This is another post in my new monthly series, about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a mid-Atlantic climate. I cover planting, pruning, harvesting and care of the plants, according to the season. I’ll give links to useful publications. We have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month. We do grow apples and pears, and some other tree fruit, but I’m not writing about those as I don’t have much recent experience.
Melons are the focus fruit for July
July is the month in our climate, to start harvesting muskmelons (often called cantaloupes), Asian melons, and canary melons. Next month I’ll talk about watermelons, which are slower to ripen.
Melons love warm, sunny days and need 80-100 days from seed sowing to harvest. For good production, melons warm weather, along with a steady supply of water. Melon plants also need good air circulation, so leaves and fruit can dry fairly quickly after dew or rainfall. To help prevent the spread of diseases, rotate crops and avoid growing them where other cucurbits were planted in the previous year or two.
Melons thrive in well-drained soil, sandy loam, or in clay soils that have been good levels of organic matter. Soil pH should be 6-6.5 for healthy melons and a good yields. Encourage drought-resilient crops by using drip irrigation, so that roots grow deep.
Types of melons
Fastest to produce a crop are the 65-day Asian melons such as Torpedo (replaced Sun Jewel), or Early Silver Line. These 1-2lb (0.5-1kg) oblong melons have refreshing crisp white flesh and are mildly sweet. Some people disparage them as “cucumber melons,” but their good points are earliness, tolerance of chilly weather, being easy to grow and having a pleasant flavor.
Muskmelon (Cucumis melo reticulatus, commonly, but inaccurately called cantaloupe) is the melon type I have most experience with. They have a yellowish-buff skin with a raised netting, and sometimes lengthwise sutures (ribbing). The flesh is orange with a complex sweet aromatic flavor, and the 3–7 lbs (1.5–3 kg) fruits take 75-84 days to mature. We have enjoyed Pike, Kansas, Delicious 51, Edisto 47 and Hales Best. My long-time favorite was Ambrosia from Seminis Seeds, but when Seminis was bought by Monsanto, I stopped growing it, as I don’t want to support Monsanto in producing GMOs. For Downy mildew resistance and tolerance to cucumber beetles, grow Trifecta from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
True cantaloupes, Cucumis melo cantalupensis, are rarer in the US. They are rough and warty rather than netted. Prescott Fond Blanc and Petit Gris de Rennes are true cantaloupes, as are charentais melons. Charentais melons are smaller, round, good-flavored orange-fleshed melons. I have successfully grown 78-day Savor, a 2lb (0.9kg) melon with a green-grey skin and deep orange flesh.
Canary melons are smooth yellow 4lb (1.8kg) fruits with white flesh and are quite sweet.75 days to maturity. We have had good success with Mayor.
Crenshaw melons are large oblong 78-day melons with light yellow skin and very aromatic pale creamy orange flesh.
Galia tropical melons have green flesh, yellow-tan skins and a round shape. Honeydew melons are fast-maturing, smooth skinned oval melons, usually with pale-green flesh, although Honey Orange is salmon-colored. 3lbs (1.4kg), 74 days.
We tried some smaller (individual serving) melons, Tasty Bites. personal-size melons (they top out at 3lbs/1.4kg) and Sugar Cube 2–2 1/2 lb (1kg). The advantage of having a smaller fruit was not more than the disadvantage of harvesting smaller fruits.
Sowing melon seeds
Melons are a bit finicky in their youth, but given a strong start, they can do very well. You can sow melon seeds directly in the garden, but the seeds need soil temperatures of 59°F (15°C) minimum to germinate, and their best temperature is 86°F (30°C). At that temperature they only take 3 days to emerge. More and earlier success comes with sowing melon seeds indoors, where the right temperatures can happen earlier in the year. Maximum germination temperature is 100°F (38°C).
Up to three weeks before your average last frost date, sow 2 or 3 melon seeds in potting compost at a depth of ½” (1cm) in 3” (7.6cm) pots or plug flats. We are in zone 7a, with an approximate last frost date of April 25 – we sow April 15 for May 6 transplanting (21 days after sowing). After germination, the temperature should be reduced to 75°F (24°C). We always ensure our melons get a spot in the greenhouse with very good light and no drafts.
Keep the soil moist and when seedlings have reached 2” (5cm) in height, snip off the weakest ones at soil level, leaving one strong seedling per pot or cell. When the first true leaves appear, lower the temperature to 65°F (18°C) and reduce watering a little.
Harden off the transplants for a week before you set them into the garden. Set them outside in a shady area on warm days, gradually increasing the time outside each day from one hour to two hours, to three, and so on. Alternatively, use shadecloth and increase the sun exposure by an hour a day. Reduce watering a bit, to slow plant growth. Check your local weather forecast to ensure that your melon plants will not be subjected to chilly, windy conditions when they are young.
