Growing Watermelon in a Container – 3 Tips for Success
Nothing says summer like red, juicy watermelon!
Nothing says summer quite like a red, juicy watermelon – I can taste it now! If you are growing in a small space, like a patio or deck, you might think that you can’t grow a large plant such as watermelon. Not so – grow it in a container! With a few quick and simple tips on caring for your container watermelon, you’ll be harvesting and eating you own sweet juicy watermelon in no time!
Compact varieties like Sugar Baby work well for containers.
Compact varieties of watermelon work best for containers. I’m growing Black Tail Mountain and Sugar Baby watermelon in 20 gallon Smart Pots containers. The Smart Pots containers work beautifully for a large plant like watermelon because they are made from a durable, aerated fabric. When the roots hit the aerated sides of the pot, they “air prune”. Instead of encircling the bottom of the pot, and becoming rot bound, they form a fibrous root ball that is able to take up water and nutrients effectively, feeding the plant and helping it be productive.
See my previous blog post, “Growing Large Veggies in Containers” for more info on container and soil to grow in.
Once you have your watermelon planted and it is established in your container, follow these three tips that to help it thrive.
Tip #1 : Trellis your watermelon
Grow up, not out, to save space.
Most of us are growing in a container because we are short on space. Providing your watermelon plant with a strong support, or trellis so it can grow up, not out, is key. I like to use my DIY tomato cages and train the vine to grow up the cage by weaving it in and out of the wire mesh. Use plastic stretchy tie up tape to attach any wayward vines to your trellis. Watermelon vines grow quickly, and are space hogs, so check your vine daily so it doesn’t get out of control
Make watermelon “slings” out of an old t-shirt to support the growing fruit.
As the fruit develops, provide support for it as it grows by making a sling out of stretchy material, such as a t-shirt or pair of panty hose. Tie each end of the material to the trellis to support the fruit.
Tip #2 – Hand pollinate if necessary
As your watermelon plant grows, you should start to see flowers bloom that are attached to tiny immature watermelon. If the fruit does not continue to grow, this is a clue that you do not have enough pollinators around your garden and need to hand pollinate the flowers. Don’t let this scare you – it’s so easy!
Male watermelon flower.
To hand pollinate, your will need both male flowers and female flowers. The male flower will be attached to a stem. The flower stem will have a fuzzy stalk in the center (the fuzz is the pollen) called a stamen. Often male flowers appear first on your plant.
Female watermelon flower.
A female flower sits on top of a small, immature fruit, the fuzzy center is called the stigma. Once your male and female flowers are open, pollinate within a day to increase your chance of success. Hand pollination can be done in two ways, with the male flower itself, and with a paintbrush.
Hand pollination with the male flower is easy!
Hand pollination with a male flower
Remove the male flower from the plant, put the stamen of the male flower on the stigma of the female flower and tap it several times to transfer the pollen. You can use the male flower to pollinate other female flowers as long as there is still pollen on the stamen. Do this several days in a row to ensure successful pollination. Over the next few days, watch the immature fruit that is attached to the female flower to see if it begins to grow. If it does, this means that your hand pollination was successful and your watermelon is on it’s way to your table! If it does not continue growing, try hand pollinating again until you are successful!
Hand pollinate with a paintbrush – another easy way to do it.
Hand Pollination with Paintbrush
Dab a small paintbrush (I like to use an old makeup brush) on the stamen of the male flower. Then dab the paintbrush on the stigma of the female flower to transfer the pollen. Additional female flowers can be pollinated with the male flower, providing there is still pollen on the stamen, but you will need to dab the paintbrush each time on the stamen to pick up more pollen.
Tip #3 – Water and Fertilize Regularly
Water and fertilize regularly for best results.
Container plants dry out quicker than in-ground plants. Check your container melons daily to see if they need water. I have my container plants on a separate drip irrigation system than the rest of my garden, due to the different watering needs they have. If you do not have a drip irritation system, check your containers daily by sticking your finger into the soil. If the soil feels dry, you will need to water. In high temperatures (over 90 degrees) you may need to water your plants twice a day. Water with your hose or watering can until water runs out the bottom.
