They’re big. They’re delicious. And they’re not as difficult to grow as you’d expect!
I’m talking about watermelons, the diverse and sweet melon that has as many varieties to choose from as ways to enjoy it.
I’ve had the pleasure of growing a few different breeds of this melon over the years, and I can tell you that the flavor from a sun-ripened watermelon fresh from your own garden beats all! I prefer it warm from the outdoors – the flavor can’t be more candy-like.
How can one go about the project of growing watermelons, a seemingly enormous undertaking? Planning is certainly key.
Here are some of the most important steps to follow when making your first attempt at producing these juicy fruits.
Pick the Proper Cultivar
Sugar Baby, Moon and Stars, and Jubilee are all popular with the backyard farmer. The truth is that, no matter the variety, common growing tips will help any and all to survive and thrive.
What are the differences between the available types?
The four common variations are:
These are one of the two types you will most likely see at the grocery store. They are usually fairly round and may feed one or two people at most. Per pound, they are a bit more expensive, but they can keep well in the fridge and make a great snack!
This is what most people think of when you say the word “watermelon.” They are oblong, heavy, and can feed a crowd.
You can find these in a variety of colors, but the rinds are almost always a shade of green when ripened.
There are seedless versions that closely resemble varieties of both picnic and ice box melons. While not truly without seeds, the seeds that you will find are light in color, very small, and can be eaten, if desired. They are also infertile.
They make for a good recipe melon, since you don’t have to fuss with the extra task of removing seeds before adding them to a drink or dessert.
Orange and Yellow Melons
These are less common in stores, so you had better grow your own! They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but you’ll most likely harvest when round. The insides are not pink; they are truly orange or yellow! Flavor profiles vary, and have been compared to other fruits, such as mangos and cantaloupe.
Watermelon seeds will also be marked as “organic,” “heirloom,” or another designation. The important thing to remember when growing your first melon is that many of the fancy types in seed catalogs might not be as pest-resistant.
If you want to ensure a good first-year harvest, consider a seed type that’s proven. You’ll likely find these in your local store. Some other unique and proven varieties are offered through online suppliers. Popular options include:
This variety is a heavy producer that thrives in smaller gardens. It is small, round, and perfectly sweet. It is a favorite among novice and expert gardeners alike, thanks to its sturdy rind that can resist cracking and blight.
Seedlings are available in 4.5-inch pots from Nature Hills Nursery.
Moon and Stars
For an organic treat that’s beautiful to look at, consider this delight. It has a rind that displays bright spots in the shape of the moon and stars. The inside is a sweet fruit that keeps well after harvest.
Organic seeds can be purchased from Mountain Valley Seed Co. in a variety of quantities. A gram should be plenty for your home garden!
One of the most popular of the “picnic” melons, this long watermelon has a traditional striped skin. It has one of the brightest red insides. Give it a go at your next family gathering!
Seeds for this juicy, oblong variety are also available from Mountain Valley.
Preparing a Plot
Watermelons are like any other vine veggie or fruit, in that they spread out and take up as much space as you’ll give them. Like pumpkins, they can also go outside of their boundaries, looping over fences and even wrapping around other plants before pulling them down to the ground.
To make sure your melons have plenty of room to grow (and to keep them from disturbing other plants), pick an area far away from the rest of your garden. This is especially important the first year you grow, as you will truly be experimenting with the potential for how big they will get!
Watermelons love sandy soil, so if you are in an area with sandy loam, you’re a prime candidate for melon farming. The rest of us will have to create the perfect soil ourselves.
My ground at home is something called “gumbo,” the most stubborn and thick clay soils of all. We have found that spreading a few inches of sand on top of the ground has its benefits. Good drainage is super important for these plants!
Seed Sowing 101
Seventy to 90 days are needed from planting to maturity, so be sure you have that many days available to let your melons grow. If you live in a colder climate, that means you’ll be better off starting your seeds indoors.
Regardless of whether you direct sow or start with seedlings, a hill or mound is the best way to ensure plenty of space for your watermelons. One plant per hill works well, and be sure to keep your hills at least 5 feet apart.
You can also refer to package directions for the particular watermelon you are planting. Many times, certain varieties need a little more room to stretch out!
One other way to get the best yield from direct sowing is to put two seeds in each hill. After they have sprouted, remove the extra, and either put it in its own hill or discard. You are at least guaranteed to choose the strongest of the two, which can be nice when growing in colder climates where the soil has just reached temp before planting.
Proper Care for Growing Melons
Water is key during the growth and development of the plants. One to two inches of water a week is best, but keep an eye out for fruit setting on.
Once the fruit arrives, you can slow down watering and make sure that the melons stay hot! Just enough water to keep vines looking perky is the right amount.
When you see the fruit starting to grow large, it’s time to check daily for ripeness.
Putting a bit of an old cardboard box under the melons is a good idea to keep the bottoms from getting soggy or moldy, especially if you’ve just watered or rain is in the forecast. Watermelon can go from unripe to spoiled in just a few days, so be vigilant about checking up on them.
Knowing when a melon is ripe is not as difficult as it seems. It’s not like picking one from the grocery store!
As a rule, if the vine is dead, browning, or separated entirely from the melon, it’s ripe. (And even if it’s not ripe, it’s best to pick it up off the ground and take it inside at this point. Melons don’t continue to ripen off the vine.)
Signs that an attached melon is ready to be picked include:
- A bottom streak of color that is cream or yellow (not white)
- Flesh that gives a tiny bit when pressed with a fingernail
- A thumping when lightly tapped
- Stripes on certain varieties with strong contrast
To remove the watermelon from the vine, get your best cutting knife and cut as close to the fruit as possible. You may have other melons continuing to ripen on that same vine, so be gentle!
Storage of the Fruit
I like to eat my watermelon the same day that it’s picked, if possible. If you’ve been especially blessed and have more than you can eat at once, however, you will want to carefully store it for later.
Gently knock or brush off any dirt (do not wash with water) and put into a shallow box or on newspapers in the fridge.
You can keep it this way for a couple of weeks, provided you didn’t pierce the skin, and there is no splitting or rotting edges.
Note: This is the reason why many people skip the “fingernail” test we mentioned earlier. Any compromise of the rind is a channel for bacteria, which can speed up the rotting process.
Cut watermelon must be eaten within one or two days, if stored in the fridge.
To Grow Watermelon is to Love It!
Once you’ve put a successful season of watermelon growing behind you, it’s time to experiment. I’ve had so much fun with the more exotic and beautiful melons.
With dozens of tested varieties to choose from, you can quickly become addicted to these luscious and delightfully sweet treats!
Which watermelon variety will you start with? Or do you have one that you just can’t do without? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
Photo credit: Shutterstock.