Home & Garden

Growing Cantaloupe For A Summer Sweet Treat

As the summer comes upon us, most of us find sudden joy in cold, sweet melon flesh. Some prefer watermelons with their juicy red meat, but others tend towards the orange succulent flesh of the cantaloupe. And nothing is better than growing cantaloupe at home so you have it fresh from the vine!

Part of the muskmelon family, this sweet orange fruit derives its name from the Italian town Cantalupo in Sabina. This township claims to be the origin point for this luscious treat, although its origins actually go back much farther than that.

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An easy grower, cantaloupe is a popular addition to many gardens – and for good reason. The flavor of a vine-ripened cantaloupe is like nothing you’ll ever find on a supermarket shelf. We’ll go over all the important aspects of how to grow cantaloupe today. You too can have an endless supply of this lovely melon all summer!

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Quick Care Guide

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Growing Cantaloupe
Growing cantaloupe is a great way to get a large supply of the freshest fruit. Source: agrilifetoday
Common Name(s) Cantaloupe, sweet melon, muskmelon, spanspek, rockmelon
Scientific Name Cucumis melo var. cantalupensis, Cucumis melo var. reticulatus, Cucumis melo var. cantalupo
Days to Harvest 80-90 days
Light Full sun
Water: 1-2 inches of water per week
Soil Well-drained loamy or sandy soil
Fertilizer Balanced slow-release fertilizer, or alternately side-dress with compost
Pests Aphids, thrips, cutworms, cabbage loopers, cucumber beetles, squash bugs, flea beetles, root knot nematodes
Diseases Various leaf spots (alternaria, anthracnose, cercospora, septoria, psuedomonas), various wilts (fusarium, verticillium, bacterial wilt), powdery mildew, downy mildew, gummy stem blight, southern blight, charcoal rot, various viruses (aster yellows, cucurbit yellow stunting disorder, mosaic viruses)

All About Cantaloupe

The origins of the cantaloupe go back further than Cantalupo in Sabina, as I mentioned above. It’s believed to have originated somewhere between Africa and south Asia. Due to its incredible flavor, it rapidly spread from its origin point. The seeds for the Italian cantaloupe were brought to their province from Armenia. But once grown in Italy, its popularity exploded across all of Europe.

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First grown in the United States as a commercial crop in 1890, the cantaloupe is now produced heavily in California. The warm climate makes it the perfect location for huge crops of melons. But other regions still grow cantaloupes, and a wide variety of cultivars have been developed.

The vine itself is slightly hairy, almost prickly like some squash vines can be. The leaves are wide and shade the vine. Each plant produces both male and female flowers, and both are required for pollination purposes. Male flowers tend to be smaller, with a slender base and a bright yellow color. The female flowers are larger and have a rounded bump at their base which, once pollinated, will swell to become the melon we’re all craving.

Bees are among the primary pollinators for this fruit, but home gardeners can also self-pollinate using a paintbrush or cotton swab. Collect pollen from the male flowers, then brush it into the female flowers, and you’ll be rewarded with future fruit.

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The melons, which are technically a berry by botanical terms, can be round to oval in shape. Their outer rind has a distinctive patterning with a more rigid tan skin over softer dark green skin. As it ripens, the green fades gradually to a lighter color, then can turn yellow. Inside, the flesh of most cantaloupes is distinctively orange, although a few varieties may be more yellowish.

The vine will mature to begin producing flowers in slightly over a month to a month and a half. Once it’s flowering, the individual melons will form and grow over the space of another month to month and a half’s time. It can be beneficial to limit each vining branch to a single melon for the best flavor.

Planting Cantaloupe

Cantaloupe vine
Cantaloupe vines can take up a considerable amount of space. Source: thesoutherngardener

When planting cantaloupe, you’ll need to have a decent amount of space, as the vines take up a lot of room. Let’s go over some other tips for getting the most out of your cantaloupe plant!

