This article was originally published on March 19, 2009 and expired on September 1, 2009. It is provided here for archival purposes and may contain dated information.
One of the great joys of summer has to be fresh cantaloupe, either from the local farmer's market or your own home garden, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.
"How many of us have commented that a particular cantaloupe was 'good' or 'bad'?" said Jennifer Schultz Nelson. "If you have grown your own cantaloupe, you have probably experienced good and bad quality melons from the same vine. Why is this?
"Several environmental factors potentially contribute to a cantaloupe's flavor. While water is essential for plant growth and development, too much will dilute the sugars and dull the flavor of a nearly ripe cantaloupe. Diseases that stunt the growth of the vines lessen the capacity of the plant to produce sugars via photosynthesis. This too translates to a potentially poor quality fruit."
An 'old wives' tale' still floating around is that poor melon quality results from cross-pollination of cantaloupe with other plants in their family, the cucurbits, she noted.
"This family includes cucumbers, squash, watermelon and pumpkin. While in theory these family members can cross, it is unlikely to happen at random," Nelson said. "Even if it did, the results would not be revealed until the seeds of the melon produced were grown."
Another problem commonly experienced is vines that grow prolifically, but bear no fruit.
"I have had that happen more than once—tons of vines and flowers but no melons," she said.
Cantaloupe, like the other cucurbits, produces separate male and female flowers. A unique feature is they also have some flowers with both male and female parts. But they still rely on bees to do the pollinating for them. If there are not enough bees, the female flowers won't be pollinated, and no fruit will form.
Often if the cantaloupe vines are fertilized with too much nitrogen, or during the heat of the summer, plants will produce only male flowers.
"There is absolutely no way to produce fruit in this situation," she said. "Watering thoroughly to try and wash away some of the excess nitrogen may work to some extent, but if the problem is high temperatures, you will just have to hope for cooler weather."
Vines that are too crowded may also fail to produce fruit. Plant vines where they are free to roam, at least six feet apart.
The best conditions to grow cantaloupe in are full sun and well-drained soil. Plants or seeds should be put out after all danger of frost is past, and the soil is at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Well-drained or even sandy soil is a must, as standing water in a melon patch tends to breed disease.
"Most sources recommend using mulch, either black plastic sheeting or organic mulches, to conserve moisture for plant growth and to protect the developing fruits from too much moisture, which causes fruits to rot," she said. "Mulch also helps keep soil moisture levels constant, which reduces the likelihood of the fruits developing blossom end rot."
What does a ripe cantaloupe look like? The skin beneath the netted parts typically appears creamy beige, and the vine will naturally slip from the fruit when it is ready to harvest.
"If you find cantaloupes for sale that have little stubs of vine sticking out of them, they were harvested too early and probably won't be very sweet," Nelson said.
"The taste of a fresh ripe cantaloupe can't be beat on a hot summer day, especially if that melon came out of your own garden."
Source: Jennifer Nelson (Schultz), Extension Educator, Horticulture, firstname.lastname@example.org
Pull date: September 1, 2009
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