Last year was the first time I grew melons outdoors. They can be a difficult crop, but with no indoor growing space in the Hyde Hall vegetable plots, this is the only way to grow them. Luckily, I'm always up for a challenge. And knowing how scorchingly hot and sunny the plots can get on a fine summer's day, I knew there was half a chance of pulling it off.
By mid-August an incredibly heavy, wonderfully fragrant crop was ripening, just in time for a visit from Monty Don and an appearance on Gardeners' World. Turns out he must've been pretty impressed as this year he's attempting the same thing. So now there was no way I couldn’t grow them again!
As far as I can tell, there are three key ingredients to growing melons successfully outdoors: starting the plants off early in the year so they ripen in time; a rich, fertile, free draining bed and lastly a hot, humid atmosphere. To achieve this I sow seed in mid-April in an electric propagator. I've tried three different varieties:‘Outdoor Wonder’, ‘Edulis’, and ‘Alvaro’.
By mid to late May, plants should have four or five true leaves and are ready to plant outside. One thing melons hate is sitting wet at the crown as this can cause neck rot, so I make a small raised mound or ridge out of a moist but free-draining, fertile garden compost. I then lay a leaky hose for gentle watering. The mound is covered with black plastic to warm up the compost and the young plants planted through slits.
I construct a polythene cloche over the mound and keep this closed for three to four weeks. The melons love the hot, humid atmosphere inside and grow at an astonishing rate. By mid-June they are producing lots of flowers and it's time to open up the cloche during the day and let the bees do their work, remembering to close it up again at home time!
Once three or so fruits per plant have set and are beginning to mature, the cloche comes off, making the crop visible for our visitors. Then it's just a waiting game until mid-August when they should begin ripening: the fruits begin to crack around the stem, the bottoms can be gently pressed in and an overpowering melon aroma fills the air. The ‘Edulis’ especially are so fragrant!
You've really not eaten a melon until you’ve eaten a home grown one. This year’s crop at RHS Garden Hyde Hall is ripening now. Come and see for yourself!