Prized for their sugary, refreshing flesh, melons (Cucumis melo) such as honeydews and cantaloupes, or muskmelons, are a staple crop in many summer gardens. They are tender annual crops that require a lengthy growing season to prosper and bear fruit. Melons need relatively little hands-on care to perform well, although they must be grown under the right conditions in a properly prepared site to reach their full potential.
Cultivars and Climate
In general, melons need 80 to 100 warm, frost-free days to bear fruit. Cantaloupes mature fastest, with most producing ripe fruit in 75 to 85 days, while honeydew melons grow slowly, reaching maturity at around 100 days. With such a lengthy growing season, melons might seem out of reach for gardeners in cooler climates. However, early-maturing cultivars such as "Earlisweet" cantaloupes and "Early Dew" honeydews give gardeners in short-season areas a more even playing field, with the former ripening at 68 days and the latter at 85.
Regardless of type or cultivar, all melons share the same growing conditions. Full sun and well-draining soil are vital, as is good air circulation. Choose a site with at least 6 to 8 feet of space for each plant. Melons tolerate loamy or sandy soil as long as it drains well and warms quickly in spring, but it should have a pH between 6.5 and 7.5 to ensure good nutrient uptake. In areas with poor drainage or heavy clay-based soil, plant melons on a slope or on raised hills measuring 6 to 8 inches tall and 3 feet across.
Site Preparation and Planting
Melons grow equally well from direct seeding or transplants, although the planting technique varies with the climate. Direct seeding works best in warmer climates, while transplants are best in colder areas. Prepare the planting site after all frost danger has passed and soil temperatures have warmed to above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Amend the top 12 to 15 inches of soil with a 2- to 4-inch layer of compost. Plant transplants 2 feet apart in rows 6 to 8 feet apart and sow seeds 4 inches apart at a depth of 1 inch. Thin the seedlings to 2 feet apart once they produce mature leaves, keeping the healthiest and removing the weakest.
Water plays a key role in the development of melons. Gardeners in areas with rainy summers need only irrigate melons if less than 1 inch of rain falls per week, while gardeners in areas where summer rain is rare must provide an inch of water weekly. Run a hose at the base of the plant to saturate the soil in the top 12 inches, which is the equivalent of 1 inch of water. Decrease water by half as the melons form to concentrate their sugars, providing water only when the soil dries out and the leaves show a slight wilt. Spread a 2-inch layer of mulch between the plants to conserve moisture and protect the roots from drying out.
Amended soil provides all the nutrients most melon plants need to produce abundant, high-quality fruit. However, very porous or sandy soil may not hold on to nutrients effectively enough to provide adequate nutrition during the growing season, so supplemental feeding might be required. Side-dress the plants with 1/2 cup of 10-10-10 fertilizer as the runners begin to spread, sprinkling the fertilizer 6 to 8 inches from the base of the plant. After feeding, water deeply to dilute and distribute the fertilizer into the soil.