Watermelon is a heavy feeder – meaning it requires a lot of nutrients produce those tasty, juicy melons. Fertilize your container watermelon once a week with a liquid water soluble fertilizer. A water soluble fertilizer will provide nutrients that will be immediately available to the plant to help it grow. My go to liquid fertilizer is Verimisterra worm tea, made from worm castings. We all know how wonderful worms are for our garden – worm tea contains beneficial bacteria and microbes and feeds your plants just what they need. (Available at the above link for a 10% discount with the promo code “calikim”.)
Watch the video from my YouTube channel, “Growing Watermelon in Containers – 3 Tips for Success” so you can see exactly what to do to be successful at growing watermelon in your container garden!
Comment below – let me know if you are growing watermelon in containers in your garden!
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There is nothing like a vine ripened melon picked right from your own garden. Bite into a slice of sweet juicy watermelon on a hot July day, smell the aroma of a vine ripe muskmelon, or savor a sweet honeydew or specialty melon you grew yourself and it’s love at first bite.
WHY GROW YOUR OWN
While melons are readily available in the grocery store there are many reasons to grow your own. Home growing allows you to try many new varieties and old heirlooms not available in the supermarket. Organic gardeners can avoid using any pesticides or synthetic fertilizers on their melons.
Flavor is another reason to grow your own. While a muskmelon will continue to ripen after harvest, sugar content no longer increases after it is detached from the vine. Let’s face it, for a melon to be put in a field truck, rolled down the belt of a packing house, boxed and trucked across the country it needs to be a little less ripe than one that need only be hand carried from the garden to the back porch! And last but certainly not least, it’s just plain fun to grow your own at home. There’s a sense of accomplishment in growing it yourself.
Many gardeners have avoided growing melons because of the space required. A single plant of some melons can grow into a sprawling patch 20 feet across. Unless your garden is large there may not be room for including a traditional melon patch in the summer plan.
Vertical growing allows almost any gardener to find a space for melons. There are many advantages of going vertical with your melon vines. Space is the most obvious. What may have engulfed a 10 to 20 foot wide swath through the garden can be trellised to take up no more than a 3 foot wide “footprint” of garden space.
A sprawling melon patch means there is a lot more ground to keep weed free. Once melon vines enter an area weeding can become more difficult. With trellised melons the small space beneath the vine is easy to access for weeding or better yet mulching to deter weeds.
Walking through a melon patch to inspect or harvest fruit usually resembles some new slow motion dance or an outdoor version of the game Twister as we carefully turn and step to avoid crushing a vine. Melons laying on the ground are more prone to rotting and attack from certain chewing pests such as pillbugs and sowbugs. The foliage too is more prone to disease because of splashing soil and reduced air movement. The foliage of vines on a trellis dries out quickly after a rain and is generally less prone to problems.
Melons are not that difficult to grow if provided with a few basic growing conditions. First of all they need good sunlight. Leaves need sun to make carbohydrates and without it yields will suffer and flavor will be disappointing at best.
Melons grow best in a well drained loamy soil. Sandy soil is great if you make sure to provide adequate added nutrition and frequent watering. Clay can be improved with compost to help increase its internal drainage. If your soil is heavy clay you may do best to create a raised bed by importing some loamy or sandy soil mixed with a generous supply of compost. This effort need not be justified for the melons alone as such a bed is great for fall strawberry planting, for summer southern peas as well as for several other garden crops.
Plant melons when the soil warms up in mid spring. This would be about mid April in north Texas, late March to early April in central parts of the state and mid to late March along the coastal region. Prior to planting work 1 to 2 cups of a complete fertilizer into the soil per 50 square feet of garden bed area. If using an organic product double the rate to 2 to 4 cups per 50 square feet. For trellising, plant two seeds every 3 to 4 feet for muskmelons or 4 to 6 feet for watermelons. Thin to one plant in each location a week or so after the plants emerge. Optimum spacing will vary with species of melon, variety and soil conditions.
You can get a little head start on the season by starting transplants for setting out into the garden about 2 to 3 weeks later. Just don’t grow them for too long in the seedling tray as large melon plants don’t respond well to transplanting.
Keep the seeded areas moist until the seeds sprout, then water as needed to maintain even soil moisture. Melons can take our summer heat but need moist soil to grow and bear well. Gardeners in sandy soils will find regular watering to be especially important. Watermelons can develop blossom end rot, just like tomatoes do, when soil moisture varies from one extreme to another.
