Melons need a garden bed to themselves a metre or more wide. A length of two metres will hold six plants spaced about 30 centimetres apart. As early as possible in spring, nourish the bed with a three- to five-centimetre layer of crumbly compost or well-composted manure. If soil amendments are in short supply, just stir a spade or two into each planting place. Rake in a measured amount of granular natural fertilizer such as 8-4-5, formulated for vegetables, just before transplanting.
At transplanting time, it’s best to get melons “between the sheets”; namely, a groundcovering of mulch underneath and a translucent floating row cover overtop. Rolls of black, paper-like mulch made from cornstarch (such as BioFilm) are often available through catalogues and nurseries. Completely biodegradable, this type of mulch warms the soil, suppresses weeds and retains moisture. A floating row cover draped over melon plants is the surest way to ward off small black-and-yellow-striped cucumber beetles, which can damage exposed vines. If you decide to use just one type of sheet, opt for the row cover. Any beetles that appear can be picked by hand in the dewy early morning, when they are sluggish and least able to fly.
Choose a calm day after a warm rain to roll paper mulch over the bed. Peg down its edges and cut X-shaped slits for each transplant. Tip the young vines carefully out of their pots (broken roots will not regrow) and set them gently but firmly in the ground, watering well. Then drape and anchor the floating row cover.
Vines should grow well under this blanket, but you’ll want to lift an edge from time to time to check on their progress and look for flowers. When melon plants begin to bloom, it’s time to play matchmaker.
Like cucumbers and squash, melons have yellow blossoms that are either male or female. For fruit to form, pollen must be transferred. If there are no cucumber beetles around, you could simply uncover the melon patch; any passing insect that lands on the flowers will do the job for you. However, if the melons must remain covered, you’ll have to pollinate them yourself.
Female flowers have tiny, round fruit-in-the-making just behind the blossom; male flowers have a polleny pistil sticking out of the flower and a straight stem behind, and always appear a few days before any females open.
To pollinate, dip a tiny watercolour brush or cotton swab into the male flower and brush it lightly across the female flower—it’s that quick.
Melon roots search deeply for water so, failing rain, a once-weekly soaking should suffice (cold water from the hose should be warmed in buckets in the sun for a few hours to prevent shock). Then all that’s left is to keep an eye on the cantaloupes for signs of slipping and to give the watermelons a rap-rap to hear if they’re ready to pick.