Biting into a fresh cool melon in the summer heat is an annual reward for all our hard gardening work. From whopping watermelons to tiny jelly melons and every size in between, there are many different flavors to enjoy.
No one can agree where muskmelons came from, with originating sources from tropical Africa to India. Regardless of their origin, muskmelons are a common melon in American gardens. These heat-loving vines grow prolifically with full sun and moderate water. They produce oblong fruits six to eight inches long, usually with orange flesh, although some types have light green, pinkish, or white flesh.
To grow muskmelons, choose a sunny location with well-amended soil. Plant the seeds about 3/4-inch deep, 18 inches apart when all danger of frost is past and the soil temperature is at least 80 degrees. If you’re going to just grow a few plants, you can sow five or six seeds near each other and thin to two or three plants. Cucumber beetles love muskmelons, so plant a few radishes around the melon seeds to deter them. Let the radishes go to seed and save the seed for next year’s melon season.
When ripe, 75 to 90 days after sowing, the green rind turns tan or yellow and the fruit is easily removed from the vine. You can also wait until the fruit actually slips from the vine, although some types do not slip by themselves. Pick daily when fruits are ripe because insects are drawn to the sweet flesh.
Muskmelons are often called cantaloupe in markets, but true cantaloupes have harder, rougher skin without the characteristic netting seen on muskmelons. Some types have protrusions that look like warts. Although not commercially grown in the United States, home gardeners can grow them for variety. They have a delicate and sweet flavor. Grow them like muskmelons and enjoy.
The largest edible fruit grown in America, watermelons originate from southern Africa. They vary in size from five to one hundred pounds, with market melons averaging around 10 to 20 pounds. The flesh varies in color from red to light yellow.
Watermelons need a lot of room to grow—about 20 square feet per plant. Plant watermelon seeds about 3/4-inch deep in a sunny location after all danger of frost is past and soil temperature is at least 70 degrees. The fruits reach maturity 80 to 95 days after planting. To determine ripeness, look at the light background color of the part of the fruit resting on the ground. It’s ripe when the background color changes from white to light yellow. Flavor improves with storage at room temperature for a few days.
Although seedless watermelons are all the rage, I don’t recommend them for two reasons. First, they’re hybrid plants, which don’t belong in any self-sustaining garden. Sustainability and preserving genetic diversity should be goals of everyone who lives off the grid. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, less than 10 percent of watermelons sold in California have seeds in them. This trend is expected to continue.
The second reason for growing watermelon with seeds is that they’re a valuable food source. They can be roasted and salted for a crunchy complement to other garden vegetables.
Now let’s discuss a melon that’s relatively new to this country. Jelly melons, which grow wild in Africa, were discovered growing in New Zealand in 1982. An enterprising couple began cultivating them, and eventually jelly melons became commercially available in the United States.
Jelly melons are cucumber-sized orange fruits with thorns that resemble little horns, which is why they’re also called African horned cucumber. The fruit has a bright green flesh that you can either squeeze into your mouth or juice in a blender. To me, with a little sugar, they taste like a sweet lime, but others have reported a taste like bananas, papaya, cucumbers, and even pomegranate. In other words, you need to try it for yourself!
To grow jelly melons, wait until the soil is at least 70 degrees and all danger of frost is gone. Direct seed 1/2-inch deep about 18 inches apart. Use trellising to give the rampant vines a place to go and save space. The fruit is mature three to four months later.
There are both disadvantages and advantages to growing jelly melons. The disadvantages are that it is thorny and therefore requires some care when harvesting. Also, it is so productive that in areas that don’t freeze, it can become a weed. However, I believe the fruit has two benefits that greatly outweigh its disadvantages. First, this melon’s native climate in Africa is hot and dry with poor soil. It grows in many types of soil without amendment and requires little water. Second, there are few fruits (except strawberries) that you can grow as an annual and get results the first year.
Melons are easy to grow, taste great, and are productive. Grow some heirloom muskmelons and watermelons to enjoy these traditional favorites, and then try the jelly melon for a unique treat.