By Shannon McCabe, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds/rareseeds.com
Photographs courtesy of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
With a hot summer on the horizon it is time to plan ahead by planting a refreshing sweet treat: watermelon! Watermelon is a natural refrigerant and has long been used to cool and hydrate the body in the peak of summer.
This healthful and delicious member of the cucurbit family originated in the Kalahari Desert of Africa thousands of years ago. It has been grown and adapted to climates all over the world; so whether you are growing in the deep south or the far north, there is a watermelon just right for you.
Watermelons for the Southeast
Clay County watermelon is an extremely rare heirloom from Clay County, Alabama. These yellow-fleshed watermelons reach 50 lbs., and are reputed to be the sweetest, best-tasting yellow-fleshed watermelons grown. An excellent southern variety that loves heat and humidity.
Carolina Cross watermelon is one of the largest varieties—the oblong fruit has reached over 200 lbs.! The bright red flesh is sweet and remarkably fine-grained for such a large melon. A perfect choice for southern gardens as Carolina Cross needs a long, hot summer to reach its full potential. Competitive growers love this variety; it's fun to grow this one for bragging rights!
Watermelons for the Mid Country/North
Orangeglo watermelon has a beautiful, deep orange flesh, very sweet, excellent, almost tropical flavor! This variety boasts high yields and is very resistant to wilt and insects, with strong, healthy vines. This highly adaptable and scrumptious orange watermelon was introduced by Willhite Seed Co. prior to 1965. Orangeglo is a great choice for any location, but especially suited to the middle and northern parts of the country.
Cream of Saskatchewan is a beautiful little melon with sweet, tasty, cream-colored flesh. An early maturing variety that is excellent for the North. Fruits reach about 8-10 lbs. each with a striped green rind.
Beni Kodama is ideal for those super-northern gardeners who may have doubted their ability to grow a decent watermelon! This pocket-sized watermelon from Japan is one of the earliest maturing watermelons of all. Perfect for short season gardeners; the extra small fruit averages just 2-3 lbs. This darling little fruit is green with dark stripes, and the sweet flesh is red.
Watermelons for the Pacific Northwest
Early Moonbeam is an early and very productive yellow-fleshed watermelon, very sweet and delicious. It was bred by Dr. Alan Kapuler of Peace Seeds specifically for Oregon conditions, which often tend to be on the cool side. This variety delivers sweet watermelons in cool climates where others often fail. 5-8 lb. fruit has thin rinds and an attractive light green skin with darker green stripes. Recommended for northern and higher-elevation gardens!
Otome watermelon is a pretty little melon from Nara Prefecture in Japan. It matures extra early, and the 3-4 lb. fruit have an attractive, light green skin and a blushed salmon-rose colored flesh. This is ideal for short season gardeners; plants are impressively productive and super sweet and delicious.
Watermelons for the Southwest
Ancient watermelon was introduced by Baker Creek after they were sent seed by Aziz Nael, an Iraqi gentleman who had collected this fantastic variety in Iraq. It is now nearly impossible to get seeds from this ancient country whose people have lost much of their genetic heritage in the long, bloody war. The 12-30 lb. melons have hard, light-green rinds that make them perfect for shipping and storage; the light color makes them resistant to sunburning. Plants are large, vigorous and give heavy yields of oblong fruit that do well in many conditions. The flavor is superb, being very sweet and luscious; and the texture is very crisp. This is a best seller and is a favorite of Dr. Amy Goldman and featured in her book, "Melons for the Passionate Grower."
Desert King watermelon produces 20 lb. fruit that has a light pea-green rind that is resistant to sunburning, which can be a real issue in the desert southwest. It is also one of the most drought-resistant varieties of watermelon known.
All About Watermelons
Watermelons come in all sizes, from tiny single-serving types only a few inches across to behemoths weighing upwards of 250 pounds. Flesh color is diverse: in addition to the familiar pink-red, watermelons can be orange-fleshed, yellow, and even white.
History: This crop originated in the Kalahari Desert region of Africa, where its ability to take up water and deposit it into the developing fruits made it an invaluable "living canteen." First domesticated thousands of years ago in south-central Africa, watermelon was depicted in Egyptian tomb paintings, but may have been grown in India and other Old World locations outside of Africa since about 1000 AD. The crop reached the Americas more recently, carried here by African slaves. Appreciated by Native Americans, it was quickly traded throughout the Americas. Today, watermelon is cultivated worldwide.
Seed Starting: Watermelon loves heat. In most climates, watermelon can be direct-sown into the garden after frost season ends and soil is warm. Soil should be rich and well amended with compost or manure. Sow in full sun, preferably where no other melons, squashes or cucumbers have grown for at least three years, to reduce the likelihood of diseases. Sow one-half inch deep and 12 inches apart, in rows 6 feet apart. If the soil temperature is right, sprouts appear in just a few days.
In shorter-summer climates, or to get an earlier harvest, seeds may be started indoors, 3-4 weeks prior to setting-out date. Warm conditions yield fast germination; hold at 80 degrees or so. (Use a heating mat if necessary.) Once seedlings appear, they need good light—at least half-day direct sun through a south-facing window or good artificial lighting. Timing is critical—held in pots for too long the seedlings may become root-bound, which slows the plants down.
Growing: Thin if necessary to stand 2-3 feet apart in the row. The vines soon begin to "run" and easily travel 6 feet from the roots as they grow. During this time, control weeds, keep the patch well watered, and watch for watermelon pests.
Pests/Special Considerations: Cucumber beetle is possibly the most common pest. Spray with Spinosad as needed. Watermelon plants also attract squash bugs. Pyganic or other pyrethrum-based insecticide is a good organic control.
Seed Saving: Watermelons won't cross with any other member of the squash family, but they will cross with other watermelons. Bees carry the pollen up to one-half mile, but adequate purity can be maintained by isolating parent plants by even 1000 feet or so. When your watermelon is fully ripe, the seeds are mature as well, although higher viability is obtained by leaving the fruit on a week or two longer. Simply extract the mature seeds and dry fully before storage.