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Master Gardener/Onen Markuson: Growing melons in Minnesota

BEMIDJI - Here's some easy advice: Learn to grow what you love to eat.

Many people really enjoy eating watermelons and cantaloupe. If you have a very sunny spot in your garden with as close to 10 hours of sunlight as you can get, provide some fairly rich soil and a little work, then melons can be grown in your home garden here in northern Minnesota.

It may take you a few years to find a strategy and seeds that will work well for both your preferences and for our northern Minnesota climate. My first try on both cantaloupe and watermelons was a total failure. On my second year, I paid a little more attention to the number of days to harvest and read a little more about what it takes to have a successful melon crop and I had better success.

The first part of growing melons successfully here in northern Minnesota is finding a way to start the seeds indoors - generally with "grow lights" or simple fluorescent lights. If you are lucky, you might find a garden center that has started them for you. Try to get the cantaloupe or watermelon started indoors about five weeks before transplanting them outdoors after the last frost of the spring.

Ready your transplant location by mounding up a slightly raised hill of rich soil with a diameter of 2 to 4 feet. Leave plenty of space for your melon to vine; trying to have 6 feet or more from the center of the mound for the vines. In order to keep the moisture in and to help provide heat for these heat loving plants, a good next step is to anchor some black "poly" over the raised hill. Transplant three melons in each hill quickly, trying to avoid exposing the roots to any direct sunlight as that can damage them.

My current favorite watermelon is the 'Blacktail Mountain' variety, which claims about 70 days to maturity from time of transplant into your garden. This variety has a fairly small area of vining, if this is a concern. I also liked the 'Sweet Siberian' watermelon which has about 85 to 90 to maturity and a larger vining area. The 'Sweet Siberian' was very tasty, but not everyone appreciated the yellow color of the fruit. I have found all of my favorite melon seeds at Seed Savers Exchange.

One challenging problem with growing watermelons is determining when they are ripe. I started out with the "thumping for a hollow sound" method, and had only modest success in determining when the watermelons were ripe. I then read about a method of looking at the tendril that is right across from where the watermelon is attached to the vine. When that little tendril appears dried up, there is a good chance that the watermelon is ripe.

The traditional cantaloupes that we find at the supermarket are a little difficult to grow successfully here in northern Minnesota. The cantaloupes that I have grown to appreciate are the "French" type of cantaloupe, particularly the 'Charantais' variety. This variety is sized about right for two servings, and I think is extra tasty. Growing them takes 75 to 90 days to maturity from transplanting. There are some other varieties with shorter times to maturity, such as the 'Minnesota Midget,' but I have not tried that variety. My one hill of 'Charantais' provided about 50 cantaloupes last year.

To find reliable information about gardening and other horticultural topics, go to the University of Minnesota Extension website at> Local master gardeners will answer your gardening questions via a voicemail. Call 444-7916, leaving your phone number, name and the nature of your question. A volunteer master gardener will give you a call.