Growing melons in Maine requires careful preparation

Posted Feb. 27, 2009, at 6:04 p.m.

Growing melons in Maine requires careful preparation

Every so often I get the notion to grow muskmelons, aka cantaloupes, an urge sparked by seed catalog copy. This year it was Baker Creek’s variety ‘Minnesota Midget’, “the only melons our family could get to ripen in Charlo, Mont.” If it will grow there, surely it will grow in Ellsworth, Maine!

“Compact vines four feet long produce small orange-flesh melons only four inches in diameter, perfect miniature versions of the classic muskmelon.” Made for a small garden with limited full-sun space, I thought. Yet as I penciled this variety on the bottom line of my seed order, I winced at the memory of past melon failures.

Past failures were the result of gambling on a uniformly warm growing season, a rarity in Maine, instead of employing techniques designed to create the consistently warm conditions that melons need. This year, I plan to do it right!

I will sow my melon seeds indoors in 3-inch pots, three seeds per pot, in the last week of April. A heating mat below the pots will keep the soil temperature between 80 and 90 degrees F to ensure quick and uniform germination. As soon as the seeds have germinated, I will grow the seedlings under fluorescent lights at 75 degrees F until hardening them in the last week of May.

Transplants will be hardened by reducing both watering and temperature, placing the pots on the back porch in partial shade during the day, bringing them back inside at night. After a week of this treatment, the hardened transplants will be carefully settled into the garden bed.

Melon bed preparation will begin as soon as the soil can be worked, turning the soil, adding lots of composted goat manure, and covering the bed with a plastic mulch to speed up soil warming. Often sold as “solar mulch,” plastic mulches not only warm the soil but also suppress weed growth. Biodegradable solar mulch made from corn starch-based raw material is also available from garden supply companies.

On transplanting day, I will cut small slits in the mulch cover about 18 inches apart and carefully transplant a pot of seedlings in each opening, taking care not to disturb the tender seedling roots. Using scissors, I will thin the seedlings to one plant per pot.

Immediately after planting, I will install a row cover, a lightweight blanket made of spun-bonded polypropylene, covering the plants while keeping it loose enough for the plants to grow and securing it along the sides with boards or wire pins.

The row cover will be removed as soon as female flowers appear — identified by the small fruits at their base — so that pollinating insects can do their work. By this time, both the plants and warm weather should be advanced enough to guarantee a melon crop.

Starting seedlings early indoors, prewarming the garden bed with plastic mulch, and covering the transplants with row covers — this is what it takes to grow a melon in a Maine garden. These same techniques will also work with other warm season crops, including tomatoes and peppers.

Another useful season-extender with plants that grow upright, like tomatoes and peppers, is the “Wall-o-Water Plant Protector,” also sold as “Kozy-Coat.” Both products are upright tubes of water, 18-inch high and arranged in a tepee design so that young transplants are surrounded by a wall of water. Since water stores heat during the day and releases heat at night, these devices can protect young plants from damage by temperatures as low as 25 degrees F, allowing the gardener to plant a few weeks earlier and avoid damage from a late freeze.

Extending the garden season involves additional time and money, no doubt about it. But the resulting success, beating the odds, producing a ripe muskmelon in a Maine summer, just might be worth it!

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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