After the plants have four true leaves (the two original “seed leaves” don’t count) fertilize them again at about half the above rate. Then install the trellises if you haven’t already done so. In light sandy soils the vines may benefit from one more fertilization when the vines grow to about 2 feet long.
TRELLISING THE VINES
Melon trellises can be made of many different materials as long as they are strong. I have seen everything from hog fencing to wooden lattice. My favorite system for trellising melons is to use livestock panels (16 feet by 4 feet) and steel posts driven into the ground. The panels can be set upright or leaned slightly toward the support posts.
Drive at least three steel posts per 16 foot panel into the ground about 8 inches away from the row of plants along the shadier side. Then set the panels so the base sits on the soil about 8 inches away from the plants along the sunnier side of the row and lean the tops over against the posts. Attach the panel to the posts with jute twine or wire. This creates a slightly leaning panel which provides good sun exposure and seems to help to keep the fruit toward the lower, shadier side of the trellis. Another option is to lean the panels against an existing fence such as a privacy fence.
Livestock panels are very strong, last forever, and are easier to handle and store than wire. A 16 foot section is difficult for one person to handle so you might want to cut it into two lengths with bolt cutters. You’ll find many uses for these 4 feet by approximately 8 feet panel sections in the garden.
As the melons grow they’ll need some encouragement to train them onto the trellis. Melons are poor climbers and can grow quite rapidly. Plan on going out every day or two and orienting the vines on the trellis to create a solid fill of vines and foliage. While they have tendrils to help them attach to the trellis you will probably want to tie them to it here and there as they grow. Pieces of hosiery cut across the leg into inch wide strips work great. They are easy to tie and give a little to allow the vine room to grow.
Planted at the spacing mentioned above melons will more than fill a trellis during their growing season. I find it best to train the main vine up the trellis and orient the side branches more horizontally. In good growing conditions you’ll find the vines reach the top of the trellis fairly rapidly and can be allowed to grow back downward again.
Additional fertilizing will most likely not be needed in good soil conditions but be ready to apply a little extra if the vines appear to be lacking. Excessive nitrogen will result in delayed maturity and poor fruit quality.
Maintain good soil moisture but don’t keep it excessively wet. Drip irrigation works best. As an alternative in heavier textured soils you can build 3 foot diameter berms of soil around the plants and between plants down the row. This makes it easy to provide a good soaking by filling the berms with water. The berms prevent water from running off of the bed surface before it has a chance to soak in.
SUPPORT YOUR MELON PATCH
By now you may be thinking, “Yeah but what keeps the fruit from pulling the vines off of the trellises?” Melon fruit do indeed require support and it’s old hosiery again to the rescue.
Keep in mind that as a father of 5 daughters I am acutely aware of the fact that a new pair of hose will likely have a run in them before you even arrive at your first destination. There is little to be done with old hosiery but throw it away, unless you are planning on robbing a convenience store, so such recycled usefulness in the garden is a welcomed idea.
To make melon supports, cut a leg off of an old pair of pantyhose. Tie a tight knot in the hose about 8 inches from the toe end and more tight knots on up the leg about 8 inches apart. Then cut an inch below each knot to create the individual fruit supports. Slip a section of hose over a fruit when it is tennis ball to golf ball size and then tie it to the trellis pulling it up a little higher than it was originally as it will stretch the hose and sag down a bit as it grows in weight and size. Don’t wait too long to attach the support as ripening muskmelons are ready to release from the vine and large fruit of many types of melons can pull the vine off of a trellis.
Hosiery works great for smaller melons such as muskmelons and if the hose are the heavy duty type (!) for the smallest of watermelon varieties. Heavier fruits such as watermelons will usually require something stronger such as a section of onion sack or other mesh material, or pieces of old T-shirt formed into slings by tying each end to the trellis. Use your imagination to come up with other support options.
Small fruited melons are definitely the easiest to trellis but if your trellis is strong and the supports up to the task even large fruited melons can be grown vertically. Just make sure the fruits are adequately supported as growth and wind movement can cause one to take a tragic “jump.” Whatever melons you decide to grow, a trellis with supported melons growing on it is quite a conversation piece … like your neighbors needed something to talk about anyway!
