If your climate is host to long, hot summers and you’re in need of a new fruit to add to your edible garden, why not try growing cantaloupe?
Cantaloupe is a type of muskmelon — i.e., Cucumis melo — that is closely related to honeydew melons and watermelons. There are American and European varieties (and some contention over whether the former is a ‘true’ cantaloupe). But the vast majority of home gardeners are familiar with the American cantaloupe.
Keep reading and I’ll tell you all about the cantaloupe plant growth stages and what to expect when growing this melon in your own garden.
Conditions for Growing Cantaloupe
You can successfully grow cantaloupes in USDA zones 4 through 10. However, cantaloupes have long growing seasons, so cold-climate gardeners must time planting and harvesting perfectly to avoid frost damage.
If there’s one thing to keep in mind when growing cantaloupes, it’s that these plants need all of the heat and sunlight they can get. Plants need 6 to 8 hours of bright light per day and, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, more sun is generally better for fruit production.
Cantaloupes need ample moisture to grow and set fruit. According to Utah State University, you should provide cantaloupes with an average of 1 to 2 inches of water per week. Employ drip irrigation or water early in the morning (so that foliage has time to dry before dusk) to minimize fungal diseases.
Cantaloupes aren’t picky about their soil. All you need is rich, well-draining soil to successfully grow these melons. Amend the soil with aged compost or an appropriate fertilizer before transplanting and as indicated by a soil test.
Planting cantaloupes in raised hills is a great way to boost drainage. Alternatively, you can construct a few large raised beds to achieve the same effect.
Plastic mulch is another valuable tool for growing cantaloupes. Mulching your cantaloupe beds will help warm the soil, slow moisture loss, and protect ripening fruit from soil-borne pests and fungi.
Growth Stages Of Cantaloupe
Cantaloupe needs between 70 and 100 days to go from seed to harvest. A single plant will usually produce its entire crop within a 3- to 4-week period.
The exact timing varies from one cultivar to another. If your area experiences shorter summers, I recommend researching and selecting cultivars with early fruiting for the best results, including:
- ‘First Kiss’
- ‘Sweet Granite’
Since cantaloupes are tender annuals, you will need to plant new vines each year. You can start cantaloupes in the home garden using seeds or nursery-grown transplants.
If you live in a cooler climate like me, keep in mind that you’ll need to start cantaloupe seeds indoors well before the actual growing season. According to Clemson University, cantaloupes grown from transplants produce ripe fruit up to 2 weeks earlier than those grown from seed.
1. Seed Germination
Cantaloupe seeds should be started indoors 4 to 6 weeks before the area’s last frost date. Gardeners in warmer climates may be able to direct-sow seeds as soon as the soil temperature — not just the air temperature — is at least 60°F.
Plant seeds ½ inch deep and maintain a temperature around 70°F for the best results. Whether grown indoors or direct-sown, cantaloupe seeds need full sunlight to germinate.
In ideal conditions, cantaloupe seeds will germinate within 10 days.
At first, cantaloupe seedlings won’t look anything like a mature vine. The first two leaves of a cantaloupe plant are called cotyledons. These proto-leaves are crucial to germination and sprouting but are quickly replaced by ‘true’ leaves.
When seedlings are a couple of inches tall, you can thin out the weakest plants to create more room for future growth. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to crowd cantaloupe seeds when first sowing them.
3. Vegetative Growth
Cantaloupe plants produce long, trailing vines and large leaves. You should expect the average cantaloupe to take up 3 to 4 square feet. Be sure to space out individual plants accordingly.
Most gardeners prefer to let their cantaloupes spread along the ground. However, you can create tidier beds by training vines up a trellis or stakes. Strong supports can also be used to elevate fruit as it matures to deter pests and diseases.
Cantaloupe plants should begin flowering about 30 to 40 days after germination. The flowers are bright yellow and tubular.
Cantaloupes produce separate male and female flowers. While female flowers are responsible for fruit production, you need viable male flowers to transfer pollen. Don’t be alarmed if you notice flowers emerging and dying off with no sign of fruit — it’s very likely said flowers were male and could not produce fruit in the first place.
A cantaloupe vine will only produce fruit if a female flower is pollinated. Each female flower is capable of producing one melon.
Insects are responsible for the vast majority of cantaloupe pollination. The wind can also play a role.
Nearly all melons are self-fertile, which means that a male flower can pollinate a female flower on the same plant. Keep in mind, though, that these plants don’t always produce both flower types at the same time. It’s always best to have multiple cantaloupes growing in your garden to ensure pollination and healthy fruit development.
6. Fruit Development and Ripening
According to the University of Minnesota, it takes about 35 to 45 days for a cantaloupe fruit to ripen and be ready for harvest after pollination —i.e., 70 to 100 days from seed germination.
Because cantaloupe takes so long to ripen compared to some other crops, it’s sadly quite common for the fruit to become damaged before harvest. Keep a close eye on ripening melons in your garden and take cultural steps to reduce pest and fungal activity in your beds.
Cantaloupe Growth Timeline – Video Timelapse
This short video is a wonderful demonstration of the cantaloupe plant growth stages from seed to fruit. However, it is important to note this plant was grown under artificial grow lights on a 24-hour light cycle during the vegetation stage. This can significantly reduce the overall growth timeline when compared to growing the plant outdoors in natural light.
When To Harvest Cantaloupe
Start watching for signs of ripeness about 35 days after fruit development starts. These may include:
- The rind turned from green to tan
- Sweet, pleasant aroma
- Raised stem attachment point
If left alone, cantaloupe fruit will often separate and drop from the vine when 100% ripe. This can damage the fruit, so I strongly recommend checking your garden each day and harvesting cantaloupes as soon as they ripen. Alternatively, you can use rope supports to hold ripening fruit in place.
FAQ Cantaloupe Plant Growth Stages
- Old Farmer’s Almanac Sun requirements for cantaloupe
- Utah State University Weekly water needs of cantaloupe
- Clemson University Growth rate of seed vs. transplant cantaloupes the University of Minnesota Time for the fruit of cantaloupe to ripen
Ben's horticultural interest grew when graduating from Hertfordshire University in 1997. Having contributed to numerous publications including Better Homes & Gardens, Garden Design Magazine, and The English Garden. He is also the author of Propagating Houseplants Made Easy.