It was Mark Twain who suggested melons were “the proper food of angels,” and who can argue? There may be nothing quite as ambrosial as a perfectly ripe cantaloupe or watermelon fresh from the vine. But knowing when to pick them can be tricky.
To test a watermelon for ripeness, Twain instructed gardeners in a game of musical melons. Pink, pank, punk: Rap a watermelon gently with your knuckles and listen. As the fruit matures the tone you hear will be lower—more punk than pink. Watermelons exhibit another sign of peak sweetness: the light-coloured patch on the underside of the rind, where the melon meets the mulch or soil, turns from white to cream, then to yellow.
A cantaloupe is easier to judge. As it ripens, it begins detaching itself from the vine, and presumably rolls off on a seed-scattering life of its own—a process called slipping. At maturity, a thin crack appears around the fruit’s stem, signalling it can be pulled from the vine with a gentle tug. After that, a cantaloupe can sit on the kitchen counter (not in the refrigerator) for a few days—if you can wait—to mellow to its fragrant best. The nose knows when the melon is ready to slice.
Before we get to the tasting stage, though, it has to be said that melons of any kind may not be right for every garden. The vines need plenty of heat over the roughly three months it takes from seed to table. But if tomatoes, cucumbers and/or peppers thrive in your area—and especially if peppers routinely mature from green to red—then melons are worth a try.
Plant in optimum growing conditions
This is what melons require: full sun from dawn to dusk; warm, well-drained soil, on the sandy or gritty side rather than clay; room for the vines to roam; and time enough to grow and ripen. For best results choose early-maturing cultivars and get a head start indoors—but not too much of one.
Seeded in pots indoors two weeks before spring’s average frost-free date, the young vines are set out in the garden a week after that date, when the ground is good and warm. There is no point rushing things, since melons sit and sulk in cool weather and are more susceptible to ailments.
To sow, fill pots, 10 centimetres (or larger), with a light soil or soilless mix and plant two seeds in each, pushing them in as deep as your first knuckle. Soak with tepid water and set pots in a very sunny window, under grow lights or in a greenhouse. A sheet of clear plastic draped loosely over the pots will bump up the heat. Seed leaves should appear in less than a week. A half-dozen plants may be enough for most gardens, as the vines spread at least as far as those of cucumbers.