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Crown Melon: How to Grow Melons That Could Sell for $200 Each!

By Edited Apr 9, 2016 0 0

Ichiba Kouji

Japanese Muskmelon

            All of my life, I have eaten Cantaloupe thinking I knew what they tasted like.  It turns out that I have not had a Cantaloupe before but was tricked into thinking I had.  Just imagine that you have been drinking Orange Juice with your breakfast for the last 10 years.  You know it’s good for you and you enjoy the taste; however, the Juice you’ve been drinking was made with the peeling and all.  As you can imagine, this would make for a somewhat bitter juice, but you don’t know better since you have never had anything different.  Now imagine that no one sells Oranges or Orange Juice except for the bitter kind.  You would think this is normal.  Just like you think that the Cantaloupe in the store is what they are supposed to taste like…and you’d be wrong.

            In the United States we are sold Melons that we call Cantaloupes.  They range in size from 2-3 lbs, have orange juicy flesh and a green rind covered with a “net”.  This is not a Cantaloupe.  It is a Muskmelon.  Cantaloupes are from England and are not very appealing to the eye but I guess “Muskmelon” is a little hard to market so we barrow the name of this Melon kind of like calling a Green Apple a Granny Smith Apple.  Most of us today can’t tell the difference unless you grow up around apple trees.  I come from the Puget Sound area of Washington State (or the Great Northwest) in a little town called Raymond.  It is a cooler climate with lots of rain and sunny, but hot or humid summers.  (I will find this climate not suitable for growing Melons later.)

            After I graduated High School, I moved to Missouri to work as a Carpenter for a few years before enlisting in the United States Marine Corps.  During my time in the Corps I traveled to many foreign countries and learned many things.  One of which was what other people of the world were eating.  I liked to go to the grocery stores and look at the food that I could not get back home and try them out.

            One day while in Okinawa, Japan I was looking at the fruit section and noticed how expensive it all was.  A bunch of Grapes for $9.00 - $14.00, ect.  It didn’t really surprise me since there was not much farmland in Japan so most of it was imported and would thus be more expensive.  And then I saw it.  A Melon that sold for $100!  Why so much for just a Melon?  Did this thing come from the U.S.?  In fact it came from Japan. 

            So, why were they so expensive in Japan if they are grown there and what makes them better than the other melons?  It turns out that Japans climate is not very suitable for growing Melons.  In fact, it sounds more like the weather in Raymond, Washington.  This makes it impossible to grow these Melons outdoors.  So they put up greenhouses and run heat to them when needed to obtain the optimal temperature.  As you can imagine, this increases the cost of these Melons dramatically.  It also helps that the Japanese regard Melons as “high-class” or “sacred” fruit, suitable as a gift.  This is because only royal and higher-class people could afford the cultivation of this fruit in the past and the public view is still the same.

            What kind of Melon was this and how is it better than ours in the U.S.?  It was a green fleshed muskmelon.  Kind of a cross between a Honeydew and a “Cantaloupe”(known from here on as Muskmelon).  It had the “net” on the outside you’re used to seeing and was round in shape…almost a perfect circle actually.   The taste is like that of the Melon scent you’re used to smelling in a Cucumber Melon body spray or candle or Melon Soda if you happen to be in Asia and can get the Green Fanta (which is not sold in the U.S.).

  To the Japanese, there are many factors that go into identifying the quality of a Melon.  First is its appearance.  The more perfect of a circle it is the better quality it is.  Second is its netting or reticulation.  The finer the netting the more juicy it should be inside, not to mention it adds to the aesthetic qualities of the fruit.  Next is the sweetness level of the Melon.  This knocks a lot of Melons out of place since there are only a few that can get up to 16-19% sugar content.  It’s not only the sweetness however; it must also be balanced by a “fresh bitterness”.  The last quality would be the firmness of the flesh and juice content which can all be manipulated through the growth process.

            After you take into consideration all of the “makings” of a great Melon (whether or not you agree with the Japanese) you are left with a few Melons to choose from; a green fleshed Muskmelon, an orange fleshed Muskmelon, and a Watermelon.  Now, Watermelon is in a category all their own, so here we will be talking about Muskmelons exclusively (but you may use the growing tips on Watermelon to make better Melons anyway). 

