How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Cantaloupe
Cantaloupe is ground grown fruit that's easy to grow, and great for gardeners that are just starting in their gardening journey. However, there's some important plant-based knowledge that you'll need to have a successful harvest. In this article, Gardening expert Taylor Sievers guides you through everything you'll need to successfully plant, grow, and care for cantaloupe.
Cantaloupe is one of the easier vine fruits to grow, depending on your geographic location and skill level as a gardener. These tasty melons can survive in a variety of different climates, but there are a few tricks to making sure that your cantaloupe harvest is plentiful.
Nothing is more satisfying than growing your own food. Because you’ve chosen to grow cantaloupe in your own backyard, you’ll find that the taste is far better than grocery store purchased cantaloupes.
That’s because you’re picking your melon at peak sugar content, so the flavor is nothing short of refreshing and outstanding. The best part of all is that the vigorous vines are fairly easy to grow, even for a newbie gardener! Let’s take a look at this wonderful fruit in a bit more detail, so you can see how easy it is to plant, grow, and care for cantaloupe!
Plant Type Trailing Vine
Plant Family Cucurbitaceae
Plant Species Cucumis melo L. var. reticulatus
Plant Genus Cucumis
Hardiness Zone USDA 4-10
Tolerance Moderate to Hot
Sun Exposure Full Sun
Watering Requirements Moderate to High
Maturity Date 65-90 Days
Growth Rate Fast
Plant With Cabbage, Flowers That Attract Bees
Don’t Plant With Potatoes
Soil Type Sandy Loam, Well-Draining
Plant Spacing Hills 5 ft; 18 in. if rows
Planting Depth 1/2 – 1 inch
Plant Height 12 inches, to 5 feet
Pests Cucumber Beetles, Aphids
Diseases Mildews, Stem Blight
Cantaloupe (Cucumis melo L. var. reticulatus) is a member of the family Cucurbitaceae, a group of plants including squash, watermelons, pumpkins, cucumbers, gourds, and other types of muskmelons. You may have heard cantaloupes being referred to as muskmelons, and while that is true, it is important to note that not all muskmelons are cantaloupes.
Cantaloupe belongs to the muskmelon group, which also includes honeydew and casaba melons. Cantaloupes are typically round or oval and they usually have rinds with a “netted” appearance that can vary from greenish to yellow.
Muskmelons in general are native to Persia (present-day Iran) and adjacent areas, and this is believed to be their main center of development. Northwestern India and Afghanistan were believed to be the secondary centers of development for these plants. There are several wild species related to muskmelons in these regions. The oldest record of muskmelon is from Egypt. Some experts have identified a fruit in an illustration dating back to 2400 B.C. of funeral offerings to be a muskmelon.
There are several records of muskmelons being known to the Greeks and Romans from the 3rd century B.C. on into the 3rd century A.D. The Romans gave directions for growing and preparing it with spices for eating. The muskmelon spread to the Chinese a little later from the regions west of the Himalayas.
By the Middle Ages, muskmelons were commonly found in Spain. It is reported that Christopher Columbus carried seeds on his second voyage and had them planted in 1494 on an island called Isabela Island, however, some believe this was not its first culture in the New World. Around this time, muskmelon popularity also began to spread throughout central and northern Europe from Rome.
There is not much documentation on muskmelons compared to other fruits and vegetables, but it is thought that the frequency of poor flavor in varieties may be why the spread was much more gradual for this fruit. However, by the 17th century, muskmelons were being grown by northern Native Americans, as their relatives in tropical America had learned about muskmelons from the Spaniards many years earlier. In fact, several Native American tribes had been growing muskmelons already when many European settlers began to settle in America. These tribes had been cultivating muskmelons for so long that they had even developed their own varieties.
Today, most cantaloupe is grown in California’s Imperial Valley, which is touted as the greatest melon-producing district in the United States. Arizona, Colorado, and Texas are also big producers of cantaloupe. While it’s not as popular as something like apples, consumption of cantaloupe has risen in recent years. This rise has been attributed to the availability of imported cantaloupes during the winter and spring months, which are off-season in the United States.
There are slight differences in cantaloupes based on the region in which they were produced. The European cantaloupe (Cucumis melo cantalupensis) has pale green skin and is lightly ribbed. The North American cantaloupe (Cucumis melo reticulatus) is common in the United States and Canada. The skin covering of the North American cantaloupe resembles a net, which is why it is named ‘reticulatus.’ Australians call cantaloupes ‘rock melons’ because their skin resembles a rock.
