By: Justin Butts Photos: Rachel Benavides
Watermelons are the highlight of a late summer garden. Watermelons are sweet, but they are not technically a fruit. Melons are cucurbits, the same family as pumpkins, squash, and cucumbers. They grow lush on long, heavy vines.
Watermelons are native to the hot, humid fields of Africa. Spaniards brought the first melons to the New World to plant in Mexico in the 1520s.
Those Spanish melon seeds entered the vast and complex trading network of the Native Americans of North America. Watermelons were soon being cultivated by tribes all the way into Canada. When English explorers arrived in New England just a hundred years later, watermelons grew so well they believed melons were actually native to America, rather than a recently introduced plant.
Tips for Growing Watermelons
Watermelons can be difficult to grow. A lot can happen in the 120 long days required for them to ripen. A heavy rain can cause melons to split. Deer and raccoons are notorious for crushing and eating melons in the last days before they ripen.
When melons are ripe, the stem becomes brittle and easily falls away. For maximum sweetness, let melons fully ripen in the field. The sweetness comes from potassium in the soil. Potassium unlocks the sugar molecules in the melon. The best source of potassium for your garden is wood ash from native trees, such as live oak or mesquite.
How to Tell When a Watermelon is Ripe
A ripe watermelon is a deep, rich, green color all the way around. A whitish color at one end means the melon has not fully ripened.
A good melon should have a yellow or cream-colored spot where it rested on the ground while ripening. If there is no yellow spot, the melon was likely picked unripe from a factory farm and shipped to a supermarket to finish ripening in a boon on the shelf.
Thumping the melon should give a hollow sound, which means plenty of water inside. Water conducts the sound of the thump better, while a fleshy and unripe melon mutes the thump. The melon should be firm and heavy for its size.
Best Watermelon Varieties
The best large watermelon varieties are Jubilee, Black Diamond, and Allsweet. On our farm, we prefer small, personal-sized melons (easier to grow, more fruit per vine). Our favorites are Japanese Cream-Fleshed Suika, Sugar Baby, and Black Tail Mountain.