            If you take out all the aesthetic properties of these two Melons, you are left with a few factors.  Their taste and the recipes they can go in.  Both are great Melons and have many recipes, but an orange fleshed Muskmelon has a distinct “spicy” flavor added to a Melon flavor and so a green fleshed Muskmelon would ultimately have a few more things it can be made into such as Soda, gum, body sprays, ect…  There is also the fact that the green Muskmelon does not slip from the vine when ripe (or just under ripe like an orange fleshed one does) and lasts longer both on and off the vine and is still edible.

            We could debate whether or not this is truly the best Melon in the world all day and not reach a conclusion.  In fact, the best Melon probably has not been bred yet.  But for now, considering all the pros and cons, this Melon variety has the best qualities on the market.  Can we achieve the same results in our own garden?  Can we grow a $100-$200 Melon?  What secrets are people keeping that will allow us to grow such Melons?

From the Ground Up!

            The first thing we need to learn about is the soil that we are growing in.  This is about 50% of what makes a great Melon.  What are they doing in Japan that makes it such a prime growing location?

Yubari

            In the small mountain town of Yubari Japan, you’ll find many closed buildings and a few homes and stores that are occupied.  That’s because this used to be a booming mining town that has since died down almost to a ghost town status much like the towns of the Old West in the U.S.  The only thing keeping people at this location is Melon growing.  They even have a special type of Melon called The Yubari King.  But why Yubari and not Hokkaido (Japans main agricultural area)?  It turns out that there was something in the soil that made this location superior to others across Japan.  In fact, the only other location that rivals Yubari is Shizuka.  What was so special about that soil?

Soil Drainage

            Yubari sits at the base of a Volcano and has a high concentration of volcanic ash.  This allows the soil to drain more rapidly while still holding water for the plants to drink.  If you do enough searching it seems to be a theme that people say if you want to grow great Melons then make the climate like Africa.  Most if not all Melons originate from Africa and SE Asia so its natural habitat is hot and dry with days in the 80’s – 90’s and nights in the 60’s – 70’s.

            While I do not have a Volcano readily available, I can still obtain volcanic rock called Vermiculite.  This will allow for good soil drainage and still hold water for the plants to drink much like the soil in Yubari.  Vermiculite is not a renewable resource so use it wisely.  The good thing is, you will not need to buy more.  Once it’s in the ground, it will be there for a very, very long time.  If you don’t want to use Vermiculite then you can use Perlite but the only Perlite I can find has chemical fertilizers in it so I will be using vermiculite for the majority of my experiments.

            I recommend using your own blend of soil made of compost (5 different types blended), peat moss, and vermiculite/perlite.  It is hard to get the mix right to make the water shed rapidly and still hold moisture.  Experimentation is a must to get it just right.  Water should not pool on top but if it does then it should be absorbed within a few seconds.  I used a lot of different mixes and found that a bag of Miracle Grow Organic soil mix to drain the best.  Upon closer inspection, I found that it had all the same ingredients as my own mix but at a slightly different ratio.

Soil Ph and Nutrients

            If you made your own blend of soil then you will not have to worry about this part as there will be a good amount of nutrients from the compost and a Ph of 6-7 which is what melons grow best in.  If you’re using the soil from your garden and intend to use fertilizer then you will need to check the Ph.  You can get a test kit from any home hardware store in the garden section.  As for the fertilizer, you should use a balanced blend of 10-10-10 and apply after the plants have been growing for 3 weeks so you don’t burn them.  I would highly recommend that you just buy a bag of compost and add it to your soil to feed your plants.  It is not only better for them, it is also cheaper.  You can get a bag for around $2.00 at the home hardware store along with your Ph test kit.

Impossible Seeds!

            The next thing to tackle is the seeds!  I have spent many weeks trying to find an heirloom variety of this type of Melon with no success.  Only a Hybrid variety is sold under the name Ichiba Kouji.  It was about $4.00 for a pack of about 20-30 seeds.  They are disease resistant and withstand a lot of pest abuse but make sure you keep it away from your other Melons or Cucumberits if you want to save their seeds.  The only way to get the non-hybrid variety is to breed Melons myself until I get it right.  Germination time for these seeds is about 5 days if the temperature is above 70 degrees F.

            It is better to start them in the place you intend to grow them since their “tap root” does not like to be disturbed.  You can soak them in water for a few hours before you plant them if you like but I don’t bother.  I just pick a rainy week to plant or just water them every day.  They will sprout before you know it.

