Annuals, Edible fruit, Vegetables
From southern Africa. Needs a long growing season, more heat than most other melons, and more space than other vine crops—about 8 ft. by 8 ft. for each hill (circle of seed).
If you garden where summers are long and warm, choose any variety you like. If your summers are short or cool, choose a fast-maturing (“early”) variety (described in catalogs and on seed packets as taking 70 to 75 days from seed to harvest). There are many great varieties, among them ‘Sweet Beauty’, a sweet, crisp 5–7-lb. melon with red flesh (80 days to maturity). ‘Golden Crown’ bears oval 6 1/2-lb. fruits with yellow flesh (60 days). ‘New Queen’ produces 5–6-lb. fruits with bright orange-yellow flesh and few seeds (63 days). In Hawaii, grow proven varieties such as ‘Sugar Baby’, ‘Summer Festival’, and ‘Top Yield’.
To ripen to full sweetness, melons need steady heat for 2 1/2 to 4 months. Sow seeds in light, well-drained soil 2 weeks after average last-frost date; don’t rush it, since melons are truly tropical plants and will perish in even a light frost. In regions where summers are cool or relatively short, start plants indoors in pots a few weeks before last-frost date, then plant outdoors in the warmest southern exposure. Row covers allow for earlier planting outdoors. Clear plastic mulch (in areas where summers are very short) or black plastic mulch under melons warms soil, speeds harvest, and helps keep fruit from rotting.
Though you can grow small melons on sun-bathed trellises, the heavy fruit must still be supported in individual cloth slings. These plants are best grown in hills or mounded rows a few inches high at center; you will need to provide considerable space. Make hills about 3 ft. in diameter and space them 3–4 ft. apart; encircle each with a furrow for irrigation. Make rows 3 ft. wide and as long as desired, spacing them 3–4 ft. apart; make furrows for irrigation along both sides. Plant seeds 1 in. deep—four or five seeds per hill, two or three seeds every 1 ft. in rows. When plants are well established, thin each hill to the best two plants; thin rows to one strong plant per foot. Fill furrows with water from time to time (furrows let you water plants without wetting foliage), but do not keep soil soaked. Feed (again in furrows) every 6 weeks.
Watermelon does not become sweeter after harvest—it must be picked ripe. To check for ripeness, thump the melon (it should produce a hollow “thunk”); check to see that the underside has turned from white to pale yellow; and make sure tendrils where the melon attaches to the stem have darkened and withered. Cut (do not pull) melon from the vine.
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