Variety Spotlight - Organic Melons and Watermelons
It’s springtime - probably the busiest time of year for farmers and gardeners and anyone with a need to seed. We know you’re busy, so we’ve decided to keep this month’s Variety Spotlight short and sweet. We’re going to talk about melons.
For those of you in cooler climates with shorter growing seasons, now is the perfect time to plant melons. And for those of you with longer growing seasons, well, we’re all jealous…perhaps you’ve planted your melons already. If you have 3-4 months before your first fall frost, you should still have time to put in a crop of melons to enjoy.
In this spotlight we’ll cover:
- Planting & Cultural Tips
- Harvest, Market & Storage Tips
- Diseases & Pests
- Seed Saving Tips
- Recommended Varieties - including our favorite - Organic Ali Baba Watermelon!
Planting and Cultural Tips
- Melons can be direct sown once you have passed the last frost date for your area. Optimal soil temperature for germination is 75-85°F, but they will tolerate soil temperatures as low as 65°F.
- In areas with shorter growing seasons, plant seeds indoors four weeks before the last frost date for your area. Since melons take several months to bear and ripen fruit, starting seeds early gives you a jump start on the season and a better chance of juicy yields! Like all cucurbits, melon seedlings grow big quickly, so make sure to plant into something that will allow sufficient room for growth and won’t compromise your seedling by crowding the roots (think: roughly the size of a small yogurt cup).
- Transplant seedlings outside once they have 2-3 full leaves and a strong root ball. Plant in hills, 3-4 plants per hills, spacing the plants 12 – 18” apart. Keep each hill about 4' apart.
- Consider using row-cover to help prevent attacks from cucumber beetles and vine borers. However, you will need to remove the row cover when your plants start to bloom to allow for pollination.
- To get a further jump on the season, you can plant into black plastic or biodegradable mulch. This will serve to absorb the heat and warm your soil faster.
- Melons need a little babying! Use row cover to protect from pests and diseases, make sure plants are well-fertilized and evenly watered, have plenty of sunlight and room to grow. Unstressed, healthy plants will result in higher sugar content in the fruit – and the sugars are the emblem of a delicious melon!
- Reduce watering to almost nothing as the fruits ripen to the size of a baseball to improve flavor and concentrate sweetness. Excessive watering at this stage can cause result in split fruit.
Harvest, Storage & Marketing Tips
- As melons reach maturity, watch for a dulling of the outer skin and begin to check the stem attachment frequently. You’ll want to pick your melons as they ripen, but they will not all ripen at the same time.
- Cantaloupes/muskmelons are at peak flavor when the fruit slips easily from the vine. This stage is called “full slip.” Commercially-grown melons are often harvested slightly before full slip in order to reduce shipping damage.
- There are many ways to determine if your watermelon is ripe. You can check the color of the bottom spot where the melon sits on the ground. If the spot is white or pale green the melon is not yet ripe; if it is yellow or cream-colored, the melon is ripe. There is the age-old "thump" test - if you thump the melon and it sounds hollow, it is most likely ripe. You can check the skin color - on ripe watermelons the skin color looks dull. Another good indicator of ripeness is when the curled tendril near the stem, closest to the melon on the vine, begins to turn brown and dry up.
- Once a melon has been removed from the vine, the sugar content will not increase so try to avoid harvesting fruit prematurely.
- Charantais can be cut when they have a thick netted skin (they are a bit over-ripe if they slip); galia types slip from the vine and are ready when skin turns bright yellow; honeydews can be cut from the vine when skin turns color. Other indicators of ripeness are when the leaf closest to fruit becomes dried and shriveled and when the stem becomes corky.
- Most melons will store for 1-2 weeks if held at 45-50°F.
- Assuring ripe honeydew melons can be achieved by placing the melon in a bag with ripening apples or tomatoes. The latter will release ethylene gas which will complete the ripening process.