Climates Change

            The climate that your Melons are growing in is bound to change during the beginning part of the growing season.  One day it will be hot, the next cold.  If you start your seeds outdoors after the last frost then you will need to keep an eye on the weather for a few weeks until your sure that summer has indeed arrived.  Temperatures below 40 degrees (4 days worth) are not good for the plant and could kill it.  Any amount of frost will kill your Melons.

            There is some debate on what the optimal temperature is for growing Melons.  Some say 93.2 F is optimal yet others say 107.6 F is best.  The only way to achieve and maintain these temperatures is to have a greenhouse but not everyone is willing to buy one just to grow melons.  You can build hoop houses to fit over individual plants if you like but I did not.  The ranges at which you can grow Melons are 50 – 113 F.  They will grow just fine within that range.

Containers and Raised Beds

            Now that you have your soil mix and seeds, you need to decide if you’re going to grow in raised beds or containers.  I had 2 packs of seeds so I had plenty of seeds for experiments.

 

            I have planted in many different locations with different soil, sun, and water conditions.  Melons in a “sandy” soil mix do not seem to be doing well.  Plants in containers with at least 6 inches of depth are doing well.  Plants put in a “growing bag” are doing very well, in fact, at this point, they are doing the best.  In second place are the plants in the large containers that give them plenty of room. (1 foot of depth at minimum)  Crowding plants together or putting them into smaller containers seems to make the plants smaller but they are still producing flowers.

Pests!

            By far, Aphids are my worst problem.  They have destroyed around 4 plants so far and are continuing to do so today.  I bought a few bags of ladybugs to control their population but it only seemed to slow them down, not stop them.  I hate to have to use insecticides but at this point I have no other option besides buying mosquito netting for all the plants until they are big and strong enough to withstand an Aphid attack.  I have heard of a natural bug repellent that I will try before I do anything drastic.

 

Vegetative Growth Stage

            If you’re growing outdoors then there is not too much you need to do at this point besides keeping the pests away and watering.  If you’re growing up a trellis then you’ll need to go out every few days and work the new growth through the net.  If you’re growing inside with lights then just make sure the plants are getting at least 16 hours of light per day.

That plant needs a haircut!

            To conserve space and plant energy, you should keep the plant trimmed to about 3-4 main vines and 32 leaves.  Cut away any diseased or pest damaged leaves first.  This will enable the plant to put all of its energy into making a great Melon instead of making more leaves.  The same is done with grapes, cutting them back to only 1 vine the first year and letting the branches develop the second year so they get good quality grapes on the third year.  Unlike grapes however, Melons are an annual, not a perennial.  They can grow more than 1 harvest but the first is always the best but if you have an heirloom and need the extra seed then let more fruit set after your first harvest.  DO NOT let fruit set until AFTER your first harvest so all of the plants energy (sugars) go into the Melon(s) on the vine.

Finally, Melons!

            At long last, we start to see flowers appearing on the vines, which mean melons are on their way!  It seems like it takes forever but really it only has been a little over a month or so.

The birds and the bees

            Melons will not appear out of nowhere.  There needs to be a male and female flower for the Melon to form.  The fruit will grow from the female flower which will have a buldge at the base.  Male flowers are the first to appear on the plant.  If you have other Melons growing in your yard then you might consider covering the Ichiba Kouji with a mosquito net to keep bees from pollinating your other melons, especially if they are heirloom.  When the female flowers appear, take a male flower and place it inside the female flower or use a small dust brush and swab the inside of the male flower and then swab the female flower to pollinate.  You can also let bees do this for you if you wish.

How many to grow?

            Only 2 Melons (at most) should be grown on the vine at a time.  I would only grow 1 at a time to get the best quality but if you want to make sure you have Melons then grow a few more.  Each plant should yield 4 or more Melons if you let them but they will be smaller and lower quality.

“I must sacrifice the others to make the best one possible.”  - Japanese Melon Grower

            The Japanese master growers hand pollinate three flowers and let them get to about the size of a baseball, then select the best one and let only that one grow.  The others can be chopped up and added to the compost pile.  If you do this then you will want to be inside of a greenhouse or put netting around the melon to stop any pests from attacking it.  A pair of stockings will work and they are cheap enough so it won’t be a major investment.

Watering

          We have covered this in the past but things change when the melons start to grow.  Melons are voracious eaters and drinkers when they start to form fruit.  You should water them every other day if your soil is well drained.  Keep an eye on the top of the soil and water when the top is dry to a depth of about ½ inch.  There should never be a fear of overwatering if your soil drains well and containers have holes for excess water to leave from.  Remember, very dry soil sheds water like a Ducks back.  It will take time for the water to soak into the soil and you will have a lot of run-off until it rehydrates.  Never water with cold water since it will shock the plant a little and may slow growth or development of fruit.

