Days to germination: 5 to 10 days
Days to harvest: 80 to 100 days
Light requirements: Full sun
Water requirements: Regularly until fruit sets
Soil: Loose and well-drained
Container: Shorter varieties work best
You’ll need a long and sunny growing season for a successful cantaloupe harvest but the flavor of your fruit crop is worth taking a chance. Some varieties mature faster than others, so even shorter growing seasons can accommodate some cantaloupes (try EarliChamp or EarliGold). Cantaloupes are also known as “muskmelons” or “rockmelons”.
After the seeds are scooped out, the orange flesh is very sweet and high in vitamins A and C, as well as potassium. It’s almost always eaten raw.
Starting from Seed
Start your cantaloupe seeds around 3 to 4 weeks before your last frost date. Sow your seeds about an inch deep in your potting soil. Cantaloupe plants are very sensitive to transplanting, so you should start your seeds in paper or peat cups that can be planted all in one piece rather than try to dislodge the seedling from a plastic pot.
When planting, tear the bottom of the cup out so the growing roots will have no obstructions at all.
Because of its vining nature, cantaloupes can be trained to grow up a trellis. It saves space and helps keep the fruit off the ground. The challenge is keeping the fruit secure while it’s hanging in the air. Cantaloupe plants can’t naturally support their own heavy fruit if grown this way.
With a little ingenuity, the home gardener can still make it work. People who trellis their cantaloupe usually make little bags or hammocks out of fabric or even old pantyhose to help support the growing fruit. Attach the slings to your trellis or stake, not to the vines.
If you are going to grow your cantaloupes upwards, then you can plant your seedlings closer together in a row. Seedlings should be spaced about 12 inches apart. For cantaloupes that are going to spread their vines along the ground, keep the plants around 3 feet apart. Though in that case, you can plant 2 or 3 seedlings together in a small hill.
Your seedlings should go out in the garden two to three weeks after your frost date. Dig the soil deeply so that it’s quite loose more than 6 inches down, and add fertilizer.
When you water your cantaloupes, keep the water down at the roots and soil. Adding water over the leaves can increase the chances of disease and fungus infection. Keep your seedlings well watered, especially when they start to develop their melons.
Unlike most other plants, after the fruit begins to grow, you should actually cut back on the water. This helps to concentrate the sugars in the fruit, making for sweeter melons. Let your plants dry out just until you can detect a bit of wilt, or when the soil is dry to the touch. Fertilize regularly, with monthly applications of standard fertilizer mix.
Fruit that is growing down on the ground can be protected from early rot or other pests if you place something solid under them to keep them off the soil. Coffee can lids work well, and it keeps your fruit cleaner too.
If you have a short growing season, you can help your plants focus on just a few fruit by picking off the flowers after your plants have started 3 or 4 melons. They will grow quicker if the vines aren’t also busy trying to make more.
Pretty much any variety of cantaloupe can be grown in a container, and you can either let the vines spill over the sides or use a support. To make it easier, smaller plants (with smaller melons) will do better for container gardening.
Minnesota Midget has 4″ fruits and is one of the better choices for pots. The bush is compact and the smaller melons won’t need as much support. Use a pot that’s at least 12″ across, or even a big 5 gallon pail.
Pests and Diseases
Various forms of wilt can harm your plants, and these diseases can live in the soil from one year to the next. So rotate your crops and don’t keep planting cantaloupes in the same place. You can’t treat for wilt, but many melon varieties have been developed that are resistant to it.
Cantaloupes are related to the cucumber, and can be targeted by several of the same insect pests. Cucumber beetles have black with yellow stripes and can really devastate your plants by chewing the leaves. Pick them off when you see them, and treat your plants with a vegetable-safe insecticide. Same goes for squash vine borers, another insect that will eat the vine’s leaves and stalks.
Powdery mildew is a common problem in any vegetable garden, and looks like a dusting of white powder on the leaves. Don’t let the leaves get wet when you water your plants, and treat them with fungicide as soon as you detect the problem.
Harvest and Storage
You can’t pick cantaloupes early, so you need to wait until the fruit is mature before you harvest anything. It can be a bit tricky knowing exactly when your melons are ready, and there are a few ways to tell.
The net-like texture on the outside will be quite rough and pronounced, and the melon should come away from the stem very easily. There should also be a very sweet smell to the melons, right where they join the stem. Some people tap their melons and listen for the right kind of thump. That’s not the most accurate way of telling anything and its usually grocery shoppers who do this, not gardeners.
For those last few melons at the end of the season, they can tolerate some light frost if you cover your plant with plastic at night. You may be able to keep the plants going long enough to ripen the last of the harvest.
You will get the best flavor if you let your fruit sit for a day or two after picking, in a warm place. This last bit of ripening will bring out all the sweetness. That doesn’t mean you can pick your fruit before they are ready and have them ripen on the windowsill. They still need to be fully mature before you pick them.
If you aren’t going to use them in 3 to 4 days, then they can be stored in the refrigerator.