How to grow melons in the Midwest

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cantaloupe seedlings
Cantaloupe seedlings planted in a sunny and sandy location. (Sara Welch photo)

Although melons can be grown anywhere in the United States, it can be a challenge to grow them in the Midwest. The South is a more ideal region to grow melons because of its longer growing season, sandy loam soils, warmer temperatures and increased sunlight.

The trick to growing melons in the Midwest is to mimic as many of these growing conditions as possible. Start seeds indoors to extend your growing season. Plant your melons in direct sunlight to keep the soil warm and maximize sun exposure. Choose a growing location with sandy loam soil or grow your melons in raised beds to control soil conditions.

Melon flavor, aroma, texture and sweetness are best when the sugar content of the fruit is high. Melons depend on sunlight, warm temperatures, the right amount of water and the lack of diseases and insects to grow sweet and flavorful.

Extending the growing season

Starting seeds indoors can extend your growing season by two to four weeks, giving plants extra time to mature before mid-September when frost is likely. Seeds for starter seedlings should be sown indoors towards the end of April. 

Melon plants have special requirements when started indoors. Follow these tips to start your own seedlings:

  • Melons are especially sensitive to root disturbance. Use peat pots or other biodegradable containers you can place directly into garden soil to prevent root damage when you transplant your seedlings.
  • Melon seedlings require heat to get off to their best start. Use a heat mat.
  • Harden off seedlings by placing them outdoors before planting them in your garden.
  • Seedlings should have 2-3 true leaves when you move them into the garden.
  • Allow soil temperatures to reach at least 65 F before transplanting. Soil typically reaches these temperatures sometime between mid-May and late June in the Midwest.
  • Seedlings should be planted two feet apart in rows five feet apart.

Other ways to extend the growing season:

  • Plastic mulch. Plastic mulch can be used to warm the soil, which allows earlier outdoor planting. It also helps conserve water, control weeds and reduces ground rot of the fruit. Cover your garden in plastic mulch in the spring and cut holes for the seeds or seedlings when you are ready to plant.
  • Hot caps. Use hot caps to protect seedlings from cold spells during their first weeks in the garden.
  • Low tunnels. You can build low tunnels over rows to keep temperatures inside the tunnels, near the plants higher than temperatures outside. They also protect plants from wind and flying insects. Tunnels can be removed when plants aren’t in danger of being exposed to frost to avoid injuring plants from too much heat and to allow pollinators access. Low tunnels can be utilized to extend the growing season in the spring or fall.

Growing melons

watermelon seedling
A watermelon seedling planted in a sunny and sandy location. (Sara Welch photo)

The first step to successfully growing melons in the Midwest is choosing the right varieties of honeydew, cantaloupe, muskmelon and watermelon. Choose varieties with short growth cycles of less than 90 days to maturity. Selecting varieties with even fewer days to harvest (65-80) can increase your chances of harvesting even more fruit.

The next step is to ensure your soil can support healthy melon plants. Melons like well-drained, sandy loam soils with a pH between 6.0 and 6.5. Soil with a pH of less than 6.0 will produce plants with yellow foliage that produce little or no fruit. Adding well-rotted manure or compost in the spring or fall can improve soil conditions. However, fresh manures can negatively impact soil.

In addition to choosing a location with ideal soil conditions, make sure you plant your melons in direct sunlight.

Finally, make sure to water your melons deeply and infrequently at a rate of about one to two inches per week. Melons grow best when the soil is soaked but the leaves remain dry. You can accomplish this by using the soaker setting on the hose instead of the sprinkler setting. Make sure to completely soak the soil when watering. As the plants start to produce fruit and the fruits ripen, gradually reduce watering to improve flavor. Too much watering when the fruits are ripening can cause them to split.

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Sara is Farm and Dairy’s online content producer. Raised in Portage County, Ohio, she earned a magazine journalism degree from Kent State University. She enjoys spending time with her daughter, traveling, writing, reading and outdoor recreation.

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