Disease and Pests ID
Striped and/or spotted cucumber beetles cause feeding damage to the leaves, and often transmit bacterial wilt. Larvae feed on the plant roots. Row covers can provide effective protection, but must be removed during flowering to allow pollination. Practice crop rotation and good sanitation to eliminate overwintering habitat. Frequent application of kaolin clay and/or pyrethrum have shown some effective control. Also, as plants with 5-6 leaves are less susceptible, transplants are recommended vs. direct seeding.
Melons are particularly susceptible to leaf blights, caused by fungi in the Alternaria, Stemphylium, and Ulocladium genera. They are superficially similar and controlled by use of disease-free seed and crop rotations.
Fruit rots such as anthracnose, scab, and fusarium fruit rot are common under wet conditions, and can be checked by fungicidal sprays.
Fusarium Wilt is caused by the fungus Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. Melonis (Fom), and can be seed and/or soil borne.
Rodale’s All New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, Rodale Press
Growing Melons by Karl Foord and Jill MacKenzie, University of Minnesota Extension
Striped Cucumber Beetle: Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org
Fusarium Wilt - Howard F. Schwartz, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org
Saving Organic Melon and Watermelon Seeds
Insect pollinated annual. Unless hand pollinating, isolate different varieties by 1/4 mile to prevent cross pollination. Tree lines, woods or buildings separating fields can allow for shorter distances. Harvest the melons when ripe for eating. Remove the seeds and pulp and rinse under water until seeds are clean. A light fermentation with a little water can sometimes help in the cleaning process. Simply add 1 cup of water for every cup of seeds and pulp and let sit in a warm place for 2-3 days, stirring daily. Then rinse under water and allow seeds to dry on a plate, cloth or similar clean surface. After rinsed use a 1/2" or 1/4" screen to help with cleaning. Melon seed will remain viable for 4-6 years under cool and dry storage conditions.
Our Recommended Varieties:
All about Ali Baba!
If you're going to buy one watermelon variety this year, you should try Ali Baba. Ali Baba is a unique heirloom from Iraq, brought to this country about ten years ago by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. We loved it right away in our trials for it’s unique combination of unusually long shape, light green ‘snakeskin’ patterned outer skin, and crisp, juicy, sweet bright red flesh. The flavor is superb, and the heavy plants yield very well in most years - even in northern Vermont! We recommend that northern growers give it a try, as it’s one of the few larger watermelons that finish up nicely in our climate. We are one of the few companies that offers these seeds organically!
Check out one of our favorite reviews that we found:
"Ali Baba watermelons are the bomb. After great lengths of contemplation, meditation, and quiet prayer, I came to the conclusion that Ali Baba is the best watermelon I have ever tasted. Coming in at about 20lbs, the crisp, sweet, and flavor packed red-fleshed melons were a favorite of everyone I let try it." - James at GrowingGroceries.com
Other varieties that we recommend:
Moon and Stars
• Known for its sweet flavor and dark green rind decorated with yellow spots of large (moon) and small (star) size
• Requires hot temperatures to set fruit
• Great for those with a short growing season - earliest watermelon in the field!
• Rind turns yellow when ripe
• Flesh is salmon in color
• Juicy and sweet with black seeds
• Early maturing melon
• Its' sweet, crisp flavor topped our taste tests
• Fruits are very uniform and productive, weighing 10-15 lbs each
• Excellent variety for direct markets or shipping
Caribbean Gold F1 Cantaloupe
• Good for those with short growing seasons
• Plants are all female, resulting in higher fruit set and yields
• Very sweet and aromatic flavor
• Early maturing, green-fleshed melon with a unique look and pleasant flavor that is a refreshing, honeyed treat
• Flesh is smooth and juicy with a relatively thin, smooth rind
• A muskmelon that looks like a cantaloupe but reveals a juicy green flesh inside that is sugary sweet and delicious
• A good keeper
• Very prolific