Grow Melons and Pumpkins Vertically
By now, you probably know that you can grow melons and pumpkins on a trellis. You also probably realize that melons, in particular, need extra support on a trellis, in the form of slings, bags, or hammocks made of nylon pantyhose. Nylon produce bags or other suitable cloth containers traditionally have served the same purpose.
Most gardening writers seem to steer their readers clear of growing the larger melons and larger pumpkins vertically, due to their weight and resultant destructive strain on the trellis and its secondary cloth supports. What I am about to suggest might overcome such reluctance, as well as provide a general alternative to cloth bags and cloth hammocks.
I have grown muskmelons (“cantaloupes”) vertically, and I have grown small sugar pie pumpkins vertically, both with a fair degree of success. For supporting muskmelons, I have used the standard method where I cut pantyhose into individual bags and tied them (around the melons) to the trellis with strong twine. For supporting sugar pie pumpkins, I have re-used nylon produce bags from the grocery store (made for lemons, onions, etc.).
I was never satisfied with pantyhose for supporting muskmelons, because I usually could not figure the necessary amount of slack to take up, in order to prevent fruit from falling off the vine prematurely anyway. Pantyhose seemed far too flexible, since no matter how high up I positioned them, the developing melons seemed to sag to the point of breaking off before I was ready for them to. At some point, the height to which I could pull up the pantyhose seemed to exceed the height where I risked tearing off the critical part of the vine.
In the case of trellising relatively small sugar pie pumpkins, I never felt convinced that the extra fabric supports were necessary at all. I observed that pumpkin vines near their stems are extremely strong, and I suspected that these smaller pumpkins would have matured just fine without the nylon bags that I provided.
Improved Method: Rigid Cradles Made of Welded-Wire Fence Mesh
In 2016, I decided to try something different. For both the cantaloupes and pumpkins that I planned to grow, I constructed rigid cradles out of welded-wire fence mesh with 2” x 4” openings. I envisioned mesh with smaller openings being successful too. Chicken wire, I thought, might even work, but it lacked sufficient rigidity to form the critical hooks, and so a slightly different hooking strategy would have had to come into play. I proceeded to construct my cradles using fence mesh with 2” x 4” openings, simply because I found enough of it rusting in the woods, otherwise going to waste.
The wire cradle pictured in this article was designed to hang on a trellis made of concrete reinforcing wire, otherwise known as “remesh”. Since cattle panels are essentially the same thing as remesh, this cradle would probably work there too. Trellises made of thin slats might also accommodate the cradle. My trellises are made of remesh, and so dictated how I shaped the cradle described here.
The Basic Idea
I will not describe how to make the trellis. I assume that you might already have the trellis down pat, and you just need to know a better way to support fruits that you want to grow vertically.
For now, let’s just focus on the cradle that hangs on the trellis. I want to emphasize that I made this cradle to be easily movable from place to place on the trellis, so that I could reposition it beneath the location of each developing fruit.
When you spot a baby fruit, you hang the cradle under it, in a way that the baby fruit rests on the cradle’s lowest curve. The fruit then matures in such a way that it never moves vertically from its original resting place on the cradle. Baby fruits might need a plastic top, a small piece of screen, or other suitable material to keep them from falling through the 2” x 4” openings at the start. Later, when the fruit diameter grows sufficiently large, these can be removed to improve air circulation and prevent slight pooling of rainwater on the support contact area that might encourage rot.
Instead of deforming a cloth support, the maturing melon primarily pushes downward on a rigid support, never altering the support’s position, but rather filling itself out vertically and horizontally on an immovable shelf, as it increases in size upward and outward (as if on the ground). In other words, the growing fruit shifts only with respect to its own increasing upward vertical movement against a solid base. Its connection to the vine only gets disturbed in a way that it would get disturbed growing more naturally on solid ground.
Theoretically, if a trellis and cradle are strong enough, and a cradle is the correct radius, a person could grow larger melons, like watermelons, or larger pumpkins, like the jack-o'-lantern type. In my case, I made smaller cradles for cantaloupes, and I made larger cradles for pumpkins that could have reached forty pounds each.
The design pictured in this article is the design of my cantaloupe cradle. Here is an actual photo of one that I constructed in 2016.
How to Make a Melon Cradle
To make this cradle, you need:
- welded-wire fence mesh with 2” x 4” openings,
- bolt cutters,
- maybe some thick gloves,
- strength and willingness to sculpt semi-circular shelves with your hands.
That’s it. Then follow these steps:
- Cut pieces of fence wire and sculpt these pieces into the appropriate shapes.
- When measuring the fence wire, you do not need a measuring device. Instead, just eyeball the mesh, counting three 4” prongs in width and four 2” prongs in thickness.
- Don’t forget to allow the extra 2” in thickness, so that when you cut away the unnecessary prongs in this thickness, you will have one prong remaining on each end of the semi-circle, to bend at a 90-degree angle for the hook at each end. It might look a little odd at first, but, trust me, when you hang it, it works – I first tested one using multiple landscaping stones stacked atop one another.
- These two little hooks, although small, are actually very strong. They enable the trellis to exert an opposing force that stops rotation of the cradle at a potential hinge. The force of potential rotation at that hinge gets met by an equal-and-opposite force of an immovable trellis, which acts against the cradle.
- The result is a rigid shelf that can be easily re-positioned on the trellis wherever needed – similar to those chin-up bars that you can hook onto door frames. The weight of a developing fruit only increases the stabilizing force of the trellis against the cradle, which can be as much force as the trellis can support without deforming catastrophically or collapsing altogether.
Update: Using Rigid Cradles in Actual Practice
I have determined that these rigid cradles work best with the addition of screen wire as liners to keep small fruits from falling through the openings. I used old, traditional, metal screen wire that I dug up out of the ground on some of my cradles, and plastic screen mesh salvaged from a broken back door on others.
What I have also discovered is that using the cradles in actual practice requires "sculpting" them in between vines of the fruits that you want to support. In other words, the placement of a cradle, in response to the emergence of a fruit is not a straightforward "hook-it-on" act. You might have to gently lift some of the vines or gently position the vines in and around the cradle to achieve the proper support.
Sometimes you might have to hook the cradle in such a way that it is on a diagonal, so that the developing fruit rests on an inside semicircular arc of the cradle. Sometimes you might have to extend the cradle a bit with flexible, strong wire ties used in chain link fence installation, because a developing fruit might emerge halfway between two horizontal wires of the trellis that you would use to hook on the cradle.
Bottom line, though, these things really work.
Nylon pantyhose or grocery store produce bags are a lot quicker and easier to set up, but once you take the time and make the effort to construct rigid cradles, you do it once, and the cradles can last for years. All you do is take them down at the end of one growing season, bring them back out, and hang them again the next.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Robert Kernodle (author) on May 11, 2016:
The first absolutely most important steps are ... adequate sun exposure for the plants you choose, good soil, and adequate watering throughout the growth cycle.
Just focus on these three basic things, and you will do fine.
RTalloni on May 11, 2016:
Thanks for this idea on rigid supports. We're taking baby steps toward raised bed and vertical gardening and I just planted small watermelon as a first experience with them. Will try to look over your other gardening posts soon.