Question: I can never get my melons to bear fruit, even with a beehive in the garden. Could it be because I have clay soil?
Answer: Most melons are known to thrive in sandier, lighter soil. One way to examine if soil type is impacting your plant’s performance is to not only look at their fruiting, but the health and vigor of the plants themselves. Does their habit seem stunted? Are their stems weak and spindly? If so, this may be a sign that your plants are not thriving in the soil at hand. A simple solution would be to grow melons in raised beds, and amend the soil with leaf mold or compost to improve its tilth and drainage (organic matter helps retain moisture while preventing the melons from having wet feet, which they don’t like). Melons are shallow-rooted, so simply creating a mound or hill on which to plant them can also improve their performance in soil that isn’t freely draining.
The good news is that, with bees at hand, there’s probably good pollinator habitat as well, so it’s unlikely that a need for pollinators is the issue. Although, if you’re convinced this is the problem, you could try hand-pollinating the flowers to increase fertilization rates.
Two other considerations are temperature and the length of your season. Melons like warm temperatures and a long growing season. Many gardeners use black plastic to raise soil temperature, providing plants with the heat they need to produce fruit. If you live further north or in a cooler climate, you also may benefit from selecting the right cultivar of melon to grow in that environment. Many melons need a long season, but there are some short-season cultivars. ‘Blacktail Mountain’ watermelon matures in as little as 75 days, and ‘Jenny Lind,’ a green-fleshed cantaloupe, is a strong performer in a short season as well, often producing well for us in Decorah, Iowa in 70 days. For me, the best source of data on melons and cultivars is Amy Goldman’s Melons for the Passionate Grower, which chronicles the best of the open-pollinated, heirloom cultivars.
–Lee Buttala, executive director of Seed Savers Exchange and editor of The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving
If you’d like to present a question for our expert panel to answer in print, email your question to Letters@HeirloomGardener.com with the subject line “sage advice.”