While I have generalized about melons as a group up to this point, when it comes to harvest things get more specific. It is important to harvest your melons at the proper time: too early and they lack flavor and sweetness, too late and they become mealy and lose quality.
Muskmelons yield their harvest over a longer time period requiring repeated harvests over several weeks. Watermelons generally ripen their fruit almost all at once for a much shorter harvest period.
Muskmelons are the types with a netted fruit surface which we commonly but mistakenly refer to as cantaloupes. Muskmelons naturally break loose from the vine when they are ripe. The spot where the vine attaches to the fruit begins to crack around the perimeter of what will be the “belly button” on the fruit, which is called “slipping.” Once they are at about 3/4 to full slip they are ready to harvest. Most gardeners prefer to leave them until they reach full slip for the sweetest fruit and top quality.
A ripe muskmelon will detach when slight pressure is applied to the vine. As a muskmelon ripens the color of the fruit behind the netting turns from green to a creamy tan hue and the fruit gives off a rich aromatic smell.
Harvest honeydew melons when the rind color turns creamy yellowish white. When pressed gently at the blossom end the melon will be a little soft and the fruit will have a faint, pleasant odor. Charentais melons turn from grey green to creamy white when they ripen. Charentais melons and most honeydews do not slip from the vine and should be cut leaving about an inch of vine attached. Most other melons including Casaba and Crenshaw types must also be cut from the vine.
There are numerous other melon types and in recent years many new hybrids between types have appeared on the market making it difficult to generalize about how to determine the optimum point to harvest them. With these less common types it is best to read the information from the seed supplier and gain personal experience with a particular type of melon to determine the best harvest time.
Watermelons are a bit more of a challenge when it comes to deciding when to harvest the fruit. They do not detach naturally from the vine when ripe nor do they have a distinct fragrance. When watermelons are grown on the ground the spot where the fruit sits on the ground will change from green to cream colored when ripe. Trellised fruit won’t show that distinct ground spot but some change in rind color or sheen may be discernable.
The tendril across from the watermelon on the vine will dry up. The ripe fruit develops a more dull, muffled sound when thumped. However the sound of various watermelons will be quite different and so it takes some experience with a particular variety to become better at judging ripeness, much less discerning the distinctive thump! Cut the watermelon from the vine leaving about an inch of stem attached.
CREATIVE MELON SPACES
Growing vertical opens up the possibilities of growing melons in the home garden and landscape. This space saving technique means you can find room to grow melons in medium to small sized gardens. It also means that melon enthusiasts can grow a lot more melons in a given space by planting several rows about 4 feet apart.
If you have a privacy fence around the property a sunny fence line can become a productive melon patch. Melons can also be grown adjacent to a patio or deck by planting them in a small bed beside the patio and using the trellis to create an outdoor wall to the patio or deck area.
Gardeners in apartments, garden homes and town houses without a spot of earth in which to garden can select a large container such as a half whiskey barrel and along with some trellis material create a melon patch on a sunny balcony or driveway. Use a quality potting mix for the container rather than garden soil and make sure the container drains well.
Container grown melons will require more frequent watering to prevent stress and lots of sunlight like their garden dwelling counterparts. They’ll also need to be fed a little more often since their root zone is limited.
A full size (16 feet) livestock panel can be bent into an arch shape using stakes to hold the two ends in place on the ground. This creates an arch tall enough to walk under. Plant a melon on each side to create an attractive addition to the landscape or garden.
Use your imagination to come up with some other creative ways to grow melons in less space. Start with your favorite varieties but experiment with others to find which perform best for you and which spacings and cultural techniques work best in your garden’s soil.
- First, before building your trellis or even planting your melon seeds, pick melon varieties that are smaller. I picked honey dew melon, cantaloupe, and a small watermelon variety. If you plan to plant the huge seeded watermelon variety, it is best to keep them on the ground. I suppose you could give it a shot! You would need a heavy duty trellis, maybe several layers of pantyhose, and a stronger rope.
- Second, plant your seeds and allow them to sprout.
- Third, build your trellis. I used the green 6 ft. steel U posts and rolled galvanized steel wire fencing that had 1″ squares. (you could use 2 x 4” wood for posts or any kind of wire fencing as along as it is sturdy enough to handle the weight of the growing melons).
