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Growing Watermelons - A Beginners Guide

Watermelons are thought to originate in the Kalahari Desert of Africa almost 5,000 years ago. Unlike many species of plants today, botanists can verify its wild ancestors are still around! After migrating north through Egypt, they were cultivated and prized in the Roman era. Egyptian hieroglyphics illustrate watermelons were a harvest treat well before our era. In fact, watermelons were buried with kings in order to provide nourishment for the afterlife. It was just the Egyptians who could appreciate this wonderful fruit!

In America, this classic fruit was in business during tumultuous times. After migration through Europe, watermelons flourished in warm Mediterranean climates, and were soon reported in 1629 in Massachusetts. It was during Civil War that Confederate soldiers used boiled watermelon sugars to make cooking molasses. It is a well known fact that watermelon would continue to play an important part in Southern culture. Both sweet and filled with many essential vitamins and minerals, it is no wonder that the watermelon has been enjoyed throughout the world!

Growing Conditions and Plant Info

Watermelons require a lengthy growing season of up to 100 days. They require warm soil for germination  and growth. Ideally, watermelons should be planted in 70 degrees F. This crop is needs consistent watering until germination. For those wanting to plant a little earlier than the spring season, protect watermelons by covering the planting area with black plastic. This warms soil.Although this is acceptable in areas where frost isn't likely, the best way to start seeds is indoors.

About two or three weeks before watermelon seeds are set to go out into the garden, sprout seeds in seed pods or within baggies for planting. During this process, don't allow plants to become too moist, as mold could quickly damage young sprouts. Watermelons shouldn't be started any earlier than 2 - 3 weeks, because the larger the watermelon seedlings, the harder the transplant will be. Once water melons get started, however, they are low maintenance plant to care for.

Watermelons are a favorite of breeders and can vary in size. A very popular heirloom variety of watermelon, called "Moon and Stars" that can be up to 35 lbs! This particular variety is so named for its skin, which is a deep green, speckled with many yellow dots or "stars". Due to the wide variety of varieties, its best for growers to research watermelons to find a desired breed. Most watermelon varieties will produce fruits measuring up to a foot in length.

Management and Pest Control 

Watermelons need a lot of space, so make sure the watermelon patch isn't near other crops or planted too closely together. Vines are often up to 20 feet in length. As with any vine crop, these tendrils will attach to anything that is nearby, so as an extra bit of caution, try to plant other viney crops such as legumes and grapes away from the watermelon patch. Even if watermelons are the only crops planted, try to give these crops a lot of open space. It is nearly impossible to keep watermelons inside. Even in a sophisticated hydroponic setup, you run risk of watermelons outgrowing their bounds.

Lots of organic matter such as compost or composted cow manure should be included within soils. Organic is best as watermelons will get a greater variety and quality of nutrients than synthetic fertilizers. Aim to balance nutrients if possible, but plant to biofertilize with nitrogen. Blue-green algae or soils that have previously been home to legumes are a great way to ensure that watermelons are getting the appropriate amount of nitrogen. A word about weeds: when watermelons start to display vines it is imperative to keep weeds at bay through shallow hoeing or via a mulch layer.

Watermelons are vulnerable to cucumber beetles and vine borers. These are easily controlled through insecticides such as Sevin or use of Bacillus thuringensis, if one prefers an organic approach. Once again, organic management is healthier for the crop and soil in the long-term. It is also possible to prevent infections through floating row covers, but should be removed before pollinating insects start to reach flowers.

Harvest Time

It's tricky to know when it's time for harvest. The best tasting watermelons are harvested when they're perfectly ripe, and knowing the right time means crowning all those efforts of sprouting and management. Many watermelon gardeners simply watch the tendril closest to melon stems. When the watermelon is ripe, tendrils will brown and dry up. Although this may be a suitable method for general varieties, tendrils in other varieties may completely dry and drop off completely, creating the illusion that these the melon is not ripe. Another more simple way of determining the ripeness of a melon is slapping the surface to determine the density of the melon.

Tips and Tricks

Watermelon plants, when propagated past seedling stage, possess deep roots and do not need excessive watering. The only time this is warranted is during a period of prolonged dryness. When melons start to mature, one can also withhold water to intensify sweetness. These plants will also produce a sweeter fruit when supplemented with boron. The best way to assess ripeness in most watermelon varieties is coloration of the spot on which the melon sits. When the watermelon matures, this color of this spot will transform from a pale white to a full yellow, losing the slick and glossy finish on the rind that will now look dull.

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