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Muskmelon

Muskmelon, also known as cantaloupe, is a tender, heat-loving vegetable. Most varieties of the muskmelon have a musk smell; thus the name muskmelon. Muskmelon originated in India and were cultivated by settlers in the 1600's.

Recommended Varieties

All varieties are hybrids unless designated OP (for open-pollinated).

Orange-Fleshed:

Ambrosia (86 days to harvest, very sweet flesh)

Burpee Hybrid (85 days, standard eastern sutured melon)

Bush Star (88 days; 2 pounds; bush-type plant for limited space)

Earlisweet (68 days; very early; 2 to 3 pounds, good sweet flavor, firm flesh)

Gold Star (87 days, resistant to fusarium wilt)

Harper Hybrid (86 days, resistant to alternaria blight, fusarium wilt, mosaic)

Harvest Queen (OP-90 days, resistant to fusarium wilt)

Iroquois (OP-85 days, resistant to fusarium, very tasty)

Pulsar (80 days; heavily netted; tolerant to powdery mildew, fusarium)

Rising Star (84 days, resistant to fusarium race 2)

Saticoy (86 days; resistant to fusarium wilt, powdery mildew)

Supermarket (88 days; resistant to fusarium wilt, powdery mildew)

Superstar (86 days; resistant to fusarium race 2; large; fine flavor)

Green-Fleshed:

Jenny Lind (OP-75 days, heirloom; medium to small, flat melons, with protruding section at blossom end; sweet flesh)

Passport (73 days, luscious green flesh)

Rocky Sweet (80 days; thick, green, sweet flesh)

Sweet Dream (79 days; delicious, sweet, flavorful)

Hybrid Honeydew-Type:

Early Dew (85 days, creamy yellow rind, good flavor)

Honey Brew (90 days; high yield; strong, disease-resistant vines)

Limelight (96 days; 7 to 8 pounds; thick, juicy, sweet flesh)

Morning Dew (96 days; largest honeydew-type; 10 to 12 pounds; thick, sweet flesh)

Morning Ice (84 days; resistant to powdery mildew, fusarium race 2)

Venus (88 days; light netting over smooth, golden rind; thick, juicy, aromatic flesh)

Other Specialty Melons:

Casaba Golden Beauty (OP-110 days; 7 to 8 pounds; white, spicy-sweet flesh)

Early Crenshaw (90 days)

Honeyshaw (85 days, salmon pink flesh, delicious)

Marygold (92 days; casaba type; yellow, wrinkled skin with white flesh)

When to Plant

Muskmelons may be directly seeded or started as transplants. If the weather and soil are not warm and the soil moisture level moderate, the seeds do not germinate and the plants do not grow. Plant after the danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed and dried.

Gardeners in northern climates or other short-season areas who want early production may need to use transplants. To increase earliness, start seed for transplants 3 to 4 weeks before planting time. Because muskmelons do not transplant well if the roots are disturbed, you should start seed in individual containers. Proper temperatures for germinating and growing the transplants are very important. Do not allow transplants to become too large before planting in the garden or stunting and crop delays may result. Sterilized media should be used for starting seed to prevent damping-off and other diseases of seeds and seedlings.

Spacing & Depth

Plant seeds one inch deep and thin the seedlings 18 to 24 inches apart or the equivalent (two plants every 36 inches or three plants every 48 inches in the hill system). Space rows at least 5 feet apart.

Care

Fertile soils usually grow a fine crop of muskmelons with normal maintenance-fertilizer application plus one side-dress application of high-nitrogen fertilizer when the plants begin to vine. Muskmelons benefit especially from the incorporation of well-rotted manure before planting and also appreciate high potassium. All melons respond favorably to mulching with black plastic, especially early in the season. The mulch can be installed when the soil is in good planting condition anytime from a few days to 2 or 3 weeks before planting. Make holes every 2 or 3 feet to plant seed or transplants through the plastic. Use starter fertilizer to help transplants get established. Floating row covers also can be used to advantage over early season melon transplants. These covers exclude the worst of the cold and also early season insect invaders. Covers need not be removed until plants start to flower unless extremely hot weather threatens.

Muskmelons suffer from extremes in soil moisture (too much rain or an extended drought). Irrigation is recommended in case of drought, especially when the vines are growing and the fruits are developing. Trickle irrigation systems used with black plastic mulch work extremely well. Muskmelons ripen to the highest quality when the vines remain healthy throughout the harvest period, when temperatures are warm but not excessively high and when the weather is comparatively dry at the time of maturity.

Harvesting

Good eating quality depends upon the texture of the melons and the development of sugars from proper ripening on the vines. When muskmelons are ripe, the rind changes from a green to tan or yellow between the netting. They should be picked when the stem separates easily from the vine near the point of attachment ("half-slip" or "full-slip" stages of development). At these stages, there will be a crack near the point of attachment. Do not pick too early because the quality will not be as high as that of vine-ripened melons; sugars continue to be stored in the developing melons up to the moment the stem separates. Once picked, muskmelons soften but do not sweeten further.

Harvest early in the day after the plants are dry and be careful not to damage the vines. Pick every other day at the beginning of the season and go over the patch every day at peak season. Especially in dry seasons, wildlife and insects such as picnic beetles quickly attack the sweet, juicy, ripening and softening fruit.

Honeydew and crenshaw melons are cut off the vine after they turn completely yellow. Their stems do not "slip" at maturity. These melons continue to improve (become soft and mellow) if kept at room temperature for a few days. When they are completely ripe, the blossom end is slightly soft to pressure.

Common Problems

Control cucumber beetles. They damage muskmelons and spread bacterial wilt by feeding on the plants. When possible, plant varieties that are resistant to fusarium wilt and leaf diseases such as powdery mildew and alternaria blight.

For more information on cucumber beetles, see our feature in the Bug Review.

Questions & Answers

Q. Why do the first blossoms drop off my muskmelon plants?

A. The first flowers to appear on the vines are male, and they drop naturally. The female flowers, which open later, have a swelling at the base that forms the fruit. After bees pollinate these female flowers, the fruit develops.

Q. What causes poor (sparse) fruit set and low yields?

A. The failure for female flowers to set and develop melons can result from lack of proper pollination by bees; cool, wet weather (which also slows bee activity); and planting too close together, resulting in a dense, heavy growth of leaves (which also can suppress effective bee activity).

Q. How can I grow muskmelons in a small garden?

A. Muskmelon plants can be trained to a fence or trellis. Soon after the fruits begin to enlarge, they should be supported with mesh bags tied to the supporting structures or their weight may damage the vines.

Q. Do muskmelons cross-pollinate with other vine crops?

A. No. Muskmelons do not cross-pollinate with cucumbers, watermelons, squash or pumpkins. Different varieties of muskmelons cross-pollinate readily, but this cross-pollination is not evident unless seeds are saved and planted the following year. Cross-pollination does not make melons bitter.

Q. What causes poor flavor and lack of sweetness or fruits with smooth rinds?

A. Poor soil fertility (especially low potassium), cool temperatures, wet or cloudy weather, choosing a poorly adapted variety, loss of leaves by disease or picking the melons before they are ripe can all contribute to poor quality.