A few weeks ago, I was down in South Alabama at a friend’s farm. He was planting watermelon in a plot about the size of a football field. Of course, being that he planted such a large number of watermelons, they will be sold to local groceries and at farmer’s markets — and at least one will make it back to my house.

Watermelons — and other melons — are readily available at just about any store that sells produce; however, nothing compares to homegrown, and growing them is very simple. Success depends on three key factors: moisture, sunlight and heat.

Melons require two to three months of heat, something we have plenty of in Alabama. They require full sun, receiving six or more hours of direct sunlight a day. They need a good supply of water and prefer a sandy loam soil with a pH of 6.0 to 6.5.

Since melons require a lot of heat, there are planting and maintenance measures you can do to help this process. Soil temps can be raised during spring by covering the growing area with a black tarp or landscape fabric. This warms the soil, allowing you to get seeds in the ground sooner.

Planting on black landscape fabric has other advantages. It helps suppress weeds, which are difficult to remove between the vines, as well as help to maintain soil moisture. It also provides a place for the fruit to form that is off of the ground, which helps prevent fruit rot. Fruit, once formed, can also be placed on cardboard or mulch until it is ready to be harvested.

When preparing the site for planting, you will need a good deal of organic matter. A base of manure covered by a mixture of soil and compost will provide the plants with the nitrogen they crave, as well as natural heat, which is generated as the manure composts. Fertilize regularly during the grown season.

Water is the last essential piece of the puzzle. Melons are particularly sensitive to drought between the time you plant and when the flower and fruit start to form. Keep the soil consistently moist but not soaked. Since moisture on leaves can lead to fungal disease, drip irrigation or watering at ground level is the preferred method. If you must water with a sprinkler, water early in the morning so the foliage will have ample time to dry throughout the day.

The time that melons need heat is directly related to their harvest. Fruit is ready for harvest between 65 and 90 days, depending on the size of the fruit. A single vine generally produces two to four melons, while watermelons typically produce just one per vine.

You can determine the ripeness of melons a few ways. Give the melon a thump. It should sound hollow. Cantaloupe will change from green to tan and will have a crack in the stem where it attaches to the fruit. If the fruit falls off the vine by itself, it is probably over-ripe. Honeydew will lose its smooth skin and become rough and slightly sticky, which is how they got their name.

Honeydew and cantaloupe can be planted between April 15 and June 16, and again from Aug. 1–31. Watermelon is also planted during the same spring/summer dates. Fall planting is not recommended.

Cantaloupe and other melons should be spaced 1 1/2 to 2 feet apart in rows with 2 to 4 feet between rows, and watermelons should be spaced 3 to 4 feet apart in rows with 6 to 8 feet between rows.

Suggested varieties

• Cantaloupe: Ambrosia, Athena, Eclipse, Odyssey, Superstar

• Honeydew: Honey Mix, Santa Fe

• Watermelon: AU Producer, Crimson Sweet, Jubilee II, Fiesta, Jubilation, Mardi Gras, Stars N’ Stripes, Gold Strike

Culinary uses

Although most people enjoy melon on its own, they pair surprisingly well with some other ingredients.

Cantaloupe and other melons are a perfect complement for prosciutto, figs, dates, fresh mozzarella, honey, basil and mint. Watermelon is delicious drizzled with balsamic vinegar, sprinkled with coarse salt or served with feta cheese. It also pairs well with arugula, shrimp, blueberries, lime and cilantro. Barbecue enthusiasts are using the heat of the grill to caramelize the sugar in watermelon, turning it from sweet to savory, making it a delicious addition to salads or as a side dish.

Until next week, happy gardening.

— Irland, a member of the Limestone County Master Gardeners, can be reached at kippirland@hotmail.com. Visit https://mg.aces.edu/limestone for more information on the Limestone County Master Gardeners.

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