Before starting transplanting, check the soil temperature: garden soil should be at least 70°F (21°C) for melon survival. Melon plants exposed to temperatures cooler than recommended might not set fruit later on. One way to speed up soil warming is to cover the area with black plastic mulch for 1-3 weeks prior. Cut an x-shaped slit where for each plant and hold the edges of the plastic down with rocks. We space our melons at 2’ (60cm) apart in the row, with rows 6’ (2m) apart.
Melons are admittedly delicate to transplant. When outdoor conditions, soil temperature, and timing are right for transplanting melons, take great care in handling the plants. To help reduce transplant shock, water the flat (or pots) well before transplanting and avoid disturbing the roots when transplanting into the garden. Plant the entire stem in the ground, leaving only the seed leaves upwards exposed. The stems are fragile, and will do better protected in the ground. Water the soil thoroughly. If you are not using black plastic, spread organic mulch (straw, spoiled hay or dry tree leaves) around the melon vines. You might rather hoe and wait until hot weather to spread organic mulch, as this will keep the soil cool, and as I stressed already, melons like heat. Depending on soil fertility, you may want to add fish emulsion to encourage growth.
If the weather is less warm than you hoped, use hoops and thick rowcover until you are more confidant in the temperatures, then switch to netting. We hoop and net our melons immediately after transplanting, to keep the bugs off. We keep the netting on until we see female flowers (they have miniature melons between the flower and the plant). Melons require pollination, so it is necessary to remove the netting.
Care of melon plants
If weeds emerge through the mulch, pull them slowly, while stepping next to the melon stem. Melon roots near the surface can easily be injured. As melons ripen, put a piece of cardboard under the fruit to help prevent rot. With the late summer planting, you can pinch off new flowers to steer the plant’s energy into fruit that has already set. Keep the soil around melons watered with 1-2” (2-5 cm) per week, up until the last week or two before harvest. Holding back on water during this time leads to sweeter melons.
Succession crops of melons
In our climate we can sow melons three times, a month apart. The first row is from transplants, set outside May 3-6. We direct sow the second bed on May 25, then June 25 and once, on July 15 for a “Last Chance” crop.
Pests and diseases of melons
Like most cucurbits, melons are vulnerable to striped cucumber beetles. These pests chew on plants and spread diseases, such as bacterial wilt and mosaic virus. Protect against cucumber beetles with rowcover or insect netting applied at transplanting, or hunt them every morning on leaves and inside flowers, when beetles are more slow-moving. Watch for aphids in the garden, as they can also spread viruses. You can usually hose off leaves or apply an insecticidal soap to kill aphids before they inflict too much damage. In warm, humid climates like ours, melons are subject to powdery mildew, which can wipe out a melon crop if not caught in time. Look for melon varieties that are disease resistant.
Sudden wilt is caused by cold weather in late summer when the plants are loaded with ripening melons.
I recommend harvesting daily, in the mornings, once the dew has dried, to avoid spreading fungal diseases.
With muskmelons, when the background-color of the skin beneath the “netting” changes from gray-green to buff or a yellowish color, the melon is almost ripe. A honeydew melon will turn a light yellow-white color when it’s ripe.
For some varieties (but not all), if gentle pressure is applied to the base of the stem, and the stem separates from the vine, the melon is ready. This is called the “full slip” stage. (The half-slip stage requires a bigger nudge.) Crenshaw and Canary melons require a good tug (“forced slip”). Honeydew, Charentais, and Piel de Sapo must be cut from the vine – don’t wait for them to slip!
Storage time for melon depends on the type. Relative humidity should be 85-95% for best results. Muskmelons will last a couple weeks at 40°F (4°C); honeydew can be stored up to three weeks at 50°F (10°C). Store other melons at 45-50°F (7-10°C) for 7-14 days.
Other small fruits available in July
Blackberries, blueberries, crabapples, elderberries, gooseberries, goumi berries, mulberries, peaches, black and red raspberries.
If you live in Virginia, see https://www.vdacs.virginia.gov/pdf/producechart.pdf
Other fruit care in July
Water all fruit crops. Pack away blueberry netting after fruiting. Mow aisles, weed and water all fruit.
In late June/early July (after fruiting): Renovate one-year-old strawberry beds to carry over for another year, by mowing or shearing/clipping the plants, weeding and mulching, but don’t compost them at this stage. Dismantle two-year-old strawberry beds after gathering any propagation material.
If preparing to plant new plug-strawberries, till an area in late June or very early July and sow buckwheat by July 4. After three weeks, till in the buckwheat and prepare the beds.
If preparing to plant bare-root strawberries, (perhaps rooted runners in the paths of older beds), till the area by the beginning of July and prepare new beds with compost, driptape, and landscape fabric.
In early July, or at least by mid-July, plant new bare-root strawberry transplants.
July 6-14: To propagate from your own plants, pot up pencil-thick crowns, with 2 or 3 leaves, 4” (10cm) petioles. Use Round-50 plug trays. Or use runner tips. Set up a shadecloth propagation tent in a cold frame, or other protected area Set up a misting system and timer. Also handwater once or twice a day, to keep the soil damp.