Last Saturday was the first day of summer — the day we get to enjoy the most daylight of the year. What a great day it was: wonderful weather, breezy and a great prolonged sunset to wrap it all up. We spent the day with friends, hosting a wedding at our home. It was crazy, exhausting and a hoot all at the same time. As a gardener, chances are you like to share what you’ve accomplished and see others enjoy what you’ve done. We heard many a comment of appreciation and enjoyment of our yardscape. It was one of the many rewards of creating a great outdoor space.
Be sure to join me this coming Saturday at the Stockton Miners Café for the Monthly Gardeners Get-Together from 9-11 a.m. We’ll be discussing watermelon and cantaloupe. Admission is whatever you buy off the menu. We have a great meal and conversation, so make plans now to be a part of it.
With summer now here, melons come into their own. Kids and adults enjoy them, they are pretty to look at, and they can be put into ices and lemonades or chunked in a bowl. Of course, a slice can be enjoyed as well, even though it tends to be messy! My favorite way to enjoy it is with ongoing dashes of salt. And, for the energetic among us, the rinds can be pickled for either a sweet/sour or cinnamon treat. Using “Red Hot” candies gives both color and taste, although there are many delectable green versions. There’s several recipes online — just search for “watermelon pickles.” At the very least, make sure to put the rinds in the compost pile, or feed them to the chickens if you’re a backyard poultry enthusiast.
Watermelon is one of the most enjoyable crops you can grow, and it doesn’t have to be restricted to your vegetable garden. Why not let it be a part of your flower beds and other corners of your yard? It happily sprawls in among other plants, shrubs and trees. Its dark green foliage is a great backdrop and the leaf shapes are fun to look at. “Discovering” a melon under the leaves is good clean fun to boot. Just remember the plant needs a long dose of sun every day.
Watermelon enjoys a long history with references to it 4,000 or so years ago. It is believed to have originated in southern Africa. The ancient Egyptians cultivated it as depicted in art from that time period and seeds have been found in ancient tombs. It is commonly found in the Mediterranean, Middle East, Asia and anywhere with longer hot summers. China is currently the world’s largest producer. Melons can be full sized and sold whole, or in halves or quarters to make them easier to place in the home refrigerator. Japan has even produced cube watermelons, by growing them into molds. This produces uniform square melons, great for the fridge. They are a novelty, and quite a bit more expensive than the usual shapes.
In the U.S., the largest watermelon producers are Arizona, California, Texas, Georgia and Florida. Of course, Utah’s Green River region is legendary for its melon crop. These are typically Crimson Sweet types, and you’ll find them to be round shaped and sizable. They are well adapted to Northern Utah, and the price for the hybrid seed is higher, and the results are very good.
Besides Crimson Sweet, the USU Extension recommends Mirage Hybrid. For smaller “icebox” types, Mickylee and Minilee are named. In reality, even USU concedes that most melons do well here as long as you give them what they need, and get them planted at the right time to give a sufficient growing season. Like all things gardening, experiment with different types. Don’t plant seeds from melons you get at the grocery, as these are hybrids and will not produce true. You’ll most likely get small bland melons. Seeds are not an area to economize, buy good seed.
Melons (watermelon and cantaloupes are cousins) are heavy feeders and need access to nutrients and water. They don’t tend to do well in heavy clay. So, if you’re like most of Tooele County, you’ll need to loosen your soil with good organic material. Melons don’t do well in areas with short summers, preferring long hot days that our summers provide. To do well, they need adequate water. It’s much better to water deeply every few days than a little each day. If you water heavily ongoing, you will split the maturing melons. This is because the plant has a very efficient root system for water uptake (as demonstrated by how well it does in arid areas like the Middle East and Arizona!). If you overwater it, it will need to put all that water somewhere. It will pump the water into the melons, eventually splitting them. Water only enough to keep the vines from wilting. When the melons are close to harvest, reduce moisture to a minimum to concentrate the sweetness in the fruit. Water dilutes the sugar, so take it easy on the water a couple of weeks before picking.
There is a common myth that to get a sweet melon, you need to trim back excess leaves, flowers and runners to keep the sugar directed towards the fruit. This is not true. The more leaves that are attached, the more sugar is produced and thus transported into the fruit.
Seeds should be planted and transplanting done only after the soil temperature is 70 degrees or higher. Transplanting should be done when the plants are small and before they begin vining. Once your transplants do get going a bit, fertilize them with a formulation that has a good amount of nitrogen (that’s the first number of 3 on the fertilizer package). As the season progresses, switch to higher phosphorus and potassium ratios (those are the second and third numbers on the fertilizer bag). Apply fertilizer by “side dressing” 6 or so inches from the base of the plant and watering it in.
You’ll know the melons are ready to pick when the light spot under the melon changes from white to creamy yellow and the vine easily detaches. If the vine wants to stay on, don’t force it. Melons do not ripen any further once you harvest them, so pick them only when they are at the desired ripeness. They will hold for two to three weeks in a cool place, out of the sun.
If you’re not growing watermelon this year, and you’d like to be able to pick the best melon from the produce section, farmer’s market or roadside stand, what do you look for? First, look for largest light yellow spot you can find on the underside of the melon. This indicates that it has been in the field for some time and has naturally sweetened. Second, look for a dull finish on the outside of the rind. This too indicates ripeness. A shiny melon is not as ripe as a dull one. Third, you can do a “spring” test. Flick the outside of the melon with your index finger. Your finger should bounce back like drumsticks hitting a drumhead. Lastly, the denser the melon, the higher the juice content. Pick up 4 or 5 melons of roughly the same size, and if the other criteria is met, pick the heaviest one. No system of choosing the perfect melon is fool-proof, but using these approaches will greatly improve your chances of getting a great watermelon.
All done? Time to get that salt shaker and head out to the front porch. Now, where are those napkins?
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.