Because melons require a long, warm growing season, their best yields occur in the southern United States (or similar), where there is ample growing time. Home gardeners in cooler regions can usually do fairly well with melons if they start their seeds indoors a month or more ahead of planting out doors, but the vines need consistently warm days and nights to thrive. Melons are a warm-season crop, very tender to frost and light freezes. Plan an average of 2-6 plants per person. Melons generally take up enormous space, and should not be considered for the small vegetable plot. There are compact varieties that produce tasty and prolific fruits. Watermelons and honeydew melons both mature in about 80-100 days of warm weather to mature properly, with smaller personal varieties being on the shorter end of that spectrum. Cantaloupes typically mature in about 75-85 days.
When to Plant
Because of the long growing season, start plants indoors 4 to 5 weeks before outdoor planting time. The soil must be warm and the weather settled with warm days and nights, as the plants are sensitive to cool. If nights are cool, use hot caps to protect the plants. Melons can be sown directly outside, but some gardeners report better germination with pre-sprouted seeds. Consider adding a row cover outdoors, which can be removed a week after plants begin to bloom. The row cover will help by raising the temperature, taming wind, and excluding insects.
How to Plant
If you start melons indoors, use individual cells or peat pots, not flats, as the roots are too succulent to divide. When you direct sow, plant 4-5 seeds in a hill and then thin to the appropriate spacing. The appropriate spacing will depend on whether you train them on a trellis or let them spread on the ground. For direct sowing and transplants, cover seedlings with hot caps to protect from frost, speed up their growth, and keep out pests. The vines do best if planted in hills. Rows and hills should be set 5 to 6 feet apart each way, with 2 or 3 plants per hill. Thin to the 2 strongest plants in a week.
How to Harvest
Harvest melons at the peak of freshness for best results. Waiting too long gives you nothing but a mealy mess, not waiting long enough means you might have to throw an inedible treasure out to the chickens. 3-3 1/2 months for cantaloupes; 3 months for midget watermelons.
Cantaloupes - The easiest way to tell if they are ripe is a color test. The flesh between the netting turns from green to tan. Smooth skinned types will lose their fine peach hairs and begin to feel waxy. Also, if the melon slips off the vine easily with a gentle tug, it is probably ripe. As will all melons, they should smell fruity and lush at the blossom end when ripe.
Watermelons - Check the tendril nearest where the fruit connects to the vine. When it starts to shrivel and turn brown, the melon is usually ripe. Also examine the rind where the melon rests on the soil. If the spot is yellow, it is probably ripe. If the spot is green or white, it probably hasn't fully ripened yet.