- Wait until your melon plants are a long enough vine (about 2 ft.) to start to guide it onto your trellis. Melon plants are vines and grow little tendrils that like to wrap around and attach to things. They do really well having something to grow onto instead of just spreading out on the ground. Occasionally you will need to go check your vines to make sure they are attaching to the trellis, if they aren’t then you just guide or weave them through the holes of your fencing.
- Now you are ready to start your pantyhose project!
- A pair of scissors
- Nude colored or sheer pantyhose (the longer the better, if you can buy the tall kind. Also, the cheaper the better! No need wasting money on something you are going to put on a melon!)
- Rope or Jute Twine
The Geek’s Garden
Me (Preparing to write this post): “Honey, I need a funny lead-in about trellises.” Angela (My Wife): “OK… Knock Knock.” Me: “Whose there?” Angela: “Trellis” Me: “Trellis who?” Angela: “I don’t know… that’s as far as I got”
When we planted our cucumbers and watermelon, I made a quick decision to plant two extra mounds of each. The problem is that we didn’t really have the space for this, so I figured that I would just build a trellis for the plants to grow on. If they can’t grow out, at least they could grow up. All I can say is that I grossly underestimated the effort and time needed to build an effective trellis for ten mounds of viney veggies. Little did I know that this decision, accompanied by a healthy dose of nerdy obsession, would consume my waking life for almost two weeks.
3 simple trellises in neighboring plots.
For the uninitiated, a “trellis” is simply a man-made structure that is made to support climbing plants. They can be made of anything from scavenged sticks and bits of string, to heavy fencing and wrought iron. You can also purchase pre-made heavy duty trellises at nearly any garden center in America. However, not all trellises are equal, and depending on the size and weight of the plant you’re trellising, different materials and designs would be needed. For example: a 2o foot, wrought iron fence would be overkill for a patch of 2 ft high sweet peas, and a dowel rod with a bit of string will never hold a mature melon vine. Cucumbers are somewhat prolific, and need a rather hefty trellis to support their weight, and trellising watermelon is just plain nuts. No first time gardener in their right would ever attempt to trellis watermelon. You would have to be absolutely crazy and arrogant to even think that with no experience, you could just do something impossible, like growing big, heavy watermelon on a trellis….
I’m a full time college student with two kids in diapers. The only income in our family comes from the tips I make, waiting tables when I’m not in class. In other words, We don’t have a “let’s-build-a-big-expensive-ladder-thing-for-our-watermelon-to-grow-on-fund”. This meant that this project had to be cheap. Watermelon can be a bit… heavy. Even though the variety that we’re growing is much smaller than the typical watermelon, they still get to be about the size of a cantaloupe. This meant that the design needs to be able to support a lot of weight. After shopping around, we realized that pre-made trellises were way too expensive, so we would have to build our own. These structures would also have to be held together with duct tape and bits of string as that is the limit of my mechanical expertise…
We went with a simple pyramid design. This can support quite a bit of weight without a lot of effort. As the melons start to grow, they will have to be supported by small hammocks to take the weight off of the vine. Anyway, in an effort to stop my rambling, Here’s the pictures of the construction process…
For the Cucumbers, we started with 4ft tomato stakes, and placed a mark every 6in.
I then hammered a nail (and several fingers) into every mark
I then bent the top nail down.
Then I pounded the stakes into the ground, three to a cuke mound
All the cuke poles stuck into the ground
tie the tops of the poles together, using the bent nails as hooks
This star pattern tightens the entire structure, allowing it to hold much more weight.
completed cuke trellises
We used 4 2×2 pine beams for each of the watermelon trellises for more strength
same strengthening star pattern, this time with 4 points
rinse & repeat
as if the signs didn’t make our garden noticeable enough
The first watermelon sprout
Well, there you have it. We now have a garden that is visible from space. I have already started getting comments comparing our plot to the Giza Plateau. This will be worth it if these things do their job. If not, I’ve just created a giant neon sign targeting my gardening ineptitude. Though there is hope. As I finished the the project, I noticed a few little watermelon sprouts beginning to come up.
Next: The Ballad of the Troublesome Tubers
by Jordan Charbonneau, photos by Ira Wallace
Traditional wooden vegetable garden trellising at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
In my dreams of a picturesque garden there are always trellises. They may bring to mind quaint little fairy tale cottages, but trellises aren’t just for their good looks. There are so many plants that can be grown on a trellis and so many reasons to grow them that way.