Cantaloupes are propagated by seed. In old seed catalogs and documents, it was written that older cantaloupe seed was the best to plant, with the seed having viability up to ten years. Older seed is thought to be correlated with shorter vines, which produce larger and sweeter fruit.
More than likely you’re not going to carry around seeds for three to four years before planting, so ordering fresh seed from a reputable seed company is probably the best way to go if you’re just starting out. If you want to save seed for the future, make sure you’re saving seed only from open-pollinated melons rather than hybrids. The hybrid seed will not produce plants true-to-type.
If you’re wanting to grow cantaloupe at home, you can direct sow seeds into the ground 1-2 weeks after your last frost. The soil should be warm (above 65 degrees F). Plant 3 seeds every 18” at ½” depth. Thin seedlings to 1 plant per 18” after they germinate. You can also plant in “hills” that are spaced at least 2’ apart. Plant 3 seeds per hill if you are using this system. Space your rows at least 5’ apart.
To start seeds indoors, plant into large-cell plug trays (you can buy these at local hardware stores or lawn/garden centers in early Spring). You can also start seeds in 2-3” biodegradable pots. Plant 1-2 seeds per cell or 2-3 seeds per pot at a depth of ¼ inch. Start your seeds no sooner than one month before transplanting outdoors. Keep the temperature between 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit for optimum germination.
Handle transplants carefully and make sure they do not dry out. Reduce water and temperature about a week before planting out to harden off seedlings. The weather must be warm, frost-free, and mostly consistent when you are ready to plant outside. When transplanting, plant 2-5’ feet apart in rows 3-6’ feet apart, or you can thin seedlings to 1 plant per cell or pot and transplant 18” apart. Melons are tender, so disturb roots as little as possible when transplanting, and water your newly planted seedlings thoroughly.
Mulching is highly recommended. Some growers use black plastic mulch and others use clear plastic mulch (mostly in northern areas). You can also mulch using straw. Mulching helps reduce the fruit contact with the soil, which can lead to disease and rotting of your cantaloupes. “Old-timers” used to stay if it was too wet to put Styrofoam plates under the melons as they developed. You can see that even years ago, reducing melon contact with the soil was important to keep your cantaloupe crop at its best.
If you’re short on space or just like the idea of container gardening, cantaloupes can be grown in large pots or grow bags (fabric “pots” that help prevent the plant from getting rootbound). Make sure you have some sort of trellis because your cantaloupe plant will still want to trail along the ground. You can use a tomato cage, stakes with twine strung between them, lattice-fencing, or any other sort of trellis-like structure! As the plant begins to vine, carefully pull the vine and tendril up and tie onto your structure. You’ll have to keep on top of this as the plant grows throughout the season!
Later, as the fruit begins to swell, you will need to support the cantaloupes as they begin to get bigger. This can be done using any sort of netting as a sling (you can also purchase special melon nets online) or even old pantyhose! What’s the advantage of growing in pots versus in the ground? Because your plants will have less contact with the soil, you’ll see less incidence of disease and possibly even pests.
Cultivation and Care
Cantaloupes prefer light, well-drained soil with a pH of 7.0. Sandy loam soil is best for these melons. Southern exposure is also ideal to soak up the maximum amount of sunlight.
Cantaloupes are moderately deep-rooted. They require adequate soil moisture with excellent drainage. Cantaloupes will thrive on irrigated sandier soils. Natural rainfall may be adequate, but supplemental water in the early stages may be required. Steady moisture supply is critical. After melons have attained a good size, you should reduce watering. When reducing water at this time, it can increase the mature fruit’s sugar content. Excessive moisture can result in poor fruit quality.
Muskmelons like a well-balanced variety of nutrients, but they especially appreciate higher levels of potassium. An application of high nitrogen fertilizer when the plants begin to vine is also beneficial to the plants. Incorporating well-rotted manure or compost before planting is a great way to get your cantaloupe off to a successful start.
Pruning your cantaloupe vines will increase productivity. This can be scary to do at first, for fear of hurting your plant, but it can often be better than leaving the plants alone. When the vines reach about 2 ½ feet long, remove the end buds of the vine by snipping or pinching it off with your fingers.
