I went about gardening backward. I started out growing vegetables on a larger scale than the average kitchen gardener, and I admit that I looked down on container gardeners because they were not “real" gardens. I thought that growing in containers is easy compared to cultivating vegetables by the acre.

I was very, very wrong. What had seemed so simple—controlled conditions, carefully measured fertilizer, exact pot measurements and so on—created more challenging growing conditions for me than anything that had happened out in the field, especially when it came to melons.

Container Basics

At least I was right about one thing when I started my container vegetable experiment—the conditions were more easily controlled. I just had to adapt my thinking from large scale to small scale, which was harder than I thought. In a long row of melons, you don’t always notice the few that fail. They are overshadowed by their healthier counterparts, and the weakest ones are thinned out after sprouting. Plus, you have lots and lots of melons.

Growing one container melon was very disheartening. My ruthless approach to cultivation took a real blow when my one melon failed to thrive. Where was the backup? What had gone wrong? Was my green thumb turning black, or had I relied more on the microbes in the soil than I had realized all of these years?

I still don’t have the answers to these questions, but I did discover that I had made some errors when I calculated the needs of a container melon. The first was variety.

Container Melon Varieties

Melons are heavy feeders. They also take up a lot of space. Unless you have a very large container and a lot of space (which usually defeats the space-saving purposes of a container garden), you need a smaller melon cultivar. Most seed catalogs have a few varieties they recommend, but here are a few to get you started: Minnesota Midget, Sugar Cube, Organic First Kiss F1, and Organic Sivan F1 cantaloupes.

The Perfect Melon Container

Most melons have deep roots and require quite of bit of well-drained, loose soil. I have heard some gardeners say that they give each melon plant at least 5 square feet of soil. If that seems like a lot, it's because it is! I have found that 3 cubic feet usually yields decent melons. Next time you’re at your local garden store, check out the cubic feet measurement on the big bag of potting soil to give you an idea of how much soil each melon plant needs. Ideally, your container should be at least 16 inches deep to accommodate the roots. I now use half 55-gallon barrels for my melons. These can hold a few melon plants at a time, providing some cushion against failure. While they're not the most attractive containers, they are cheap.

Trellising Your Melons

Melons like to sprawl over as much space as possible unless they are contained. The best way to do this is a trellis. This keeps the fruit off of the ground and also prevents the plant from sawing itself in half on the edge of your container – a fate that claimed one of my first melon plants. Melon trellises come in many shapes and forms, so I strongly suggest a Google image search to give you an idea of the possibilities. Pantyhose and recycled onion or potato sacks from the grocery store do a great job of supporting trellised fruit, and you can make a frame for the vines out of just about anything.

Melon Pests

Unfortunately, melons are attractive to many rodents, insects, and plant diseases. The best way to deal with diseases is to choose resistant cultivars. You can battle pests depending on your approach to pesticides and organic methods, and put up a fence to keep deer and groundhogs away, but the best way to prevent pests and diseases is to have healthy, happy plants.

Fertilizing Your Container Melons

Melons take a long time to mature. The vines get hungry during this lengthy process, which means it is up to us to fertilize them. I have found that the initial nutrients in my potting mix do not last the length of the growing season in a container, and so I supplement with a balanced fertilizer. I adjust my fertilizers as the season progresses, beginning with more nitrogen and then reducing it as fruit production begins.

Watering Container Melons

Watering in containers turned out to be a lot harder than I anticipated. There was no drip irrigation to turn on, and rainfall wasn’t as effective. I didn’t like the idea of too much overhead irrigation, as I feared it might lead to disease, so I carefully hand watered my melons with a garden attachment. I also put out a big drip tray beneath the plant, which allowed me to occasionally top the plant off at the roots, rather than up top. This approach seemed to make the plants happier than when I doused them twice a day in hot weather, and saved me the effort of worrying about dampness turning into something worse overnight.

In the end, I still think growing melons in a field with a lot of composted manure is easier than cultivating melons in containers, but I enjoyed the challenge. I also have a whole new level of respect for container gardeners.