Everything I’ve Learned About How To Grow Cantaloupes

fresh cut open cantaloupe

Cantaloupes aren’t exactly a traditional item in Italian-Canadian or Italian-American gardens. In fact, of all the family gardens I grew up in, I can’t ever remember seeing them being grown. But that’s not to say we didn’t enjoy eating them – prosciutto e melone was VERY common and so were slices of them after dinner. Perhaps it's how they grow, as a vining plant that takes up space. Or maybe it’s climatic, knowing that a below-seasonal summer could lead to a poor crop. Whatever the reason, once I had a home and ideal garden of my own I knew I wanted to try them. Now, after three years of experimentation I finally have a good grasp on what it takes to successfully grow cantaloupe from seed. If you are new to growing cantaloupes, or want to get better at it, follow these tips.

Start Seeds Early

Cantaloupes aren’t quick growers. Expect at least 90 days from germination to first harvest. The melons alone need at least 40 days once pollinated to size-up and be ready for picking. Therefore, it’s best to start cantaloupe from seed, indoors, at least 4 weeks before you plan to put them outside. Cantaloupe seeds are medium-sized, will germinate quickly, and the roots of the plants can be sensitive to disturbance when transplanting, so start them in at least 6 inch pots with 2 seeds per pot. 

Cantaloupes Thrive in Heat

Melons thrive during long, hot summers. To ensure good growth, only transplant them once nighttime temperatures stay above 15°C (59°F). I have had the best result growing them in mounds or hills – as raised soil will be warmer and drain better. For increasing soil temperatures even higher, try laying black tarp or plastic on the ground around the plants to absorb and radiate the sun’s heat. These tricks are especially necessary if you live in an area with short or unpredictable summers. 

Protect Them From Pests

The worst enemy of cantaloupe that I have faced is the cucumber beetle. These are small, yellow beetles with either black dots or stripes. They feed on the leaves and stems of the vines which stunts growth and infects them with bacterial wilt before laying their eggs in the soil to hatch next year and do it all again. One way to avoid these beetles on other crops is by delaying your planting into early summer, but that won’t leave enough time for cantaloupes to grow. So where insects are a problem, cover young plants under a clear plastic polytunnel – this also helps to create a greenhouse environment to raise soil temperature and jumpstart growth. Once flowers form, remove the cover so pollinators can do their work. In the late fall, turn the soil where the cantaloupes grew to expose any overwintering insect eggs to snow and cold. 

cucumber beetle on watermelon

Give Them Space

Cantaloupe plants should be spaced at least 2 ft apart when planting, but very soon a healthy vine will spread many directions and grow up to 10 ft long. This can take up a lot of your garden so plan rows 5 ft apart. If you’re tight on space, they can be grown vertically. Cantaloupe vines can be trained up a trellis or fence, or left to cascade over the side of a high raised garden bed or wall. In this vertical method you will need to support the weight of melons from breaking off the vines – try tying a wide strip of cloth under them like a sling.

hanging cantaloupe

Pruning

Like their other vining (cucurbits) plant relatives such as cucumbers and watermelons, suckers are secondary growth shoots that form off of the main stem of cantaloupe vines. You will find them coming out of the junction where there is a leaf, tendril and flower. In my experience it is best to prune back about 1/3rd of all suckers. This helps to thin out the foliage, ensuring airflow amongst leaves which helps to manage and prevent bacterial and fungal diseases. It also helps the plant direct energy into forming fewers larger melons rather than more leaves and smaller fruits. When growing only a few plants, pruning any more than this amount will leave you with too few flowers for effective pollination. If growing many plants over a larger area, or training each vine vertically on it’s own, more suckers can be removed. 

Water Deeply

Cantaloupes are very thirsty. Give them at least 2 inches of water per week, which is about 1.5 gallons (5 and a half litres) per square foot of soil. Maintaining proper soil moisture is important while vines establish and before fruits begin to form. Once melons are growing to full size, cut watering in half as dry, hot weather increases their sugar content. When fruits begin to form  – and soil temperatures are consistently high enough – it is also a good time to add a layer of mulch or straw around the plants to help keep moisture in the soil. 

Know When to Pick

After a long summer of growing and caring for your melons, the worst thing you can do is remove a cantaloupe off the vine before it is ripe. Unlike tomatoes or bananas, cantaloupes  will not continue ripening after they are picked, so it’s very important to time it right. Here are four signals for if a cantaloupe is ready:

  • It will begin to smell fruity and fragrant
  • The colour of the skin will change from green/beige to more cream/yellow
  • The stem will lose its green colour and dry or even crack
  • The melon will pull easily from the vine by hand, with no need to cut it off

when to pick ripe cantaloupe

If you want more information on successfully growing cantaloupes, consider one of my garden coaching programs. In these one-on-one sessions you will learn tips and tricks, plus have all your  questions answered on growing cantaloupes or any other fruits and veggies successfully. Additionally, if you need help knowing where and how to grow cantaloupes in your garden, my custom garden plans can make the best use of your unique space. Lastly, please don’t forget to leave a comment below if you found this guide helpful. 

Buon giardinaggio!

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