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Desert Gardener: Plant watermelons for a summertime treat
Nothing says summer like a cold slice of sweet, juicy watermelon. This delicious treat brings back childhood memories of family picnics and seed-spitting contests.
If you plant seeds now, you will be enjoying melons by June. Smaller varieties mature in about 80 days, while larger varieties take 95 days.
Location is important, since watermelons need at least eight hours of sun and a loose, loamy soil. They also need room to spread their long, trailing vines. To plant, create a mound of soil a foot high and several feet wide. Push 5-6 watermelon seeds into the soil 1-2 inches deep and several inches apart. Keep the mound moist; and once seedlings have sprouted, clip away weaker seedlings, leaving the three healthiest in each mound. Use fish emulsion fertilizer during the growing season to provide extra nutrients. Grow flowering plants, such as zinnias, near your melon patch to attract bees necessary for pollination.
Fred Duncan, enthusiastic gardener and garden club member, explained his method of finishing off his melon crop. “In my experience, the best thing to do when growing melons is to not overwater after fruit set. I stop watering 20 days after first fruit set and usually get two melons per plant. I also practice deep watering during the entire season.”
The most common problem with home-grown watermelons is blossom-end rot. This is a softening and browning of the melon’s end. Poor calcium nutrition, too much fertilization, or stress from lack of correct watering are factors that can cause this problem. Melons showing this condition should be cut from the vine and disposed of.
The National Watermelon Promotion Board has some interesting facts about ‘Citrullus lanatus,’ alias watermelon: It is 92 percent water; and generations ago, was used like a canteen to help travelers survive long treks through waterless areas. It is the most popular melon purchased in grocery stores and is part of the Cucurbitaceae family that includes cucumbers, pumpkins, gourds and squash. The African Kalahari Desert is the agreed-upon birthplace of melons. From there, shipping vessels carried seeds to all parts of Europe, Asia, and the New World.
Much as I hate to say it, “made in China” holds true for the watermelon as well as for so many other products we purchase. According to Washington State University, China is the leading watermelon producer, with United States currently ranking fifth. Depending upon whom you ask, the top five watermelon-producing states are Texas, Florida, California, Georgia and Arizona.
Diligent gardeners have kept watermelon varieties growing strong for thousands of years; and today, there are a multitude of heirloom varieties to choose from, each over 50 years old.
These include Moon and Stars, Blacktail Mountain, Rattlesnake, Congo and Sugar Baby. Small hybrid varieties, such as Bibo, Poquito, Petite Perfection, and Bambino, have been hybridized to fit nicely in the refrigerator and are popular retail melons. Seedless watermelons, created about 50 years ago, are also popular. Their hybridization is similar to the cross-breeding which produces a mule from a horse and donkey.
In the case of seedless watermelons, a male plant with 44 chromosomes is crossed with a female plant with 22 chromosomes to create a seedless watermelon with 33 chromosomes. I’m sure a geneticist would understand the process. Crimson Trio, Honeyheart, King of Hearts, Millionaire and Queen of Hearts are seedless varieties. Picnic watermelons are the traditional “large enough to sit on” varieties and include Crimson Sweet, Jubilee and Allsweet.
Besides mouth-watering flavor, there are also some great health benefits from eating watermelon. It contains the highest level of lycopene of any fruit or vegetable. Lycopene is the red pigment found in tomatoes, watermelon and pink grapefruit and is a strong anti-oxidant that protects our cells from damage. Best of all, a two-cup serving of watermelon has only 80 calories, making it a dieter’s dream food.
Everyone has their own special test for choosing “the perfect watermelon.” Gardeners wait until the tendril nearest the melon is dried and brown before picking. In the store, customers check to see if the underside, where the melon rested on the ground, is a creamy yellow color or use the thump test to see if the melon has the appropriate hollow sound. It’s good to note that watermelons do not continue to ripen once picked; however, they will keep for several weeks after being picked.
Eating home-grown watermelon this summer is a refreshing and delicious way to stay cool when our temperatures rise above 100 degrees.
Karen Bowen is a master gardener and member of Yuma Garden Club. This column is sponsored by the Federated Garden Clubs of Yuma.