Supplements and Fertilizers

            If you started with a soil mix of compost, you should not need to fertilize your plants.  I do however, like to add ½ tsp of Super Thrive to every 2 gallons of water.  This will help them resist pests and develop much stronger.  After the fruit gets to the size of a grapefruit I use only water until harvest.

When Melons burst!

            If you go out and notice that your melon has burst open…. DON’T PANIC!  This happens because the inside of the melon is growing so fast that the outside can’t keep up so a crack forms.  At this point, the plants sugars flow out to cover the crack and heal the melon.  This is supposed to happen, in fact, if it doesn’t your doing something wrong.  This is what forms the reticulation or netting.  The finer the reticulation is, the juicier the inside is.

            “If the reticulation is great, the inside is great too.” – Japanese Melon Judge

            This is where your melons take on characteristics that define your skill.  If you don’t make good netting, then you don’t make a good melon.  This is where art makes an entrance.  It is something that you’re going to have to experiment with to get the melon just the way you like them.  I could just say that you need to water every other day with 1 gal of water for every 4 cubic feet of growing medium but you might decide that you want to water less.  Your local weather will also play a role.  During summer in Northern Virginia it gets hot and humid with days in the 90’s and nights in the 80’s so this affects the moisture level of my soil.  The location I plant around my house also plays a role in this.  You will need to find out what works best for you. 

            That’s fine and all but how do I ensure the outside of the melon is “flawless”?  If you just set it on the ground, then the melon will not form a perfect circle and the netting may be affected, not to mention bugs getting into them.  If you put them on a trellis then the juices may not be evenly distributed or may become misshapen or even caught inside the trellis if you’re not careful.  This is why I have bought a couple pair of pantyhose that was only $0.67 and used them to hang the melon so that it would not be disturbed.  They are gentle on the vines and are easy to tie not to mention reusable.  I made a box frame from my portable greenhouse that I am currently not using and placed the vine over the top so the melon could hang down so it will not develop any blemishes.

Looks like a Melon

            After the cracking is over with and the melon is healed it is time for the next technique.  You must massage the melons!  That’s right.  Several times until you’re ready to harvest, you need to put on some cotton work gloves and rub firmly all around the melon.  I would say that you should do this twice a week.  For example: Monday and Thursday.  The reason for doing this is to make the Melon sweeter. 

“This is called Tama Fuki.  It stimulates the melon and adds sweetness.” – Japanese Melon Grower

Signs of Ripeness

            Up till now you have spent a lot of time taking care of these melons… perfect growing soil, watering, trimming, massaging… These better be some awesome melons!  Not to worry, they will be.  But these Melons are hard to tell when they are ripe.  They do not slip from the vine like Cantaloupe, nor do they turn orange, they stay green and on the vine.  So how do you know when they are ready?!? 

  1. The stem is “green and strong”  (dry)
  2. The bottom of the Melon is “flexible” (slightly soft)
  3. Should feel heavier than it looks.
  4. You should smell the Melon aroma when in close proximity.

How to serve

            Now that you’re finally done growing this Melon it is time to eat!  Or is it?  Everyone is different but most say they like it slightly chilled.  If you’re giving this away as a gift then you will need to leave some of the stem on.  It should look like a “T”.  You can put this in a wooden or cardboard box with soft packaging material to protect the Melon.  Place a yellow ribbon on top and you’re done!  Unless you have your own sticker to place on it, close the box and secure with more ribbon if desired.  Give to the intended person yourself.  If you’re mailing it I would suggest FedEx overnight.  The sooner they get it the better.  Make sure you use extra packing material and write fragile on the box.

Quality

            To most Americans, your melon will taste just like a regular melon.  A really good melon but unless they know what they have in their hands then they will most likely overlook the quality.  Only when they bite into a regular store bought melon will they realize what they once held.  The quality of your melon can be seen without cutting it open.  If you look at a store bought melon, you will see that the “netting” or reticulation is very fine or small.  A great melon will have more pronounced or thicker lines in the reticulation.  This quality level depends mostly on the watering schedule that is set.  Personally I found that watering every other day to work best in my area but that may change depending on your climate.  Remember that melons come from a desert environment.  I wish you luck in your melon growing adventures!

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