This encourages the lateral buds to form (basically, the vine will start to branch). The plant will then begin to focus on the branches, which can be less taxing on the plant because the growth is not as rampant. On each vine, make sure to allow only one or two fruits to form so that the plant can focus its energy into producing better quality melons rather than several tasteless small melons.
It is especially important to have good pollination for both the quantity of fruits and sugar content. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) advises commercial cantaloupe operations to have one beehive for every acre to assist with cantaloupe pollination.
More than likely, you’ll have plenty of bees buzzing around your garden, especially if you plant a companion crop of bee-loving flowers!
Make sure you harvest your cantaloupes at the right stage! They will typically not ripen on the counter as many consumers believe, so they should be ripe when picked. The rind will change from green to tan or yellow in between the netting on the surface of the muskmelon when it is ripe. Cantaloupes should be in full slip state, meaning the fruit comes freely off the vine or only needs a light tug.
Cantaloupes can also be harvested at the half-slip stage, which is when the stem may not come freely off as if in the full-slip stage, but the stem attachment area is smooth, round, and slightly depressed. If harvesting cantaloupe prior to the half-slip stage, the fruit will be too green and not ripen properly.
Cantaloupes must be firm, well-netted, and well-formed. Your cantaloupe should have a sweet, musky smell to it when harvested (which is where the term ‘muskmelon’ comes from; Musk is the Persian word for a kind of perfume).
It is important to note that other muskmelons, like honeydews, are overripe by the time the stem can be tugged from the fruit, so make sure to do your research if you’re planning on branching out into other types of muskmelon production.
Keep your melons in a shady, cool area after harvest. If you’ve picked your melons at the correct time (remember—your melon must have that “musky” smell!), then a day or so after harvest is when your muskmelons will achieve their highest dessert quality!
But since you’ve picked your cantaloupe at its peak sugar content, it’ll also be delicious straight from the garden. Nothing tastes better than the satisfaction of having grown your own food—so enjoy!
Popular Cantaloupe Varieties
There are many different popular types of cantaloupe that you can grow in your garden. While we’ve outlined a few here in this section below, make sure to check out our comprehensive guide of our favorite cantaloupe varieties before choosing what to plant!
Netted Gem or Emerald Gem
Netted Gem became the most popular American muskmelon in the late 1800s, and the commercial rights for this variety were bought by W. Atlee Burpee. He introduced this variety in his seed catalog in 1881.
This cantaloupe has good quality and stability of flavor and it remains one of the top varieties in American gardens today. The fruit weighs about 2 ½ to 3 lbs with evenly-spaced ribbing and greenish skin. The flesh is pale orange, soft, juicy, and very sweet. It is said to have a spicy aroma like cinnamon.
This cantaloupe has its roots in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. The melon has green flesh and is nutmeg-shaped, and its skin turns bright yellow when ripe. There is some webbing but not as much as is typical with muskmelons. The flavor of this cantaloupe resembles a honeydew. Sometimes the ripe fruit of this melon was cut up and baked in pies and the small unripe melons were used in pickles.
Blenheim Orange is an English variety developed in 1881 at the Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, England. The rind of this melon is thick and the flesh is a deep reddish-orange. This is an extremely fragrant melon that is good for areas with cool and short seasons. It thrives under dry conditions, as the fruit will become mealy to taste if it receives too much rain.
This variety is popular because it has a thick rind and is fairly disease resistant. Athena will ripen early to mid-season. The flavor is good and it has an excellent shelf-life! Athena is popular amongst commercial growers and home gardeners.
The Saticoy variety is known to have excellent mouth-watering flavor! These melons are typically oblong in shape with thick rinds and a small seed cavity. They hold up well after picking and also have good disease resistance.
Pest and Disease Prevention
The best way to prevent pests and diseases is by carefully scouting your plant for insects like cucumber beetles and aphids, clearing the area of weeds that may host viruses and/or insects, removing diseased leaves, and plant material, and planting disease-resistant varieties.
Water your cantaloupe plants at the base of the plant instead of over the leaves in order to prevent the spreading of disease. Also, spacing your cantaloupe plants out in the garden will help improve airflow, which will lower the incidence of disease. If you’re growing cantaloupes in the ground, make sure to rotate cantaloupe plants and other cucurbit family plants at least every 2 years.
