How to Grow Juicy Sweet Watermelons
Watermelons need hot days, warm nights, and plenty of room to spread out. Choose the right varieties for your conditions, employ these simple, organic techniques and you’ll have a hefty harvest of juicy, sweet melons this season.
Grow Refreshing Cantaloupes and Watermelons in your Own Garden
It was Mark Twain who suggested melons were “the proper food of angels,” and who can argue? There may be nothing quite as ambrosial as a perfectly ripe cantaloupe or watermelon fresh from the vine. But knowing when to pick them can be tricky.
To test a watermelon for ripeness, Twain instructed gardeners in a game of musical melons. Pink, pink, punk: Rap a watermelon gently with your knuckles and listen. As the fruit matures the tone you hear will be lower—more punk than pink. Watermelons exhibit another sign of peak sweetness: the light-colored patch on the underside of the rind, where the melon meets the mulch or soil, turns from white to cream, then to yellow.
A cantaloupe is easier to judge. As it ripens, it begins detaching itself from the vine and presumably rolls off on a seed-scattering life of its own—a process called slipping. At maturity, a thin crack appears around the fruit’s stem, signaling it can be pulled from the vine with a gentle tug. After that, a cantaloupe can sit on the kitchen counter (not in the refrigerator) for a few days—if you can wait—to mellow to its fragrant best. The nose knows when the melon is ready to slice.
Before we get to the tasting stage, though, it has to be said that melons of any kind may not be right for every garden. The vines need plenty of heat over the roughly three months it takes from seed to table. But if tomatoes, cucumbers, and/or peppers thrive in your area—and especially if peppers routinely mature from green to red—then melons are worth a try.
Plant in Optimum Growing Conditions
This is what melons require: full sun from dawn to dusk; warm, well-drained soil, on the sandy or gritty side rather than clay; room for the vines to roam; and time enough to grow and ripen. For best results choose early-maturing cultivars and get a head start indoors—but not too much of one.
Seeded in pots indoors two weeks before spring’s average frost-free date, the young vines are set out in the garden a week after that date when the ground is good and warm. There is no point rushing things since melons sit and sulk in cool weather and are more susceptible to ailments.
To sow, fill pots, 10 centimeters (or larger), with light soil or soilless mix, and plant two seeds in each, pushing them in as deep as your first knuckle. Soak with tepid water and set pots in a very sunny window, under grow lights, or in a greenhouse. A sheet of clear plastic draped loosely over the pots will bump up the heat. Seed leaves should appear in less than a week. A half-dozen plants may be enough for most gardens, as the vines spread at least as far as those of cucumbers.
Pollinating and Transplanting Watermelons
Melons need a garden bed to themselves a meter or wider. A length of two meters will hold six plants spaced about 30 centimeters apart. As early as possible in spring, nourish the bed with a three- to a five-centimetre layer of crumbly compost or well-composted manure. If soil amendments are in short supply, just stir a spade or two into each planting place. Rake in a measured amount of granular natural fertilizer such as 8-4-5, formulated for vegetables, just before transplanting.
At transplanting time, it’s best to get melons “between the sheets”; namely, a ground-covering of mulch underneath and a translucent floating row cover over top. Rolls of black, paper-like mulch made from cornstarch (such as BioFilm) are often available through catalogs and nurseries. Completely biodegradable, this type of mulch warms the soil, suppresses weeds and retains moisture.
A floating row cover draped over melon plants is the surest way to ward off small black-and-yellow-striped cucumber beetles, which can damage exposed vines. If you decide to use just one type of sheet, opt for the row cover. Any beetles that appear can be picked by hand in the dewy early morning when they are sluggish and least able to fly.
Choose a calm day after a warm rain to roll paper mulch over the bed. Peg down its edges and cut X-shaped slits for each transplant. Tip the young vines carefully out of their pots (broken roots will not regrow) and set them gently but firmly in the ground, watering well. Then drape and anchor the floating row cover.
Vines should grow well under this blanket, but you’ll want to lift an edge from time to time to check on their progress and look for flowers. When melon plants begin to bloom, it’s time to play matchmaker.
Like cucumbers and squash, melons have yellow blossoms that are either male or female. For fruit to form, pollen must be transferred. If there are no cucumber beetles around, you could simply uncover the melon patch; any passing insect that lands on the flowers will do the job for you. However, if the melons must remain covered, you’ll have to pollinate them yourself.
Female flowers have tiny, round fruit-in-the-making just behind the blossom; male flowers have a polleny pistil sticking out of the flower and a straight stem behind, and always appear a few days before any females open.
