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2013 is the Year to Grow Watermelons
by National Garde Bureau
March 17, 2013

Every year, National Garden Bureau names one edible, one annual and one perennial as the featured crops for that year. 2013 is the Year of the Watermelon and our members proudly bring you the following tidbits about that luscious fruit that seems like such an American summer classic:

Not only are watermelons (Citrillus lanatus) delicious, they are one of the largest edible fruits grown in the U.S. It’s also one of the most useful fruits as every part is edible: the flesh can be eaten as is, the rind can be pickled and the seed can be roasted or ground into other ingredients. Watermelons probably originated almost 5,000 years ago in the Kalahari Desert of Africa where botanists have found its wild ancestors still growing.

Watermelon cultivation moved north through Egypt and during the Roman era they were cultivated and prized. Hieroglyphics on the walls of Egyptian buildings tell stories of their harvest. Watermelons were buried in the tombs of kings to nourish them in the afterlife. Melons spread across the European continent and particularly flourished in the warmer Mediterranean areas. Watermelons were documented in 1629 in Massachusetts. During the Civil War, the Confederate Army boiled watermelon to make molasses for cooking. It is in the Southern states such as the Carolinas and Georgia where watermelons flourished as commercial crops.

Today’s watermelons can be classified in one of four ways:

* Picnic (larger melons ranging from 15-50 pounds)

* Icebox (smaller melons ranging from 5-15 pounds)

* Seedless (usually mid-sized and can be round or oblong)

* Yellow/orange flesh types.

In the early 1990’s seedless or triploid melons came onto the market and it’s estimated that 50% of all watermelons grown commercially are now seedless. For the home gardener, seeds of a huge variety of heirloom and hybrids are readily available, allowing you to choose from rind colorations that range from light green to dark green and can be striped, solid or mottled. Flesh color ranges from almost white to bright red.

CAN I GROW WATERMELONS?

Any gardener can plant a hill or two of watermelons as they are easy to grow and so good on sultry summer days. Watermelons can be grown in all parts of the country but grow best in warmer temps with a long growing season. For those gardeners in northern or cooler climates, choose an earlier-to-mature variety like AAS Winners ‘Shiny Boy’, ‘Golden Crown’ or ‘Yellow Baby’ that all mature in 70-75 days.

For a smaller variety that will fit in the refrigerator easily, try one such as the eight-pound 'Seedless Sugar Baby Hybrid'. Or go for the glory and sow watermelon seeds for an extra-large whopper like the 30-35 pound 1950 AAS Winner 'Congo.' Heirloom fans will want to plant 'Moon and Stars,' introduced in 1926, with a deep green skin speckled with tiny yellow stars and quarter-size moons. For an updated hybrid of 'Moon and Stars' try one of the newest AAS Winners, our first ever seedless watermelon 'Harvest Moon.'

GROWING WATERMELONS

Watermelons need a long growing season and warm ground for seeds to germinate and grow. Soil should be 70 degrees F or warmer at planting time. Sow seeds 1-inch deep and keep well watered until germination. To get a jump start in cooler climates, cover the planting area with black plastic to warm up the soil or start seeds indoors two or three weeks before they are to be set out in the garden. Don't start seeds any earlier, because large watermelon seedlings transplant poorly. Plant 3 seeds ½ inch deep in 3- or 4-inch peat pots or large cell packs and thin to the best plant. Place in a sunny south-facing window or under lights to germinate. Make sure the area is warm both day and night, ideally 80 degrees F. Use a seedling heat mat if necessary.

CULTIVATION

Watermelon is a space hog; vines of some varieties can reach 20 feet in length so plan accordingly. Amend soil with organic matter such as compost or composted cow manure. Add a balanced fertilizer that is high in nitrogen. Sow 8 to 10 watermelon seeds in a hill, and push seeds 1-inch into the soil. Space hills 3 to 4 feet apart, with at least 8 feet between rows. Thin plants to the 3 best in each hill. Keep soil free of weeds by shallow hoeing or with a layer of mulch.

Luckily, breeders have been working on varieties that still produce a large number of fruits on shorter vines like ‘Sugar Baby’ with vines just 3 1/2 feet long or the AAS Winner ‘Faerie’ with vines just 10 feet long.

WATERMELON HARVEST TIPS

Determining when a watermelon is perfectly ripe is not easy. One way favored by many gardeners is to watch the tendril closest to the melon stem. A tendril is a modified leaf or stem in the shape of slender, spirally coil. When it turns brown and dries up, the melon is ripe. The trouble with this method is that with some watermelon varieties, the tendril dries and drops off more than a week before the melon is fully ripe. Slapping and tapping or thumping are other common methods used to determine ripeness, but they are not always accurate. If using this readiness test, listen for a soft hollow sound to indicate maturity.

Watermelons mature rapidly during hot weather. Most are ripe about 32 days after blooming.

The surest sign of ripeness in most watermelon varieties is the color of the bottom spot where the melon sits on the ground. As the watermelon matures, the spot turns from almost white to a rich yellow. Also, all watermelons lose the powdery or slick appearance on the top and take on a dull look when fully ripe.

Watermelons should be handled carefully: avoid rolling, bumping or dropping to prevent internal bruising of the flesh.

Last but not least, enjoy your watermelon harvest!

National Garden Bureau would like to thank W. Atlee Burpee for providing the majority of the content in this article.

Founded in 1920, the National Garden Bureau is a non-profit organization whose mission is to disseminate basic instructions for backyard gardeners that will inspire them to spend more time gardening.

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