Watermelon -- Slices of Summer!

By Susan Littlefield

If there is one fruit whose taste says "summer," it's watermelon. Biting into a crisp, sweet, juicy slice of this delectable fruit instantly evokes those hot, late summer days when you were a kid and school vacation still seemed endless. When you grow your own melons, you can enjoy them at their peak of ripe perfection. Your home harvested watermelons will also offer the most in terms of nutrition. They are packed with vitamins A and C -- just one serving will give you about a third of your daily requirements for these vitamins -- along with the healthful antioxidant lycopene and potassium, all for very few calories. What more could you ask for?

Seeded vs. Seedless
Seedless watermelons were first introduced about 50 years ago, and they have grown in popularity ever since. They are certainly easy to eat and, interestingly, these varieties have the highest levels of beneficial lycopene. And they are just as tasty as their seeded counterparts. But if you're going for whopping big size, seeded watermelons are still the way to go.

Seedless triploid hybrids are the result of traditional breeding techniques that 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 some small, white, undeveloped seeds that can be eaten along with the rest of the melon.

Seedless melons do 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.

Growing seeded watermelon? Don't spit those seeds away! According to the National Watermelon Promotion Board, the seeds are rich in fats and protein and make a tasty snack. Put them in a skillet with a small amount of water and some salt, cook until the water evaporates, then enjoy!

Growing Tips
Watermelon planting season may be past for this season, but keep these tips in mind when you are planning and planting next year's crop.

Start Early if Your Season is Short If you garden in a short season area, choose a fast-maturing variety that will be able to ripen in the length of your growing season. Then give it a headstart by starting seeds early indoors in biodegradable pots (like peat pots) 3-4 weeks before the date you plan to set plants out in the garden. But don't start plants any earlier than this, as older plants don't tolerate transplanting well.

You can also help melons along by preheating the soil. Cover the watermelon bed with black, red, or infra-red transmitting (IRT) plastic a week or two before planting time. To keep the watermelons toasty all summer long as well as weed free, run drip irrigation or soaker hoses under the mulch and leave it in place for the entire growing season; simply cut holes in the mulch at the appropriate intervals for planting.

Wait for Warm Weather to Plant Watermelons revel in heat. Wait until the soil is warm and all danger of frost is past before planting seeds or setting out transplants, usually a week or two after the last frost date for your area. Then hope for warm weather! Optimal growing temperatures are between 75-80 degrees during the day and 65-70 degrees at night.

Give Vines Room to Grow 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.

Protect from Pests and Disease 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 they need to be removed once vines come into bloom so bees can reach the blossoms. Prop developing fruits on an overturned coffee can or a couple of bricks to reduce the likelihood of fruit rot and speed ripening.

Give Vines 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. As their name suggests, watermelons are mostly water. Make sure plants get a consistent supply of water throughout the growing season, especially in the first month as plants are getting established. But cut back on water some a couple of weeks before harvest to boost the sugar content and get the sweetest harvest.

Harvesting Tips
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.

Question of the Month: Growing Leafy Greens in Fall

Q: I've read about the big nutritional benefits of leafy greens and would like to add more of them to my diet. I'm familiar with growing spinach and lettuce. What are some other easy to grow greens that I can try?

A: Dark leafy greens are indeed nutritional powerhouses. And late summer is a great time to plant many kinds, as they grow well in the cooler weather of fall. Arugula is nutritious, fast growing, and won't bolt (go to seed) as quickly when grown as a fall crop. Swiss chard, mustard greens, kale, and mache (also called corn salad) are other easy to grow greens that are great for fall harvests. There is also a wide variety of Asian greens that are great for salads or braising, including mizuna and tat soi. Begin sowing seeds this month. To figure out how late in the season you can continue to make successive plantings, take the days to maturity for the kind of greens you're growing and add about 21 days to it. Count back this number of days from your fall frost date to arrive at your last planting date. If you can give your crops some protection, in a cold frame or low tunnel, for example, you'll be able to continue planting even later into the fall.

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