When To Plant

Seeds can be started in the early spring, but won’t germinate unless the soil they’re in is warm. Aim for a soil temperature of around 70 degrees. If you want to get a head start, you can use a seedling heating mat while the weather outdoors warms up.

Transplant your plants into the garden once there’s absolutely no chance of frost outdoors. Usually, aiming for mid-to-late spring is ideal. If your cantaloupes are not hardened off to the conditions outside, gradually let them adjust before planting it in the ground.

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You can also sow seeds directly into the garden. This spares you the need of transplanting, but definitely requires warm conditions to be successful.

Where To Plant

One thing about cantaloupe growing that most don’t take into consideration is how long those vines can get. Cantaloupes are not quite as space-hungry as a watermelon or pumpkin vine, but they still can take up 3-4 feet of space with ease. Space plants at least 18” apart but up to 24” apart if you have the space to spare.

Select a location that has lots of sunlight. You’ll also want to prepare your soil in advance, adding any amendments you believe to be necessary. Try not to pick a location that’s shaded heavily by other plants when possible. If that’s not possible, aim for areas that are shaded during the hottest parts of the afternoon.

Growing cantaloupes in containers is entirely doable, but you’ll need containers that are at least a foot deep and at least a foot across at the bare minimum. A ten-gallon grow bag will more readily handle a vigorous cantaloupe vine than a smaller one would! Also, don’t forget to leave room around the bag to allow for that all-important vine growth.

How To Plant

Cantaloupe planting itself is a very simple process. Seeds should be sown at least a foot and a half apart, and can be spaced up to 3 feet apart. But it also depends on whether you plan on directing the vine growth as they develop. Closer spacing is an option if you’ll encourage the vines to grow away from other plants, such as in a raised bed or large grow bag.

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Seeds should be sown about a half-inch to inch deep. You can plant 2-3 seeds in a hole and select the most vigorous seedling to keep, then pinch out the others.

Transplanted plants should be put into the soil no deeper than they were planted in their original pot. Unlike tomato vines, cantaloupe plants don’t produce extra roots along the stem, so there’s no need to plant them extra-deep.

With transplants, aim for a similar spacing. I personally prefer 18 inches apart to 2 feet apart when possible, as that provides ample room for their root system to spread.

Care

Female cantaloupe flower
The female cantaloupe flower has a bulge at its base that turns into the melon. Source: UGA CAES

So you’ve got your cantaloupe growing now. But how do you maintain your cantaloupe plants? Let’s go over that.

Sun and Temperature

Full sun is ideal for cantaloupes. They prefer temperatures of 70-90 degrees Fahrenheit, and will sprawl happily out in the sun during those temps. If it gets below 50, the vines get chilled and just don’t perform well. They are frost-sensitive and will die off in colder conditions.

In particularly hot climates, it can be beneficial to provide a little afternoon shade during the worst heat of the day. This is especially true if your heat soars consistently over 90 degrees, as the vines are more subject to wilting due to the hot conditions.

Water & Humidity

To form all that succulent melon, your cantaloupe plants will need regular water. But it’s essential that you water at the base of the vine rather than wet down the foliage. Use soaker hoses hidden beneath a thick layer of mulch to keep your plants hydrated. If you must use a handheld sprayer, water only in the early morning to allow any splashed water to dry off on the leaves.

An inch to two inches of water per week (depending on the temperature) is ideal. If it’s hot, water a bit more often to help keep those leaves green and to allow your cantaloupe to thrive. Don’t water to excess, though, as your cantaloupe plants don’t need muddy conditions.

That layer of mulch I mentioned is especially important. If exposed to constantly-damp soil, the ripening cantaloupe fruit can develop rot.

Reduce watering as your fruit is approaching the point of starting to ripen to ensure the sugars in the melon flesh develop their peak flavor. Watering through that phase will still produce a very good melon, but it won’t be as sweet as it could have been.

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Soil

Well-draining soil is a must for cantaloupe. It should have a loamy or sandy base with ample compost worked into it to provide lots of nutrition to your cantaloupe plants.