Trellising saves resources.
Want to grow more vegetables in little spaces? Grow up! One of the easiest ways to make the best use of small garden spaces is by growing plants on trellises. Plants like pole beans are extremely productive and can be grown in narrow rows if trellised.
Trellised plants also use less water. Instead of watering an entire sprawling plant you can just water the base where the plants roots are located.
Trellises add structure.
Adding structure and height to a garden is often done to make gardens more beautiful. but there are other benefits too. Song birds will appreciate having places to land in your garden and they can help control insect populations.
Having the plants up off the ground also increases air flow and can help minimize plant diseases.
Trellises add shade.
Trellising plants can also help you add much needed summertime shade. A vining vegetable crop like cucumbers can be grown on a slanted trellis above a bed of a cool weather vegetable like lettuce, thereby helping you to grow a late season crop. Deciduous perennials (those that drop their leaves in the fall) can be grown on trellises on the southern side of houses to shade the home in the heat of summer and let the sun through in the winter. Some plants, like pole beans, gourds, and flowers like morning glories, have such long vines they can easily cover small structures (like teepees) making excellent summer forts for kids.
Trellised plants are easier to harvest.
Vegetables on trellises also tend to be easier to harvest. Instead of searching through a sprawling jungle of squash plants, you can easily spot them hanging from a trellis. Plus there’s little or no bending over. The fruits also tend to be cleaner and more uniform, perfect for market growers.
What can be trellised?
Decorative wrought iron trellis at Atlanta Botanical Garden
Many plants do well on a trellis and some require one. Below are some of the vegetables, flowers, and perennials that make ideal candidates for trellising.
|Pole Beans||Morning Glory||Hardy Kiwi|
How do I make a trellis?
There are tons of trellis designs and it can be hard to choose. The major deciding factors will be your garden’s style, your budget, the materials you have on hand, and which plants you plan to trellis. Trellises can be whimsical, practical, or a mix of both. They can be shaped as arches, forts for children, or simple fences.
Use natural materials.
Many people choose to make simple teepees like these which can be made from bamboo, straight saplings, or branches, and held together with twine or wire. There are also many different shaped designs using the same materials.
Cattle panel arch trellis at Heritage Farm
Hog panels or sections of wire fencing are another popular choice. Hog panels and sturdier fencing can be used two ways: as a fence or bent over as an arch.
Purchase or build trellises from lumber.
If you have money to purchase trellises or a knack for woodworking, there are designs for folding trellises that can be stored each season as well as more creative designs. You can also install large trellises in front houses or over patios.
Some people also repurpose old junk into awesome trellises. Things like iron bed frames and gates, old umbrella frames, and old antennas are great for climbing plants.
When designing any trellis it’s important to think about what you’re growing. Is it a permanent trellis for a perennial that will be in the same spot for years or something you’ll want to rotate next year? You’ll also need to decide on the size. Obviously pea plants require smaller trellises than grape vines. Some plants, like pumpkins, melons, and larger squash varieties, will need sturdy trellises to support the immense weight of their fruit.
How do I trellis plants?
Some plants (including morning glories, beans, and cucumbers) are easy to trellis. Simply sew seeds next to a trellis and they’ll do the work. Some plants, like tomatoes, need a little help: they need to be manually trellised. You can use tomato-specific trellis methods like the “Florida Weave” which surrounds the plants with twine. Or use traditional trellises and attach plants with tomato clips or even old scraps of fabric. Just be sure that your method does not cut into the plant as it grows.
Tomato trellis of string weaving at Twin Oaks Community Farm
For some large-fruited plants like pumpkins, melons, and large squash varieties, you may need extra support. You can create small “hammocks” for each fruit from an old shirt or other stretchy material that can be tied off to the trellis as the vine cannot support the fruit’s mature weight.
If you’re ready for a super productive and beautiful garden this year it’s time to get some trellises ready! The best time to add trellises is before planting, not after, so don’t delay! It’s finally spring and setting up trellises is a great way to get out in the garden.
Want to know more about trellises? Check out these posts:
Ridge Gourds on Cattle Panel Trellising
Trellising with Bamboo
Easy Bamboo Bean Teepees
What plants have you grown on a trellis?