Watermelon is a food that is almost synonymous with summertime. There is nothing finer than finishing a leisurely meal with a big slice of the sweet, juicy fruit. In his novel "Pudd'nhead Wilson
," Mark Twain writes, "When one has tasted watermelon, he knows what angels eat.
A native to Africa, the wild progenitor of modern day watermelons were not even close to what we now grow and eat. Originally thought to be small, round and bitter flavored, the melon's ability to store large amounts of water, up to 92% by weight, is what attracted ancient people in hot desert regions, to begin cultivating the fruit.
Archaeologists have found watermelon seeds in a 5,000 year old settlements in Libya. Seeds and remain of fruits have been found in 4,000 year old Egyptian tombs, including King Tutankhamen's. By this point, human selection had already began to change the wild fruit into the large, sweet, melons we enjoy today which led to its dissemination into the Middle East and Europe. Here in the United States, Spanish colonists were growing watermelon in Florida by the 1570s and the British in Massachusetts by the 1620s. Since they have been grown for so many centuries, watermelons are available in many different sizes, shapes, colors and flavors; upwards of 1,200 varieties are known to exist worldwide.
Watermelons are a warm-season crop that thrive in air temperatures between 70 and 85ºF. Plant seeds direct in the garden in the spring after the last chance of frost for your area. Seeds will not germinate in cold soil so wait until soil temperatures at a four inch depth have reached about 65ºF. To get a jump on harvests, seeds can be started indoors and carefully
Watermelons require full sun and a lot of room. Plants should be five to six feet apart in rows that are spaced six to eight feet from each other. Watermelon varieties will readily cross with each other as well as Citron so if you are intent on saving seed, grow only one variety and make sure your neighbors are growing the same. Isolation distance required is about one half mile. Hand-pollination is usually the preferred method for maintaining pure strains.
Watermelons will benefit from rich, healthy, well-drained soils. Work in plenty of well composted organic matter in early spring in preparation of planting a melon patch. Since watermelons are ninety two percent water, they require a lot of it. If you are using overhead sprinklers, water in the early morning so that the plants have a chance to dry before evening. This will help reduce opportunities for diseases
to become established. Hand watering or drip irrigation is preferred
. Water so that the soil is moistened to a depth of at least six inches; especially during fruit set and development.
Knowing when to harvest is a little tricky. When you have a field of watermelons, the best method it to sacrifice a fruit and taste the heart. If you have a home garden, this "brute force" method is not an option. First, compare your fruit with the description and days to maturity for the variety. Are the fruits the approximate size? Second, have enough days passed? Finally, look at the tendril closest to the fruit. If it has turned brown, the watermelon is usually ready to eat.