There are many common diseases that can plague the cantaloupe plant. Let’s take a look at the most common that you’ll want to prepare for when planting them in your garden.
Alternaria Leaf Blight
ALB can affect cantaloupes from May through harvest. Disease symptoms occur on the leaves as multiple spots with concentric rings starting on the older leaves. The lesions will expand to become large brown necrotic (dead) patches. The outsides of the rings may have a yellowish “halo” around them. The leaves will become significantly affected and eventually turn brown and brittle. If the plant is severely infected, the fruit may become cracked. This disease is prevalent when the temperatures are high and the rainfall is frequent.
Gummy Stem Blight
Didymella bryoniae is a fungus that produces circular brown or tan spots on the leaves with stems splitting and forming cankers. The stems will exude a brown, gummy substance (hence the name). The vines will wilt and die, and there will be small, water-soaked lesions on the fruit that will enlarge and become gummy as well. You may see black fruiting bodies within the lesions.
This is very common amongst melon crops. The symptoms include white powdery growth on the upper side of leaves and stems. These areas will often become stunted or distorted due to infection. Powdery mildew is more prevalent in dry weather with high relative humidity.
The best way to manage powdery mildew is by good air circulation and sun exposure. This means you DO NOT want to overcrowd your plants. Make sure to sanitize any clippers, pots, or equipment that may come into contact with the infected plant.
This is a disease that causes dead or dying leaves and yellow to brown lesions on the upper side of leaves. Purple growth will develop on the underside of leaves. This pathogen favors heavy rains and moving water. The best way to manage downy mildew is not to overcrowd plants and water at the base of your plant rather than overhead.
Bacterial wilt occurs from striped or spotted cucumber beetles feeding on the seedling stage until the vines begin to sprawl out, and this feeding spreads the causal bacterium from plant to plant.
Symptoms of bacterial wilt include wilting of runners or the entire plant. The leaves and stems start to turn dark green and then later necrotic (brown and dead). Infected plants will ooze strings of bacterial exudate if you were to cut the stems and slowly pull them apart. Symptoms may not appear until cantaloupe fruit is at their maturity when it is too late to stop the spread.
Controlling the beetles is the best way to prevent this disease. You may hand-pick adult beetles and destroy them or apply an insecticide to control beetle populations. Crop rotation will not affect bacterial wilt.
Almost all varieties of cantaloupe are susceptible to viruses like Cucumber Mosaic Virus (CMV) or Watermelon Mosaic Virus (WMV). Leaves will have distinct yellowed mosaic-like characteristics that will curl downwards if infected with CMV. Leaf size may be smaller than normal and the flowers may be deformed. Fruits will become distorted and smaller, and they are often discolored.
WMV symptoms vary widely depending on the variety and virus strain, plus environmental conditions. Green mosaic patterns, green vein-banding, yellowed (chlorotic) rings, and disfigured leaves are all symptoms of WMV. Some actions that may help prevent virus infections are: 1) Kill or remove perennial weeds (virus source plants) within 150 feet of planting or 2) control aphids (virus carriers).
Limiting your insecticide use will conserve natural predators and parasites that will control aphid populations. Reflective mulches will deter aphid feeding. Killing aphids with insecticides cannot prevent the viruses they carry, but for severe infestations, you can treat aphids with mineral oils and insecticidal soap applications.
Common Insect Pests
Cucumber beetles, squash bugs, and squash vine borers can also be major pests of cantaloupe crops. You can use unbaited yellow sticky traps (you can purchase these online) to catch cucumber beetles and squash bugs.
Squash bugs are insects that can take over a cucurbit planting rather quickly. The symptoms of squash bug infestation include speckled leaves that will turn yellow and brown, eventually causing the plant to wilt. Dieback of the vines may be noticed as well as blemished fruit. Squash bugs are gray-black in color with orange and black strips on the edges of their abdomen.
The juvenile stage of a squash bug is called a nymph, and they are colored differently. The nymphs are greenish-gray in color and covered in white powder. Females lay copper-colored eggs on the underside of leaves. Squash bugs will overwinter in the field, so it is best to destroy all crop residue as soon as possible to reduce the populations of these insects. Applying insecticidal soap may also help control squash bug populations.
