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Ask a Master Gardener: Growing sweeter watermelon, cantaloupe

Q. How do I grow sweeter watermelon and cantaloupe?

A. The sweetness of your melons depends on what variety you plant and on the growing conditions.

Melons prefer warm weather, and should be grown in full sun. Our long, cool springs can be tough for melons. It helps to put down a black plastic mulch before planting. Cut holes for your transplants or seeds. If you're growing more than a few melons, use irrigation lines under the plastic. If you've just got a few plants, you can water through the holes in the plastic. Water deeply once or twice a week. Try not to get the foliage wet.

Other mulches, such as straw and wood chips, also help retain warmth and moisture. It's best not to put these organic mulches around melon plants until late spring or early summer, when the soil has warmed up.

Another way to give your plants early warmth and help keep the weeds down is to plant them in raised beds.

Melons also benefit from row covers. Covering them with plastic or cloth supported by hoops or just laying lightweight fabric (floating row covers) over the plants helps regulate heat and protects plants from insect pests. But row covers must be removed when the plants bloom to let bees move pollen from flower to flower.

Wait until melons are ripe before you harvest them. Extension says to harvest cantaloupes when "the skin surface netting gets coarse and rough, the background color of the fruit turns from green to yellow, the surface color becomes dull, and the tendrils near the fruit (which look like curly strings) on the stem dry and turn brown." The cantaloupe should pull away from the stem easily.

Watermelons are ripe when the skin on the bottom turns from pale green to creamy yellow and the tendril next to the stem is brown.

Watermelons and cantaloupe will not ripen further after they're removed from the vine, so a key to bringing in sweet melons is to harvest them at the peak of ripeness.

There's more information about growing melons at extension.umn.edu/garden/yard-garden/fruit/growing-melons-in-minnesota-home-gardens/.

Send your questions to features@duluthnews.com.

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