Melons can be grown outdoors in many gardens around the country as long as summer is as it should be – hot and sunny. Wherever they can be grown they make a fragrant and delicious addition to any food-producing garden. Melons grow on vines that crawl and sprawl around the garden.
Companions Sweet corn, sunflowers, beans, marigold, nasturtium, marjoram.
Quantity 1 plant per household
Rock melon needs three months of hot sunny weather to produce the sweet orange-fleshed fruit. Rock melons are round with a whitish mesh patterning on their green skin.
Honeydew melon rounded fruit with a creamy smooth skin and fragrant, pale green flesh.
Watermelon large growing red-fleshed melons that need more heat and longer ripening period than smaller growing varieties.
Plant seedlings outdoors when all risk of frost has passed. In warmer areas sow under cover in September and plant out under cloches from early October as long as it is warm.
In cooler spots sow under cover and plant out under cloches when all risk of frosts has passed and soil is warm.
A larger greenhouse would also be useful in parts of the country that don’t get constant warmth through summers.
Sun, sun and more sun. Melons taste sweeter the more sun and warmth they get. They also need sufficient space for the sprawling stems and fleshy leaves. Like zucchini and pumpkins, melons can be ‘steered’ in an appropriate direction once they get going but are often placed at corners or edges of beds so they are less likely to overpower smaller, slower growing vegetables nearby.
Melons like a well-drained soil with plenty of organic material mixed through it. I dig a round hole about the size or a bucket and fill it with rotted horse manure, seaweed, compost, chicken poo, sheep pellets – whatever I have to hand – mixing with the garden soil as I go. Then I add two or three spades full of fine pumice (coarse sand would also do it) and mix in to improve drainage. To further ensure good drainage I then mound up the soil in the planting spot so that it ends up like a small hill.
Melon seeds are best pushed edgeways down about a finger tip deep into seed compost in a small fibre pot (around a finger length in height) and put on a warm windowsill or in a greenhouse.
Generally, it is a good idea to plant two seeds per pot and then select the stronger of the two when they have developed a pair of leaves (just pinch out the weaker one at soil level). Place pots into clear plastic bags to keep compost moist and warm as the seedling develops. Remove bags once shoots appear and leaves are beginning to open. Keep compost moist. You may need to transplant into larger pots (a full hand’s length tall) if roots start to appear through the drainage holes in the bottom or your first pot.
If you are buying seedlings then go for specimens that are growing strongly in their pots and not flopping around all over the place.
Melons, like tomatoes and pumpkins cannot handle any frost at all so wait until all risk of frost in your area has passed. This can mean waiting till October and even after Labour Day in warmer areas before you plant your seedlings in the garden. In colder parts of the country you may find you have to wait until December.
Each plant will easily grow a distance of several strides from its planting spot so either plant around the garden where space and opportunity allow or plant in a large bed allowing a space that is at least a stride by a stride per melon seedling. Make a hole as deep as your pot and pop the seedling in before back-filling and gently firming the soil around it. Cover with a plastic bottle cloche and water well. When the seedling is nudging against the bottle cloche you may want to swap for a larger polythene cloche until weather is constantly warm and balmy.
Melons can be grown against a fence or trellis. Plants benefit from more air flow when grown vertically and fruit are often supported in a sling of mesh – something made from an old onion bag or some bird mesh that takes the full weight of the fruit off the stem and clambering tendrils that cling to available supports.
As they start to explore their territory water your plants when weather is dry. As soon as the main stem has grown to about a single stride from the planting hole pinch out the tip. This will encourage earlier development of the all important side shoots that produce more female flowers that have the potential to bear fruit.
Flowering/pollination: To ensure you get fruit to form you may want to try your hand at hand-pollination. To do this, pick a male flower, these are grouped in small clusters on short stems with no visible swelling behind the petals, whereas female flowers are produced singly and have a small swelling behind their petals. Fold the petals on male flower back and brush the central part of the flower – male stamen and anthers that carry pollen - onto the center of a few female flowers.
Melons won’t continue to ripen once picked so wait until the fruits smell sweet through their skin at the end opposite to the stem. Fruit should make a hollow sound when gently drummed upon with finger tips – as if doing some energetic typing. Place picked fruit in a plastic bag in the fridge.
Once melons have formed reduce your watering so that you merely do so to prevent foliage from wilting. Now you can encourage ripening by removing all other fruit but the largest on any single shoot and then pinching out the growing tip two leaves ahead of the remaining fruit. Put some straw or a flat piece of wood under your selected fruit to protect from damp soil.
Slugs and snails can do significant damage to melons so go on night patrols. Towards the end of summer melons often develop a grey, ash-like coating to their leaves. This is powdery mildew and its spread is often due to humidity, poor air circulation or irregular moisture levels. This can mean the end of fruitful fun if not promptly addressed. Remove any leaves as soon as you see the first signs to slow the spread and buy some time. You can spray powdery mildew with Baking soda spray but, given the size of a melon plant, this can be impractical.