Cantaloupe is one of the staples of summer, a sweet treat that hits grocery stores and produce stands across the country when the temperatures start to rise. The reason that we can get cantaloupe so early in the season is that the plants take only about three months to mature when properly planted and cared for, enabling households everywhere to enjoy their cool sweetness during the hottest months of the year.
When raised in proper lighting, watering and feeding conditions, cantaloupes can mature in as little time as 80 days, or about 12 weeks. Most healthy cantaloupes will mature within 120 days, or around 17 weeks. One type of cantaloupe, the "Earlisweet" variety, matures in 68 days. It grows only to weigh up to 3 lbs. and is very sweet.
You can tell if your cantaloupe has reached maturity and is ready to harvest by testing the strength with which the melon is attached to the stem. Cantaloupes left on the plant will eventually fall from the stem; this is commonly a sign of over-ripening, and the fruit will not be edible for much longer. To judge if it is harvest time, press your thumb against the side of the stem where it connects to the cantaloupe. If the fruit comes free, it is ready for consumption. Always harvest cantaloupe before they fall.
Cantaloupes easily suffer from too much or too little water and therefore must be carefully looked after. The only time the fruit will need extra watering is in time of extreme drought. Test the soil around your cantaloupe with your finger. Do not water unless the top 2 inches of soil feel dry to the touch. Cantaloupes thrive with a layer of organic mulch around the base of the plants, which will help prevent weed growth. A general high-nitrogen fertilizer application, applied just when the plants begin to form vines, will boost production, size and health of the fruit.
A number of problems could slow or stop cantaloupes moving toward maturity. Fungal infections, such as powdery mildew, fusarium wilt or blight, will defoliate the plant, making it use up energy refreshing the falling foliage and battling the infection instead of growing healthy fruits. Similarly, beetles feed on the plants and spread fungus and bacteria as they move from plant to plant. Treating these problems with fungicide or insecticide, or planting resistant species of cantaloupe, will help ensure proper maturity.