Cantaloupe is fun to grow, super healthy, and tastes amazing picked fresh and perfectly ripe from the garden. The melon commonly called a cantaloupe in the U.S. is actually a type of muskmelon. The real cantaloupe is not commercially available in the U.S. and is identified by its rough, warty rind. For the purposes of this article on how to grow cantaloupe, we are referring to the muskmelon version known commonly in North America.
Maturity times may vary slightly for different types of cantaloupe. Mainly, you’ll choose between bush types and vine varieties. Bush types will require a little more width of space and vine varieties will need space for their vines to stretch out but can often be trained to grow up a trellis. Try “Ambrosia,” considered to be one of the sweetest types of cantaloupe or “Minnesota Midget,” which is more suited to northern climates.
WHEN TO GROW
Cantaloupes are planted well after the last frost of the spring, once soil temperatures have reached 70° F. They can be started indoors a month earlier to get a head start on the growing season, which will be necessary in cooler regions. They need 80-100 days of hot, sunny weather in order to reach maturity.
WHERE TO GROW
Cantaloupes can be grown successfully in zones 4-11. In the more northern zones, they’ll need to be started indoors and you may need to use plastic mulch to warm the soil in order to have enough time to see them through to maturity before the cold weather sets in. Choose a sunny location in your garden. They’ll take as much sunlight as possible. You can also train the vines to grow up a trellis, which can save space.
Cantaloupes can grow in large 5-gallon containers as well. Allow enough space around the pots for the vines to spill over the edges.
BEST SOIL FOR GROWING CANTALOUPES
Cantaloupes prefer loamy, well draining soil. Amend your soil with 3-4 inches of mature compost before planting. Test the soil to be sure the pH is 6.0 – 6.8.
When possible, plant cantaloupes in hills or raised beds. This will help with drainage, which is key. Start seedlings in biodegradable containers, such as peat cups. This will help with transplanting as the roots can be very sensitive and do not transplant well. Sow seeds about an inch deep in good quality potting soil. Apply bottom heat to ensure the soil temperature is 80° F.
Transplant healthy 4-6 week old seedlings once outside temperatures are safe. Keep them spaced at least 12 inches apart when growing on a trellis. If the vines will lay across the ground, give them about 3 feet of space between plants. You can have 2-3 seedlings per hill if you like. Leave only 1 per hill in colder regions to expedite growth.
You can also direct sow your cantaloupe seeds when growing in warmer regions. Follow instructions on the seed packet for your variety and plant several seeds per hill. Thin to the strongest 2-3 plants and space them as suggested above.
Always harden off your cantaloupe seedlings before transplanting. Bring them outdoors only during the daytime at first, increasing the time each day for at least a week. On the last day, leave them outside in their containers overnight and transplant the next morning. Cantaloupes are susceptible to transplant shock, so it’s important to do everything you can to limit the risk. Do not let the roots dry out. Transplant moist seedlings into already moistened soil and try to transplant on a cool, overcast day or before the afternoon sun gets too hot.
WATERING & CARE
Water cantaloupes regularly, particularly early on. Keep the soil moist without ever over watering. Cut back just a bit as the fruits begin to develop and even more as they start to ripen. Water just as the soil begins to dry out. Give just enough water so the leaves don’t wilt. This will help to concentrate the sugar, making for sweeter melons.
Avoid overhead watering, which can foster mold and other plant diseases. Water at the base of the plants and try to keep the foliage dry. Water in the early morning, particularly as the summer becomes increasingly dry and hot.
Mulch will be key to growing good cantaloupes. Add a thick layer of straw or wood chips around the base of each plant before the vines begin to grow. Mulch helps fight root competition from weeds while maintaining warm, moist soil.
Cantaloupes will benefit from a monthly feeding of compost tea or a well-balanced, organic fertilizer. Avoid fertilizers that are high in nitrogen. They are good for lush leaves, but bad for big, healthy melons.
DISEASE & PEST CONTROL
Try to keep your cantaloupes off of the ground. Slide a board underneath them. This will limit the risk of rot and deter pests. Row covers, netting and fencing may be necessary to repel many pests and varmints that like cantaloupe. Insecticidal soap is a good organic method of pest control for cucumber beetles, aphids and other pests that target melons. Practice good crop rotation and bear in mind that cucumber family plants and melons attract the same pests and soilborne diseases such as bacterial wilt. Bacterial wilt will set in very suddenly (such as overnight) and has no cure. Best to choose disease-resistant varieties and keep healthy, well cared for plants.
Don’t pick cantaloupes too early or you will defeat half the purpose of growing your own. When a cantaloupe becomes ripe it begins to smell very aromatic and the rind transforms from gray-green to yellow and the netting texture/pattern becomes more pronounced. The stem will begin to crack and the cantaloupe will pull easily from the vine. If you have to tear, cut or clip them, they are not yet ripe.
TIPS & ADVICE
If you are growing the vines on a trellis, you will need to build a support, sort of like a hammock for each melon, particularly for heavier varieties. Use pantyhose or soft fabric as a sling under each melon and tie to the trellis.
Leaves produce the sugar that makes cantaloupes so good. Keep the leaves healthy and you should have delicious melons. Avoid pruning leaves or shoots. Unlike other fruits and vegetables, they are needed to produce great fruit.
Some suggest that you let your cantaloupes sit for a day or two in a warm place after harvesting. This will purportedly bring out even more sweetness. Others claim that they do not continue to sweeten after being picked. You be the judge.
Uncut cantaloupes can store for 5-6 days. Put sliced cantaloupe in the refrigerator for up to 3 days wrapped in plastic.
Floating row covers can be very useful when growing cantaloupe in colder regions. They help to trap warm air and can extend your growing season. Don’t forget to remove them as flowers begin to open so bees can pollinate.
Do you have tips or questions on how to grow cantaloupe? Let us know in the comments section below.