Cantaloupes are high in beta-carotene, potassium, and Vitamin C. Serving ice-cold cantaloupe on a hot summer day after exercising can help replenish the body’s water content and electrolytes. Extracts of cantaloupe have been shown to lower blood pressure by stimulating diuresis.
Cantaloupes are also rich in polyphenol antioxidants, which are molecules known to improve the function of the immune and cardiovascular systems. Polyphenols can also help control the regulation of nitric oxide, which is another molecule that helps prevent heart attacks and strengthen blood vessels.
The best way to eat cantaloupe is by slicing and eating it fresh! Make sure to wash the rind before slicing under running cold water. Use a brush to remove caked-on soil or residue. Mix fresh cantaloupe in with a fruit salad or keep it in a bowl on its own to snack on after a hot day. Small green melons can be used in stir-fries or sliced like cucumbers to use as pickles or in salads. Some people use these small melons for chutney also!
Another interesting way to snack on cantaloupe comes from an old roommate I had in college. She grew up in Albania before immigrating to the United States. She whipped up an appetizer for me once that was quite interesting and involved cantaloupe. The cantaloupe was halved and the seeds scooped out of the middle.
A mixture of tuna and feta cheese was placed in the concave area where the seeds of the cantaloupe had once been. Then, she sliced the cantaloupe further into pieces and served this on a plate. I can’t say I was a fan of the tuna and feta cheese part of this dish, but it’s always fun to try something new! I’ll stick with my favorite—cantaloupe chunks tossed in with grapes, blueberries, watermelon, and pineapple!
Frequently Asked Questions
Should I pick cantaloupe early and let it ripen on the counter?
Unfortunately, cantaloupe does not ripen much once picked. It will soften, but not sweeten. This is why you may have encountered some very flavorless cantaloupe when you’ve purchased from the grocery store in the past. Growers may try to pick their cantaloupe too soon, which results in lower sugar content, but they do this because they’re trying to increase shelf-life for the consumer.
If you’re growing cantaloupe in the garden, make sure to pick your cantaloupe when it freely comes off its stem or only needs a light tug. You should be able to smell that sweet, musky smell, too.
You can let your melon sit for a few days before slicing (in fact, people say the second day they’re the best), but make sure to slice your cantaloupe sooner rather than later. Sliced cantaloupe can be stored in the fridge for up to 7 days. Be sure to wash the rind thoroughly before slicing. Throw out any sliced cantaloupe that has sat out for more than four hours.
How do I know when my cantaloupe is ready to pick?
The best way to tell if your cantaloupe is ready is to use your nose! Your cantaloupe should have a sweet, musky smell to it when it is at peak sugar content. Pick up the cantaloupe and gently tug. If the melon comes freely off the vine, then it is ready.
Be aware that certain varieties may ripen earlier than others, which means that you will have to cut them off the vine or pull hard to release the melon. This should be listed on the seed packet or in the catalog or website that you ordered from.
How can I have adequate pollenation when it’s rainy?
Great news—you can hand pollinate if you’re worried! Take a look at your flowers on your cantaloupe plant. You should see that they are slightly different. One of the flowers will have a swollen green base that looks like a tiny melon—this is your female flower.
The other flowers are male flowers. Pluck a male flower from its stem and gently pull back the petals (or pull them all the way off). Rub the male flower inside the female flower. You should see your mini cantaloupe start to swell within the next few days if you were successful!
Why are the first flowers dropping off my cantaloupe plants?
Typically, the first flowers to open on a cantaloupe plant are male flowers, so they will drop naturally. The female flowers are swollen at the base, and they will eventually form the fruit. The female flowers will open later.
Do cantaloupes cross-pollinate with other cucurbit crops?
No. Cantaloupes will not cross-pollinate with cucumbers, watermelons, squash, or pumpkins. Different varieties of muskmelons WILL cross-pollinate, however. You will only notice this if you happen to save the seeds. The fruit will still develop normally.
If you’re looking for a relatively easy melon to grow in your new garden, why not try your hand at growing cantaloupe? These vining plants are simple to grow as long as you provide them with sandy or light well-draining soil and lots of sun!
Make sure to water them if the weather is a little on the drier side. Don’t have a lot of space? Try growing them in a pot with a trellis! You’ll be rewarded with a sweet, refreshing snack when the summer begins to really turn up the heat. Enjoy!