HAS A JUICY, PLENTIFUL HARVEST of melons eluded you—perhaps because your growing season feels too short up North, or because powdery mildew attacked your plants in high summer, a challenge even in Southern, longer-season areas? How to grow melons: tips for success, in print and on my latest podcast, too, with Tom Stearns of High Mowing Organic Seeds.
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HOW TO GROW MELONS was the subject of the latest edition of my weekly public-radio program, with High Mowing Organic Seeds‘ Tom Stearns as my guest. Tricks for outsmarting some common tomato diseases are also featured. Listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday about 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The March 18, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marks the start of its fourth year this month, and is syndicated via PRX.
how to grow melons
THE KEY TO SUCCESS with melons wherever you grow them, say Stearns (left), a seed farmer who bravely raises both heirloom and hybrid melons successfully in Zone-4B northern Vermont, is getting them off to a strong start, and ripening them before the weather cools. Though his climate doesn’t provide it naturally, particularly in spring, Stearns simulates what melons want: an early start, consistent warmth, sufficient moisture—and the chance to finish their fruit in the heat, and also well ahead of the ravages of powdery mildew.
Selecting a short-season variety, giving the seeds an indoor headstart of four or five weeks, then transplanting to a raised bed that was warmed up first with a mulch of black plastic puts melons on a path to success. Covering transplants with Reemay for the first four to six weeks outdoors is Stearns’s other key headstart tactic (details below, and in the podcast).
“It’s like they’re in their own little New Jersey,” the Vermonter says of his plants that are positively bursting to escape from the insulating fabric by the time he uncovers them a week or so after flowering begins.
Instead of a spindly little vine or two perhaps 1 to 2 feet long, Stearns says, melons given this extra protection may have as many as 10 vines 3 or 4 feet in length by the time they’re out from under cover to allow insect pollinators to do the melon-making. Sound good?
more melon-growing tips from tom stearns
- Choose shorter-season varieties, if that’s where you garden geographically. But if you are up North, be sure to adjust the days-to-harvest listed on seed packets, which are geared to Zone 6-ish conditions. “Those are days that are not northern-Vermont days—a 100-day variety might take 100 to 120 days in northern Vermont,” for instance.
- Growing short-season varieties can help both Northern and Southern gardeners alike. Even down South, where diminishing late-summer heat isn’t an issue, the shorter days-to-harvest means crops can finish before the costly mildew sets in, or before drought conditions intensify.
- Beat the mildew. But how does a foliar disease such as powdery mildew affect fruit? You may not see it on the melon, but don’t be fooled. What this disease is doing: “Sucking the sugar out of the melon to feed itself,” he explains.
- Don’t jump the gun on removal of the Reemay. Why not remove the Reemay at the sight of the first flower? “For the first 10 days with melon plants, all the flowers are males, so you’re not missing out on pollination,” he explains.
melon sowing-and-growing timeline
- Sow indoors under lights four or five weeks from your frost-free outdoor transplant date.
- Meantime, cover 3-foot-wide raised beds (where soil warms fastest) with black plastic.
- At transplant set-out time a month or so later, space hardened-off seedlings a foot apart, cutting holes in the plastic down the row. The plastic will also thwart weeds.
- Water in well, then tuck in the plants under a one-layer Reemay row cover.
- Leave the Reemay on until about 7-10 days into the plants’ flowering cycle, when it’s removed to allow pollination.
(Photo of ‘Hale’s Best’ melon, courtesy of High Mowing Organic Seeds. Used with permission. Disclosure: A Way to Garden is proud to have High Mowing Organic Seeds as one of its seasonal advertisers.)