Those of us living in temperate regions may grow beautiful strawberries, raspberries and apples but more exotic fruits can often seem out of our reach. However over the last few years I’ve been successfully growing melons in the cool, damp British climate and today I’d like to discuss how you can do exactly the same thing.
Germinating Melon Seeds
Melon plants aren’t commonly available so you’ll likely have to start off with seeds. This shouldn’t be a problem though as you’ll still get fruit the very same year.
Several of the more popular seed suppliers sell melon seeds though I personally got started with a pack from Chiltern Seeds with a variety known as “Century”.
Assuming a successful harvest, each melon will be packed with seeds meaning you can save them to grow again the following year. In other words, while melon seeds can seem pretty expensive initially, this is really only a one-off cost and you’ll be able to collect your own seed for free thereafter.
When growing melons, the seeds can be a little fussy when it comes to germination so it’s worth stacking the odds in your favor by following these simple steps…
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1) Soak the seeds in lukewarm water for 24 hours before planting. This helps the water to permeate into the seed and encourage rapid germination upon planting.
2) Next, plant the seeds in good quality peat free compost. Growing melons increase in size rapidly after germination so it’s worth putting just one or two seeds into each pot. Overcrowd them and you’re going to have to risk damaging the seedlings by repotting them regularly. Aim to leave an inch or so of space between the top of your compost and the rim of the pot.
3) Soak your pots so that the compost becomes damp, then place each one into a clear plastic bag. I use food bags as available from any supermarket. The goal here is that the bag will act like a mini greenhouse, keeping in moisture and heat and thus speeding up the germination process.
The reason for leaving the gap between the compost at the top of the pot as mentioned previously means that your seeds will be able to germinate freely without the risk of them pushing against the plastic bag and getting damaged into the bargain.
4) Place the posts somewhere warm – such as on a south-facing windowsill, in the airing cupboard or – like me – onto a soil warming cable. Check the pots regularly and remove the plastic bag as soon as you see seedlings appearing. This will allow them to grow unimpeded.
On a side note, there are dozens of different melon varieties for growing in different conditions. Generally I would recommend you seek out varieties that have the greatest chance of success in your locality. Many people attempting to grow seeds from a supermarket-bought melon have been disappointed with the results. Grow the right variety however and you’ve already won half the battle.
To grow successfully and produce fruit, melon plants need three key ingredients. Firstly, they require a decent amount of nutrients and for this I apply liquid tomato feed once every week or two during the growing season.
Secondly growing melons require bright sunshine so if you’re going to get the best results possible aim to give them the sunniest spot that you possibly can.
And lastly, of course, they require as much warmth as possible. While I have tried a number of varieties over the years that claim to produce fruit when grown outside in normal conditions I have always been disappointed.
So when growing melons now I use my greenhouse. In the absence of a greenhouse a cloche or cold-frame can be used or – worst case scenario – grow them on your windowsill at home. That said, a properly cared-for melon plant will grow fast and will attain impressive proportions so it’s important to realize that a melon grown on your windowsill may try to take over your home if you let it!
When growing melons you should be aware that they are climbing plants and typically grow straight up so some support should be provided for them. As melons themselves can be pretty heavy for such a thin-stemmed plant, this support can be doubly useful for preventing damage to your beloved plant.
Rather than simply providing a single support for my melon to clamber up, I get the best results by placing a number of supports around each growing melon plant and weaving garden twine between them to create a “net” or “mesh” of garden canes and string to provide a strong support.
In the absence of a greenhouse, where one needs to make do with a cloche or cold-frame, your melon plant will “ramble” over the soil’s surface.
As your melon plants grow, try to keep it under control by gently feeding any new stems back into the support that you’ve created, leading to a dense yet carefully-controlled plant. I have found that keeping my plant under control like this not only makes it easier to spot and harvest the fruit but also reduces potential damage due to the weight of a fully-ripe melon.
As melon plants start their spring growth spurt they’ll soon start producing simple flowers. As the flowers die back, you should notice that there is a small swelling at the base of the flower head. It is these little swellings that will grow into sweet melons.
The growing melons typically increase in size rapidly, morphing over a matter of weeks from something the size of a pea, through to an egg and finally a fully-grown melon.
Depending on your plant and how well it seems to be coping with the weight of the fruit you may want to relieve some of the pressure on the plant by creating physical supports for the fruit. And old pair of tights or some garden netting can easily be fashioned into a small hammock and attached to your supports.
The only real challenge when it comes to growing melons is figuring out when to harvest them. After all, a ripe melon doesn’t look very different to an unripe one and it’s easy to get carried away picking your fruit only to find they’re not ready. Unlike strawberries or blackberries, apples or pears, there are very few external signs of ripeness. Even the classic “tapping” on melons is less than scientific no matter what your friends may tell you!
However as a guide, here are some guidelines I to tell when your growing melons are ripe enough to pick…
Ripe melons normally smell fantastic so a handy tip for telling whether a melon is ripe is to put it right up to your nose and give it a big sniff. That classic, juicy, honey-like smell should be regarded as an indication that your melons are likely ready to pick.
In some varieties of melons, the area where the growing stem meets the melon often softens as the melon ripens. Another possible indicator then is to gently press the area around the stem and notice how this changes over time. When you feel it go from firm to soft your melon is likely ready to pick.
The most reliable way of all to tell if your melons are ready for picking is to pay attention to subtle changes to the surface texture of the fruit. As melons ripen, the external appearance changes subtly in many varieties.
This may take the form of cracking, a more “matt” finish or a “net-like” texture raising from the surface. Keeping a regular eye on your melons and looking out for these changes is possibly the best overall strategy for measuring ripeness, though the two previous methods can also be used in combination to confirm your suspicions.
If in doubt, try picking just one of your melons (the largest) and test it out. If it’s ripe then you’re ready to carry on your harvesting. If not, at least you’ve only wasted one of your fruits and can wait a few weeks till you try another.
That’s really all there is to it! Growing melons can be a tremendously enjoyable and rewarding experience and is likely to be one you’l want to repeat each year thereafter. The first time you sink you teeth into a delicious, juicy, home-grown melon you’ll be hooked
What varieties of melons have you tried? Please leave a comment below with your experiences…