You’ll want a neutral range of soil to grow cantaloupe in. They prefer a pH range around 6.0-6.5 when possible. More alkaline soils can cause a condition called iron chlorosis, caused by iron not being taken up by the plants properly. Acidic soils can reduce fruit production.

Fertilizing

If you’re applying plenty of composted manure (horse or steer are both great) and other plant-based composts, you may not need to fertilize as often. These will provide a good source of continual nutrition for the plants.

A boost of balanced organic fertilizer can be applied a couple times during the growing season. When you grow cantaloupe, most of what the plants require is nitrogen for vining, but when they need phosphorous or potassium, a balanced fertilizer ensures they’re there. You can side-dress with this or with additional composted manure or compost a couple times to help the plants set fruit.

Pruning and Training

The best fruit comes from vines that have been allowed to produce lots of foliage. Try to avoid pruning your cantaloupe vines unless you absolutely have to. If you’ve provided plenty of space for them to grow, the only times you should need to prune are when there is pest or disease damage to remove.

If you can manage it, only allow one fruit per stem, and no more than 5-6 per plant in total. This ensures that the plant devotes its energy to making large, healthy fruit rather than many smaller, less-flavorful ones.

You can use plant ties and a trellis to grow cantaloupe vertically. Place your plants about 1 feet apart at the base of the trellis. As they grow, make sure to spread out the foliage so that it has plenty of airflow. A trellis that is wider at the top than at the bottom allows for good spreading tendencies.

Propagation

Cantaloupe is propagated through seed. Their vines are not likely to develop viable roots when cut. Since the plants are easy to grow from seed, there’s really no need to try to utilize other methods!

Harvesting and Storing

Ripe cantaloupes
Part of the muskmelon family, cantaloupes have distinctive orange flesh. Source: nccaofficial

So you’ve provided everything your cantaloupe plant needs to produce great fruit, and it’s nearly harvest time. How do you know if your cantaloupe is prime for the picking? Let’s talk about that.

Harvesting

As you grow cantaloupe, the rind goes through a series of color changes. At first it will have extremely dark green markings interspersed with the rough tan rind. Over time, that green will lighten in color. You want a shade that’s ideally a good medium green hue, and the melon should have good weight to it.

When ripe, it should easily and cleanly pop free of its vine when moved. It shouldn’t take pulling or tugging at all, it should readily release. If it seems to be firmly attached still, it’s not quite ready. In addition, a ripe cantaloupe rind should smell lightly of cantaloupe.

Overripe cantaloupe will lose virtually all of its green hue and turn yellow. You can still eat that for a while, but it has a very strong flavor, almost as though the natural sugars were fermenting. It also has a very strong aroma.

Storing

While it’s essential to know how to grow cantaloupe, it also helps to know how to store it. Often, multiple melons will ripen at the same time, and you’ll be hit with an abundance of produce!

Store your fresh melons at room temperature until you cut them. Once cut, refrigerate the melon to reduce spoilage before you can eat it.

Cantaloupe can be frozen, but will change in texture. You can freeze it in slices or cubes. Additionally, some like to puree cantaloupe and freeze it in ice cube trays to make a frozen cube that’s easy to add to a smoothie or mixed drink. It dehydrates into a fruit leather-like consistency, so dry storage is also an option.

Troubleshooting

Cantaloupe flower and leaf spot
A lone cantaloupe flower peeking out from amongst leaf spotted foliage. Source: JonU235

What problems can arise for your vines? Let’s explore what you might encounter.

Growing Problems

Cold conditions can damage the leaves and vines. In addition, cantaloupe plants require warm conditions to properly flower and form melons. Make sure you don’t start yours too early, as they really don’t do well in the cold.

Underwatering can result in yellowing leaves and blossom drop. On the other hand, too much water can also pose a problem as it can result in root rot conditions. Make sure the soil is well-draining, but that you maintain consistent soil moisture. A thick layer of straw mulch reduces moisture evaporation and protects your cantaloupes as they develop.

