How I love the smell, taste and texture of a ripe muskmelon. Over my career I have researched, written and lectured many times on the production of one of my favorite crops.

Along with colleagues and industry folks, we developed a system of production that growers have adopted throughout the country. The system is based on plasticulture – a system to produce horticultural crops, especially vegetables, that utilize plastic components. The plastics used may be various colored mulch films, drip irrigation tapes and tubing, row covers and low and high tunnels.

To say that the advent of plastics completely revolutionized growing systems for many horticultural crops is an understatement. It is certainly true for field grown crops such as tomatoes, peppers, muskmelons, watermelons, eggplants and squash. The production of strawberries was changed radically from the old, matted row system to the plastic-mulched annual hill system.

I began researching melons and other vegetables in the early ‘80s when this system of production was still in its infancy.

Much of the early pioneering work (1960 and ‘70s) zeroed in on clear and black plastic mulches with and without drip irrigation and their effect on the microclimate around crops and their subsequent growth and yield. It was imperative that early experiments were conducted at numerous locations around the country due to very different climatic zones.

When I began growing melons, the system of production I used included various colors of plastic mulching materials but primarily black embossed mulch; drip irrigation; use of fertigation; row covers; fumigation; and container-grown transplants. I conducted a lot of on-farm demonstrations along with numerous twilight meetings with industry folks discussing the role of their products and how they fit into the overall system of production.

“Cantaloupe” is a common trade name for a muskmelon. According to scientific literature, all melons are classified as Cucumis melo, although several “botanical” or “varietal” subdivisions are recognized:

C. melo var. cantaloupensis (true cantaloupes) are not commonly grown in the U.S.

C. melo var. reticulatus are netted, aromatic melons (muskmelons) and Persian melons.

C. melo var. inodorous include casabas, Crenshaws, honeydews and the late-maturing winter melons.

C. melo var. flexuosus is the snake melon.

C. melo var. conomon is the Oriental pickling melon.

I always differentiated muskmelons as two types: the Western shipping type (round and generally smooth to mildly netted) and the Eastern type (round to oval, usually larger with a sutured and netted rind and not intended for long-distance shipping).

Some muskmelon cultivars recommended for the Mid-Atlantic region from Penn State research trials include Accolade, Aphrodite, Astound, Athena, Atlantis, Avatar, Dutchess, Goddess, Halona, Minerva, Orange Sherbet, Rock Star, Sarah’s Choice, Strike, Sugar Cube and Tirreno.

Intensive production of muskmelons on black plastic mulch and drip irrigation. Photo by Bill Lamont

Fresh market muskmelons are usually sold loose in bulk containers or 40-lb. cardboard boxes. As far as marketing, growers can have wholesale markets, local grocery stores, roadside stands, farmers markets and CSAs.

Produce auctions are another excellent marketing option. Supplying several local grocery retailers is another possible market, but you need to take the time to contact produce managers and be prepared to provide good-quality muskmelons when the stores require them.

Muskmelons grow on a variety of soils. The soil pH should be in the range of 5.8 to 6.6. Being a warm season crop, they can be injured by a mild frost and temperatures above 95º or below 50º may slow the growth and maturity of the crop. A word of caution: excess water at any time during crop growth – and especially as the fruit reaches maturity – can cause the fruit to crack, reducing crop yields and melon quality. Drip irrigation and fertigation are the best option for muskmelon production.

I like to use muskmelon transplants that are 18 to 24 days old, and they should not be transplanted until the soil temperature three inches beneath the surface reaches 60º. I encourage growers to plant in single rows on plastic mulched beds that are five to six feet apart, with 24 to 30 inches between plants in the row (around 2,400 to 4,200 plants per acre). Rows are typically mulched with either black embossed or slick mulch with drip irrigation. Drip irrigation ensures optimum plant growth and yields and allows one to apply fertilizer during the growing season if needed.

Fertilizer rates should be based on one’s annual soil test results but a general recommendation for N-P-K application rates are 75-100-150 lbs./acre.

A large, active honeybee population will ensure complete pollination and fruit set. Entomologists recommend one hive per acre for maximum fruit production. Be careful of applying insecticides to flowers or weeds in bloom, as that can adversely affect populations of pollinating insects.

Weed management can be achieved using plastic mulch and herbicides. Several pre-plant and post-emergence herbicides are available for muskmelons, depending on the specific weed problem and melon growth stage. If you’re on bare ground and weed infestation levels are low, early cultivation (before vine running) can help minimize weed problems.

There are some insect pests that infect muskmelons during bloom, so extreme care must be taken in the choice of insecticides during this crucial period.

Insects can be a problem in muskmelon production, especially early feeding by striped or spotted cucumber beetles on young transplants which can result in the plants being infected with bacterial wilt. Because these beetles carry this disease, insect management is an important part of your overall disease management. Cucumber beetle, aphids, squash vine borer, seed corn maggot, leafminers and rindworms (cucumber beetle larvae) can also cause crop losses.

Several muskmelon diseases can cause severe crop losses, including bacterial wilt, Fusarium wilt and viruses such as cucumber mosaic, squash mosaic and watermelon mosaic, as well as powdery mildew, downy mildew and gummy stem blight. One way to control these diseases is by planting disease-resistant cultivars and having a good crop rotation system, growing on sites which have good air and soil water drainage and selectively using fungicides.

Muskmelons are hand-harvested at the full slip stage of maturity for best taste and texture. At full slip, the stem pulls away from the fruit, leaving a scar at the stem end. Because individual fruit are pollinated at different times, growers will be doing multiple harvests. After harvest, check muskmelons for size, maturity and pest damage to ensure you’re marketing a high-quality product.

You should cool muskmelons immediately after harvest to maintain quality. Cooling muskmelons will remove field heat and improve shelf life. Muskmelons will retain good quality for approximately 14 to 21 days if stored at 90% to 95% humidity and 47º to 55º. Harvesting muskmelons into bins and moving them to a shady area as quickly as possible will begin the cooling process.

I hope you enjoy some excellent muskmelons this summer.

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