Watermelon Dreaming

By Susan Littlefield

It may be cold and dreary outside as fall slides into winter, but there's no reason we gardeners can't go to warmer climes- at least in our thoughts! To help tide you through the chilly days and frosty nights, why not spend some time thinking and planning for that quintessential summer crop, the one that brings to mind long, lazy days and the heat of the August sun- our specialty, watermelons!

A Myriad of Watermelons

Whether you're looking to grow a prize-winning, 100-pound-plus behemoth or a little, round five-pounder that fits easily in the refrigerator, there's a watermelon variety for you. You can choose ones with sweet, juicy red flesh or expand your color horizons with orange and yellow fleshed fruits. And if seed-spitting contests aren't your thing, there are many fine seedless hybrids to choose from.

No matter which variety you grow, you'll be getting not only delicious flavor, but great nutrition as well. Besides being a good source of vitamins A and C, watermelons are also high in lycopene. This plant nutrient, which imparts red color to fruits and vegetables, is a powerful antioxidant linked to a reduced incidence of certain types of cancer and a reduced risk of heart attack. Research has shown that seedless varieties of watermelons have the highest lycopene content. And all this nutrition and good taste comes with very few calories attached.

There are three categories of melon varieties- open pollinated (non-hybrid), hybrid and the seedless hybrid triploids.

Growing Watermelons

Watermelons like it warm. Pick a spot in full sun with rich, loose soil that is high in organic matter. Wait until the soil is warm and all danger of frost is past before sowing seeds or setting out transplants.

If you garden in a short season area, you can get a bit of a head start by sowing seeds early indoors in peat pots 3 to 4 weeks before your last frost date. Preheat the soil in the garden by spreading black or red plastic or infra-red transmitting (IRT) mulch a week or so before planting time. In warm season areas of the Deep South and Southwest, you may be able to sow multiple crops; just make sure you plant about 110 days before the first expected fall frost.

Sow seeds 1/2 inch deep. You can plant seeds in hills spaced 6-12 feet apart, sowing 4-6 seeds in a circle about a foot across and thinning to the two strongest vines. Or plant in rows, spacing plants 5-7 feet apart in the row and allowing at 4-6 feet between rows.

Row covers placed over newly seeded or transplanted melons are a great way to keep out pests such as cucumber beetles, but they need to be removed when the plants begin to flower so bees can get in to pollinate.

Keep your vines vigorous by giving them a dose of soluble fertilizer such as fish emulsion as the fruits begin to form. And make sure your vines get consistent water throughout the season. An organic mulch such as straw will keep weeds down and help conserve soil moisture. About two weeks before you you expect to harvest, cut back on watering; this boosts the melons' sugar content and makes them sweeter.

Pinching off the growing tips of the vines in midsummer helps the plant to concentrate its energy on ripening fruits. In short-season areas, pinch off the tips of all the shoots. In hot, long-season areas, pinch only the main growing tip. Allow the side shoots to grow to encourage dense foliage that will shield the developing melons from sunscald.

Special Tips for Seedless Watermelons

No matter where you garden, start the seeds of hybrid seedless varieties indoors in peat pots, ideally on a heat mat. They need very warm soil temperatures to germinate and rarely make a good stand if direct seeded.

The seedcoat of hybrid triploids is more likely to adhere to the developing seed leaves, injuring them. Sowing the seeds with the pointed end up at a 45 to 90 degree angle usually prevents this problem.

Seedless hybrid triploid varieties don't produce sufficient amounts of viable pollen, so a seeded watermelon variety should be interplanted with the seedless ones to ensure adequate pollination and good fruit set. In a home garden, plant one seeded vine for every two seedless ones.

Harvesting Watermelons

Many of us have heard that we should thump on our watermelons to tell if they're ripe. Supposedly a dull, hollow sound rather than a ringing tone indicates a melon ready to pick. The trouble is that the difference between "dull" and "ringing" isn't always clear.

Instead look for these clues that your watermelon is at its peak of ripeness. The curly tendrils on the stem near where it attaches to the fruit should have changed from light green to dry and brown. The spot on the bottom of the melon where it rested on the ground should be yellow, not light green or white. And the skin should have turned dull and be tough enough that it's hard to dent with a thumbnail.

Question of the Month: When and How Do I Harvest Brussels Sprouts?

Q: This is the first year I have planted Brussels sprouts. I am unsure when I should pick them. How can I tell if they are ready to be harvested?

A: Usually Brussels sprouts are picked from the bottom of the stem working upward. They can be picked as soon as they are large enough to eat (about 3/4-1" in diameter, with tightly curled leaves). As you harvest, remove the leaf associated with the sprout. To harvest, cut the little heads off with a sharp knife. If your sprouts are starting to "unfurl", they may not taste as good. Harvesting them should encourage the plants to continue producing more sprouts. Harvest regularly to keep the plants in production. Most often Brussels sprouts are planted about four months before the first expected fall frost so they ripen in fall as the weather turns cool. The reason for this is that the sprouts taste sweetest after they've been touched by frost.

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