Proper harvesting methods vary by melon variety:

--Muskmelons (cantaloupes). "When they're perfectly ripe, a soft tug should break or slip the fruit off the vine," Ferretti says.

--Honeydew. These melons have a smoother rind, which ripens from green to a yellow or creamy color, Ferretti says. When the color has completely changed, remove the melon by cutting from the vine. Some newer varieties can be picked by slipping the fruit from the vine.

--Watermelons. When the spot where the watermelon makes contact with the soil turns light yellow, the melon is ripe. Another accurate method to determine ripeness concerns a pigtailed tendril of growth near the stem of the watermelon. "If the tendril is brown or dried out, the watermelon is ripe," Ferretti says. "Watermelons should be removed from the vine with a knife or pruning shears."


EDITORS: For more information, contact Peter Ferretti at 814-863-2313.

Contacts: John Wall 814-863-2719 814-865-1068 fax

Last Updated March 19, 2009