My Adventures in Growing Melons
by Merlyn Niedens
Growing and eating melons is one of the passions of my life. In fact, being of German-Russian heritage, my love of melons borders on an addiction. In addition to eating fresh watermelon, I fondly remember eating my mothers watermelon preserves and enjoying the watermelon syrup which was made in our household. Watermelon syrup was used as a topping for pastries. It was frequently enjoyed with fresh bread and a mixture of sweet cream and watermelon syrup into which the bread was dipped. Unfortunately, such pleasures have long disappeared from our household, but we still have a couple of quarts of watermelon syrup tucked away and occasionally my wife will make a delightful pastry using this syrup.
Growing melons in Kansas, the state where I was born and raised was relatively simple. The melons grown there were extra ordinarily sweet and made for an exceptional treat if eaten on a hot afternoon after school. Usually the north side of our home was lined with large sweet melons during the harvest season which kept them cool and refreshing to eat.
In 1954, my parents decided to move to Northern Illinois. While Northern Illinois has many virtues for gardeners, it is not a prime area for growing melons. Fortunately the sandy ground near Thompson, Illinois produced some very good melons and we lived near enough so that we could drive there and get a fix for our melon cravings. In 1960, my wife and I moved to Northern Illinois and attempting to grow melons became a first priority. The initial results were mostly mediocre with very few melons for all our work. After giving the matter some thought, we started using black plastic which gave much better results. However, it was only after we started using heirloom cantaloupe and watermelon varieties that we got better results. In addition to the black plastic mulch, we made other changes as well. Given the short growing season we went to exclusively using transplants and planting them inside of tires placed on black plastic. Inside the tires we would place two 2 liter bottles of water which helped retain warmth for the plants at night. We were able to plant as early as May 15th. We would cover the tires with Reemay cloth which is translucent and allows light and water for the transplants. On nights when we would expect temps of 32 degrees or lower, we would cover the tires with sheet blankets. We were able to protect our plants with temps as low as 28 degrees. This system provided the plants with a micro climate which accelerated their growth and very often they were ready to climb out of their tires by the first of June. Given this type of start our melons were usually ripe by mid-August. This system proved successful year after year in our gardens in Northern Illinois.
In 2000, My wife and I relocated to her home town of Okawville, Illinois which is about 45 miles east of St. Louis. For some years we had been growing melon and other seeds for heirloom seed companies including Baker Creek. We had some concerns about growing melons given our lack of gardening experience in our new location. We realized that our system of growing melons in Northern Illinois was not necessary given the warmer climate. However, we continued using transplants as this allowed us to place the optimal number of plants in our planting area. We also learned that our melon beds must be well drained, a problem we did not have in Northern Illinois. We tried straw as a mulch for a couple of years but found that straw mulch did very little to suppress crab grass. We now use a porous black plastic mulch which prevents weed growth and allows water into the soil. The type of mulch we use is reusable and can be rolled up and stored. The major problem with the mulch is the amount of debris that builds up during the season. This year we used a leaf blower to remove the dirt and debris which worked quite well. To anchor our plastic mulch we use very large nails along with fender washers which are slipped on the nail prior to being used. They, of course, are reusable as well. One major problem we have here are the strong spring winds which can damage our transplants. Since we no longer have tires, we place a water filled milk bottle on the windward side of the transplant. If the wind changes, I change the location of the bottles in order to protect the plants. We normally start our transplants on the 5th of May and they are ready for planting on May 15th. Given this jump start many of our melons are ripe during the 1st half of August. An early vigorous start also seems to help the plants resist insect infestations
Any discussion on growing melons would not be complete without some discussion about that ancient enemy, the Cucumber Beetle. In Northern Illinois during our first years we had some very serious infestations, which we controlled with the use of rotenone dust. In later years the problem diminished due to the bat colonies which had established themselves in our area. Here in Southern Illinois the problem varies from year to year. We still find that the timely use of rotenone dust works well. It is extremely important to dust at dusk or you may do some major damage to your bee population otherwise.
In conclusion, your cultural practices for growing melons may have to be tailored for your local growing conditions. And if success is the result of your efforts, be sure to save a melon or two for your friends and neighbors.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2006 issue of the Heirloom Gardener.