Pests

Sucking pests like aphids and thrips are disease-spreaders, particularly viral diseases. They suck the sap from leaves, stems, and sometimes the flowers themselves. Use neem oil to wipe these out.

Cutworms and cabbage loopers are annoying caterpillars that will cause serious damage to your cantaloupe leaves or stems. Bacillus thurigiensis spray is effective against these and other caterpillar species.

Beetles such as the cucumber beetle, squash bug, and flea beetle are also common. For these, I recommend a blend of insecticidal soap and pyrethrin. The pyrethrin should kill off adult beetles, where the insecticidal soap will smother any eggs and larvae.

Root knot nematodes cause damage to the roots of your plants. The roots will develop nodules of scar tissue from these microscopic pests, and won’t be able to take up nutrition properly. Yellowing of leaves and wilting can occur. Adding beneficial nematodes to the soil will rapidly deal with the problem, as the good nematodes find the bad ones to be delicious!

Diseases

There’s a whole host of diseases that can wreak havoc on your cantaloupe harvest.

Alternaria leaf spot, anthracnose leaf spot, cercospora leaf spot, and septoria leaf spot can all cause a variety of spotting on your leaves. These all come from different types of fungi that have colonized your plants.

In all of these cases, the common thread is that the cantaloupe leaves likely got splashed with water contaminated by fungal spores, or were wet when fungal spores blew past and stuck to them. Alternaria, anthracnose, and septoria are all treatable with liquid copper fungicide or a biofungicidal spray. Unfortunately, cercospora is much harder to treat and infected material should be removed and destroyed.

Anthracnose can also cause fruit rot. Before you begin to have melons forming, be sure the leaves are free from that fungi, lest you discover rotting melons too!

Unfortunately, not all leaf spots are fungal in origin. Angular leaf spot is caused by Psuedomonas bacteria. Thankfully, like many of the fungal leaf spots, this can be treated by use of a copper-based fungicide.

Three different wilts, two fungal and one bacterial, are also a risk for your cantaloupes. Fusarium wilt and verticillium wilt are both fungi that live in the soil for potentially years. Planting resistant cultivars can help to prevent these from taking hold, as can applying a biofungicide to the soil during planting. Bacterial wilt is spread by the cucumber beetle, and eliminating beetle populations will stop it from spreading.

Both powdery mildew and downy mildew are common when growing cantaloupes. Powdery mildew is a fungi that creates a white, powdery-looking substance on leaf surfaces. It can be treated with neem oil. Downy mildew is caused by an oomycete, and can be treated with either neem oil or copper fungicides.

Two forms of blight, the gummy stem blight and southern blight, can occur. Gummy stem blight causes spotting and lesions on leaves, cracking in stems, and a gummy oozing material coming from inside the stem. Southern blight causes yellowing leaves, browning stems, and can result in vine death. Both of these are fungal and live in the soil. Crop rotation reduces the risk of these blights. Plant resistant cultivars.

Charcoal rot acts similar to southern blight but also causes dark lesions on the stem at soil level and can result in rotting fruits. As with the blights, practice crop rotation and avoid planting the same type of plant in the same spot season after season.

Finally, there are a few viruses which are transmitted by pests. These viruses include aster yellows, cucurbit yellow stunting disorder, and four different mosaic virus strains (cucumber, squash, watermelon, zucchini). There are no treatments available for any of these virii. Infected plants should be removed and destroyed.

Frequently Asked Questions

Unripe green cantaloupes
Early during fruit development, cantaloupes can be mostly green in color. Source: Zephyr314

Q: How long does it take to grow a cantaloupe?

A: It can take around 90 days from when the cantaloupe plant germinates to when you’ll get your first melon.

Q: How many cantaloupes does a plant produce?

A: Most vines can produce 4-6 cantaloupes.

Q: Do cantaloupes come back every year?

A: Unfortunately, cantaloupes are an annual and will die off once the vine has finished producing its melons.

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