To pollinate, dip a tiny watercolor brush or cotton swab into the male flower and brush it lightly across the female flower—it’s that quick.
Melon roots search deeply for water so, failing rain, a once-weekly soaking should suffice (cold water from the hose should be warmed in buckets in the sun for a few hours to prevent shock). Then all that’s left is to keep an eye on the cantaloupes for signs of slipping and to give the watermelons a rap-rap to hear if they’re ready to pick.
Melons to Grow
Careful selection of early-ripening melon varieties makes all the difference, and the surest route to a healthy patch is to plant cultivars with built-in disease resistance. The number in brackets indicates days to maturity from transplants.
The familiar orange-fleshed netted fruit; sometimes called muskmelons.
- ‘Athena’ (78 days): Oval fruit up to two kilograms; tolerant of powdery mildew and fusarium wilt.
- ‘EarliChamp’ (72 days): Medium-sized, oval fruit with small seed cavity, sweet flesh, and good disease resistance.
- ‘Earliqueen’ (65 days): Medium-sized, oval fruit. Bred to take a bit more cold and usually the first to ripen.
- ‘Earlisweet’ (65 days): Small, plentiful fruit; productive even in cooler, short-season areas.
- ‘Passport’ (73 days): Medium-sized, round fruit. It looks like a cantaloupe on the outside but has the light green flesh and exotic flavor of a honeydew. Earliest of its kind.
The big, elongated southern blimps are not for most Canadian gardens. Instead, look for the smaller, round types with red, yellow, or orange flesh.
- ‘Jade Star’ (74 days): Round, four-kilogram fruit with the black-green rind and red flesh. Reliably productive.
- ‘Orange Orchid’ (72 days): Round, three-kilogram fruit with light orange flesh and few seeds; does well in cooler conditions.
- ‘Tiger Baby’ (80 days): Round, three- to four-kilogram fruit. Striped rind and pinkish-red flesh; vines resistant to fusarium wilt.
- ‘Yellow Doll’ (68 days): Round, 2.5-kilogram fruit with the light-and-dark-green-striped rind and crisp, yellow flesh. Good for short-season areas.
Hill or Row?
Some gardeners like to position three or four watermelon plants together in a clump or “hill,” spacing their hills 6 to 8 feet apart. Other watermelon growers space individual plants 2 to 4 feet apart in conventional rows.
That’s why They Call it Watermelon
As much as 95 percent of a watermelon’s weight is water. Regular deep watering is especially crucial during the first 3 to 4 weeks that the vines are growing in your garden. Cut back on the water once the plants have begun to set fruit; overwatering dilutes the melon’s sugars and makes the flavor weaker and less sweet.
Drip Irrigation or Soaker Hoses are the Best
way to give watermelons a steady supply of moisture. And in humid climates, watering the roots directly rather than soaking the leaves, too, helps prevent many common foliar diseases.
Mulch With Straw
A thick layer of straw around your melon vines not only keeps the soil evenly moist and obstructs weeds from sprouting, but it also prevents the melons from direct contact with the soil, further reducing the risk of diseases that may splash up from the soil.
Look for Resistant Varieties
Fusarium wilt and bacterial wilt are two prevalent watermelon diseases. The best way to avoid these diseases, which are typically not curable, is to look for disease-resistant varieties.
Pests? A Couple
Cucumber beetles typically prefer cucumbers and muskmelons, but they will occasionally feast on watermelons, too. Insecticidal soap is a safe, effective treatment for most cucumber beetle infestations. If you’ve endured major cucumber beetle attacks in the past, keep them from getting to your vines with row covers—just be sure to remove the covers when the vines begin to flower so that bees can pollinate them, which is necessary for the plant to set fruit.
Squash vine borer larvae tunnel into watermelon vines, chewing inner tissue near the base and filling the stem with moist, slimy castings. The attacked vines wilt suddenly and girdled vines rot and die. Again, row covers are the best defense, according to Rodale’s Pest and Disease Problem Solver.
When Are the Melons Ripe?
Experienced watermelon growers try a lot of tricks to know exactly when the fruit is ready to eat. Here are a few you can try:
- When the tiny tendril on the vine just opposite of where the watermelon stem attaches dries out and turns brown, the melon is ripe.
- “The flat dead sound emitted by a melon when thumped is the readiest indication of ripeness, and the one most universally depended on,” says 1,001 Old-Time Garden Tips. “If the resonance is hollow, ringing, or musical, it is certain proof of immaturity.”
- Rinds of unripe watermelons have a nice shiny gloss; ripe melons lose that shine, so the rinds are drab.
- The spot where the melon rests on the ground turns greenish-yellow as the melon reaches maturity.
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