(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 5, 2008.)
OK, I know you cantaloupe lovers out there don't have any trouble finishing a whole melon, but give me a break. I was on a roll!
In years past, when I had a large vegetable garden, I grew full-size cantaloupes, Cucumis melo. Several years ago, though, my husband and I moved into our retirement dream home. We have room for a veggie garden, but we have chosen to have perennial beds and do our veggie gardening on the patio in large, self-watering containers. For the last couple of years, I have grown tomatoes, bush cucumbers, grape tomatoes and bell peppers. It was time to try something different...cantaloupe!
If you have never heard of single-serving cantaloupe, they are baseball to softball-sized melons that are just perfect for one person to eat in their entirety at one sitting. I've never seen them in the grocery stores or produce markets in our part of the country (western New York state), but they are available in seed catalogs. The varieties seem to change from year to year as new ones are developed and old ones go out of favor. Last spring I looked online for seeds of 'Little Sweetie', a variety recommended to me by a fellow DG member. I couldn't locate it, but I did find 'Serenade' from seedman.com, Gurney's 'Li'l Sweet Cantaloupe' and for those who prefer honeydew, Cucumis melo var. inodorus, 'Mini Muskateers' from D. Palmer Seed. I decided on 'Serenade'.
'Little Sweetie' photo courtesy of Sarahskeeper at DG Styrofoam™ cup/newspaper-lined
The traditional planting time in my zone 6a area is Memorial Day. The seed packet said to start seed 2 to 4 weeks before planting time. So on May 10th, I planted seeds in foam cups lined with newspaper, holes punched in the bottom for drainage; 2 cups of 5 seeds each. I had never used the cups before. My reasoning for using them now was that the cups were big enough to allow a fairly substantial root system. The newspaper lining could be removed and planted along with the seedling, keeping disturbance of the roots to a minimum. Melons object to having their roots trifled with. Those of you with a longer growing season can plant directly in the garden, but in zone 6 they need a bit of a head start. Five seeds to a cup was probably excessive, because melon seeds have a very good germination rate in my experience. But...the packet contained 10 seeds and I only wanted 2 plants (I did the math!).
The cups were placed in a plastic zipper baggie under grow lights that I keep on 24 hours for warmth during the germination period. If you have a heat mat you could use that for bottom warmth. All 10 seeds germinated within 8 days. At this point, remove the baggie and reduce the number of light hours per day to 12. Snip off all but 2 of the best seedlings in each cup, so there will be an extra one in each cup 'just in case'. Snipping them rather than pulling them out prevents the tangled roots from tearing on the seedlings that you want to retain. Keep the little guys moist and within a few inches of the lights so they don't get 'leggy' from reaching for the light source as they grow.
On June 1st, a few days after the Memorial Day target, I got around to actually planting the seedlings. Melon plants are very tender, so if there is any danger of a frost, you should wait. Cover them if you expect a freeze after they are planted. A plastic milk jug with the bottom cut out makes a quick 'greenhouse'. You could also drape a tent of plastic sheeting or polyester row cover over the top of the whole container, making sure that the plastic is supported so that it doesn't rest on the plants.
Keep only one of the seedlings from each cup, snipping out the weaker one. I used a planting mix that is made for self-watering containers, with the addition of 8 ounces of 5-6-5 organic fertilizer to 40 quarts of planting mix. It should be moistened well before planting. Follow the directions on the bag. You could experiment with any sterile container mix that does well for you. I would recommend that you NOT use garden soil in a container. Make sure the cups are well watered so the soil doesn't crumble. Peel or cut away the cup and plant the remaining seedling with the soil and newspaper intact. I was pleased with my little paper-lined cup 'invention' and it worked very well. Probably thousands of gardeners have invented it before me.
Just planted seedlings ~ 6/1
A large container, such as the one offered with the Tomato Success Kit at Gardener's Supply (the one I use) or EarthBox, is big enough for 2 plants. A self-watering container is also not a necessity, but be absolutely sure that the plants don't dry out. On some days, that may mean watering more than once. Even with the self-waterer, I often had to fill the water reservoir daily when the plants got large. A semi-folded tomato cage was added to support the vines as they grew. You also could choose to use a different type of plant support...a teepee of bamboo poles, perhaps, or any of a number of commercial products that are available.
Plants at 3 weeks ~ 6/21 First blossom ~ 6/29
By June 29th, there were blossoms on the vines. I sprayed with a solution of Epsom salts (1 tablespoon to 1 gallon of water) to encourage flowering and fruit set. When you grow in containers, there is more likelihood of mineral deficiencies in the soil. I spray my tomatoes and peppers, so I decided to spray my melons, too. Couldn't hurt! It's cheap and you can buy it at the drug store. If you don't have a sprayer, the solution can be poured on the soil, but from my reading it works more efficiently as a foliar (leaf) spray.
This is probably also a good time to begin spraying for diseases, maybe even earlier. I am hedging here because I waited too late. My vines succumbed to some kind of wilt or disease in August. I only harvested 8 melons and I'm sure there could have been more. Because I try to use only organic methods in my garden, my choice is one of the many organic fungicides available on the market. I used VeggiePharm™, a fully organic insecticidal soap which purports to 'prevent fungal spores from traveling and maturing to disease.' (Quoted from the pharmsolutions.com web site.) In order to prevent the spores from traveling and maturing, the plants would obviously have to be sprayed before the spores got their bags packed. Mea culpa. One insect that causes problems for cucurbits, the plant family that contains both melons and cucumbers, is the striped cucumber beetle, Acalymma vittata. I did see a few beetles, but didn't notice any direct insect damage. The reason for the insecticide is that bugs spread disease. A lesson learned for next year.
When the small fruits start to form, tie the vine loosely to the wire cage near the tiny melon. I used the hook-and-loop (Velcro™) tape that is available for plants. Another cheaper possibility is strips of nylon pantyhose. Do not use anything that will cut into the vine, such as wire twist ties.
All that was left was waiting for that first ripe 'loupe. Now, how to tell if it was ripe? It's hard enough to pick one out in the supermarket. These melons don't have the brownish 'netting' that we in the United States are familiar with on what is sold here as cantaloupes. That netting is actually typical of muskmelon, which slips easily from the vine when it is ripe. These little melons seem to be more like the true cantaloupes that are grown in Europe, although there was nothing in the description to indicate that. The seed packet says to 'harvest at forced slip.' I never did figure that out. 'Slip' means that the stem separates easily where the vine attaches to the fruit.
After trying to 'force slip' the first fruit for about a week after I thought it should be ripe, I couldn't stand it any more. I picked it on August 15th, 73 days after setting out the plants. It was served to my melon-loving husband the next day for breakfast. He pronounced it 'sweet and delicious'...everything a cantaloupe should be. And he ate the WHOLE thing!!
For more information about growing in containers, please visit the Container Gardening forum here at DG.