Canteloupe is a delicious melon for your summer garden

Story and Photos by Christine Coker

When we purchase “cantaloupe” in a U.S. grocery store, what we’re used to seeing is a fruit with an outer surface that consists of netting, an orderly mosaic pattern, that sits atop and covers the outermost skin. We may or may not also see ribbing on the cantaloupe (ribbing in the sense of lines running from one end of the cantaloupe to the other, like the seams on a basketball). But if we do see ribbing, it is not usually very heavy or very deep. Melons with a very developed and orderly netting and only mild-to-moderate ribbing are not true cantaloupes, but rather a type of muskmelon (Cucumis melo), of which there are many types grown throughout the world. For the purpose of this article, we’re going to stick with their common U.S. name: cantaloupe. 

Young fruits are greenish gray and do not have netting.

Cantaloupes are members of the botanical family Cucurbitaceae, which also includes watermelon, pumpkin, squash, and cucumber. What do these plants have in common? Most species are fast-growing prostrate or climbing vines with long-stalked palmate leaves that alternate along the stem. At the sides of the leafstalks in annual species there is a simple, often branched, spirally coiled tendril. Another characteristic of this family is their sensitivity to cold temperatures. This factor limits their geographic distribution and area of cultivation. With our long growing season, this is a prime growing area for cantaloupes.

Each cantaloupe variety is a little different, but most are ready when the skin begins to turn from a grayish green to yellow and a light tug separates the fruit from the vine.

Cantaloupes generally fall into two types: eastern and western. Western cantaloupe generally weigh 2-4 pounds, are heavily netted with shallow sutures (grooves), and have a small seed cavity. Eastern-type cantaloupes normally weigh 5-8 pounds, have less pronounced netting with very deep sutures, and a large seed cavity. Most supermarket cantaloupes are western types, but many local markets prefer the larger eastern types.

Cantaloupes require light, well-drained soil with a pH of 7.0. A southern exposure in the garden is ideal. Good soil moisture is important in the early stages of growth and during pollination when fruits are setting. Many gardeners recommend ceasing irrigation the last week prior to harvest, as overwatering can cause bland fruit.

Members in the cucurbit family are known for their tendrils.

Cantaloupes can be either transplanted or direct-seeded into the garden. Begin transplants about one month before transplanting outdoors. Keep temperatures between 80-90 F until germination. Handle young plants carefully and never let the soil dry out. When the risk of frost has passed, transplant 2-3 inches apart in rows 6 inches apart. Cantaloupe seedlings are tender, so handle with care! Do not disturb roots when transplanting and water thoroughly. 

When direct seeding, sow one or two weeks after the last frost and the soil temperature has reached at least 70 F.  For best results, sow three seeds every 18 inches at a depth of ½ inch. Once seeds have germinated, thin to one plant per spot. The average direct-seeding rate is 30 seeds per 10 feet. Cantaloupes generally requite 70-80 days from transplanting to harvest. Add about 10 days when direct seeding.

To save space in a small garden, allow cantaloupes to grow on a trellis.

Each cantaloupe variety is a little different, but most are ready when the skin begins to turn from a grayish green to yellow and a light tug separates the fruit from the vine.

‘Athena’ is a proven cantaloupe as well as favorite among gardeners and commercial growers alike. A standard eastern type cantaloupe, ‘Athena’ consistently delivers early yields with dynamite flavor. The 6-8-inch fruits weigh in at 5-6 pounds, are coarsely netted, and have a scrumptious, bright orange flesh. This variety has superior disease resistance that helps keep the vines producing all season long. Pick at full slip for best quality and flavor. ‘Tasty Bites’ is a newer variety that yields personal-sized fruit with intense sweetness and an above-average shelf life.



How to Select a Cantaloupe 

There are many clues you can look for to find a ripe melon. The first is simply picking it up. Does it feel fuller and heavier than you would expect it to? If so, that’s a good thing, because it’s an indication of the cantaloupe’s ripeness. If you press gently on the stem end of a ripe cantaloupe, you should feel it give way very slightly. If that spot gives way substantially, to the point of feeling genuinely soft or even squishy, the cantaloupe is probably overripe. A quick check around different areas of the cantaloupe is also a good idea at this point so you can make sure that there is no bruising or damage. 

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