Commercially grown muskmelons, or cantaloupes, (Cucumis melo) are harvested before their sugars have fully developed so they ship better. Once picked, the ripening process stops. When you grow them yourself, you can wait until muskmelons are at their sweet, juicy prime. The fruits don't ripen at the same time, so you should check your plants every day or so.
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Ripe muskmelons give off a sweet, heady scent. As you walk through the garden, you'll notice the smell on warm days. Grocery store melons are usually picked before they're quite ripe and then chilled. They give off a less pronounced scent.
Appearance and Touch
A sweet scent alerts you the melons are approaching maturity, but use appearance and touch to assess the ripeness of each fruit. Muskmelons start out as small, hard balls. As they mature, they grow and the rinds become softer. Muskmelons are ripe when they give just slightly when you press on them. They should be neither hard nor soft. The webbing or netting on the rind becomes coarse and rough, and the skin underneath changes from green to tan or yellow. Ripe muskmelons slip easily from the vines by twisting them between your fingers. If you have to tug on the melon, it probably isn't ripe.
Keeping track of the days since flowering can also give you a general idea of when muskmelons are ripe. Most varieties need between 35 and 45 days from the time of flowering. This time frame varies slightly, depending on growing conditions and the variety. Muskmelons mature more quickly in moist, warm weather than cool conditions.
The quality of ripening muskmelons depends entirely on the growing conditions. Muskmelons need full sun and moist, well-draining soil. To get a head start on the season, plant the seeds in peat pots indoors three to four weeks before the last expected frost. Floating row covers or hoop tunnels can keep young plants warm and ward off insect pests, but remove the covers when the plants start flowering so bees can pollinate the flowers. Mulches of straw or untreated grass clippings help conserve moisture and keep weed growth down. Fertilize developing muskmelons with a 21-0-0 nitrogen fertilizer. Apply 1 tablespoon per plant.