Wonderful Watermelon

By Susan Littlefield

It's almost too good to be true -- a crop that is not only one of the most healthful and nutritious, but tastes divine as well! But that's watermelon -- juicy, sweet, delicious, and packed with vitamins and other nutrients. Just one serving of watermelon fortifies you with about a third of your daily requirements for Vitamins A and C, along with potassium and lycopene, an antioxidant that may help with the prevention of some some cancers. And you'll be in good company when you bite into your homegrown watermelon. According to the National Watermelon Promotion Board, watermelons are the most consumed melon in the U.S., followed by cantaloupe and honeydew.

Where Did the Seeds Go?

For many of us, watermelon seed spitting contests may have been a traditional summer activity. But there's no doubt that seedless watermelons are easier to eat, and they have grown in popularity since they were first introduced about 50 years ago. And here's an interesting fact -- seedless watermelons have the highest levels of that healthful lycopene!

How are seedless watermelon varieties produced? These hybrids are the result of traditional breeding techniques, which involve crossing a plant with the standard two sets of chromosomes with one containing four sets. This produces a sterile hybrid that doesn't set viable seeds (although you may find a few small, white, undeveloped seeds that can be eaten along with the rest of the melon).

Seedless melons require some extra TLC to thrive. The seeds need very warm soil to germinate well and are best started indoors in peat pots and transplanted, rather than being seeded directly in the garden. Seedless hybrids also don't produce enough viable pollen to assure good fruit set, so one plant of a seeded pollinator variety should be interplanted for every two seedless ones in a home garden.

Try Our Specialty

Watermelons are our specialty! Big and small, seeded and seedless, with pink, orange, or yellow flesh, we have lots of great varieties for you to try. Here is just a sampling:

'Big Stripe' (85 days) - This hybrid produces large, oblong melons that average 30 pounds, with sweet red flesh.

'Festival' (85 days) - The beautiful dark green striped rind of this hybrid is tough so it ships well.

'Pronto' (80 days) - Ready in just 80 days from planting, this hybrid sets a tremendous amount of 20-24 pound, red-fleshed fruits.

'Allsweet' (90 days) - This open-pollinated variety produces long, striped melons that weigh 25-30 pounds and keep well.

'Sunny' (85 days) - This seedless melon produces oval, 16-20 pound fruits with beautiful yellow-gold flesh and a very sweet taste.

'Desert King' (85 days) - This unique melon has a light green rind and sweet, deep yellow flesh. It can stay on the vine for a month or more after ripening and still maintain its quality.

Tips for Watermelon Success

Give Them Heat Watermelons revel in heat. Wait until the soil is warm and all danger of frost is past before planting seeds or setting out transplants. Then hope for warm weather! Optimal growing temperatures are between 75-80 degrees during the day and 65-70 degrees at night.

Gardeners in cooler climates can help melons along by preheating the soil with black, red, or infra-red transmitting (IRT) plastic before planting time; starting seeds early indoors in peat pots 3-4 weeks before the setting out date; and choosing early maturing varieties.

Give Them Room Watermelon vines need room to roam! Plant 4-6 seeds in hills spaced 6-12 feet apart, thinning to the two strongest vines, or plant in rows, spacing plants 5-7 feet apart in the row with 4-6 feet between rows.

Give Them Protection Watch out for cucumber beetles, squash vine borers, squash bugs, and spider mites. Covering newly seeded beds or transplants with row covers keeps out cucumber beetles when plants are small and most vulnerable, but need to be removed once vines come into bloom so bees can reach the blossoms. Prop developing fruits on a coffee can or a couple of bricks to reduce the likelihood of fruit rot and speed ripening.

Give Them Food and Water Keep your vines vigorous by planting in soil amended with compost and giving them a dose of a soluble fertilizer such as fish emulsion as the fruits begin to form. Make sure plants get a consistent supply of water throughout the growing season, but cut back on water some a couple of weeks before harvest to boost the sugar content and get the sweetest harvest.

Question of the Month: Picking a Ripe Watermelon

Q: What's the best way to tell if my watermelon is ready to pick?

A: That moment of perfect ripe sweetness is what watermelon growing is all about! Here's what to look for so you harvest your melon at its peak of perfection. Check the curly tendrils on the stem near where it attaches to the fruit. When the melon is ready they will have changed from light green to brown and dry. The spot where the melon rested on ground should be yellow, not white or light green, and the rind should dull and tough enough that it's hard to dent with a thumbnail. Ripe melons will also make a dull rather than ringing sound when thumped, but this is so subjective that it's not a very reliable test.

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