Summer is all about watermelons – biting into the cool flesh and having the juice run down your chin. Is there a better summer snack than a cold and perfectly ripe watermelon?
Seed should be sown in spring through to early summer. While watermelons prefer sandy soils, they can actually be grown in just about any soil that drains well. For best result, dig the soil over deeply, as the roots develop to 30 – 40 cm deep. Add generous quantities of organic matter, and once planted don’t overwater. In fact, once the fruit is the size of a tennis ball, limit watering to when the soil is completely dry, and don’t water at all from about a month before harvesting. Bees are needed for pollination, and the plants will have both male and female flowers on the same plant. Varieties available to the home gardener are ‘Crimson Sweet’ and ‘All Sweet’, ‘Congo’, ‘Sugar Baby’, available in seed form from either Stark Ayres and Mayford. The heirloom seed companies like Living Seeds often have a wider variety of interesting watermelon seeds such as ‘Moon and Stars’ and ‘Georgia Rattlesnake’. ‘Moon and Stars’ yellow is a great yellow-fleshed variety.
Harvesting generally occurs about 11 – 17 weeks after planting, and if you harvest carefully you will get a second set of fruit. The fruit should be fully ripe at harvest, when the flesh is mid-pink to deep pink or even red in colour (dependant on the cultivar – there are even some yellow-fleshed watermelons), and firm and crisp. Riaan’s tip for when to harvest is, “to look at the stem where it joins the flesh. When it is ripe there will be little cracks around the stem, that looks like a wagon wheel. As soon as you can see the wagon wheel it is mature.” Other people suggest that the ground spot (where the fruit lies on the ground) should be a buttery yellow, or the fruit should make a dull sound when smacked. Leaves and tendrils drying out near the fruit are also indications of ripeness. When harvesting, cut the stem a few centimetres from the fruit using a sharp knife or secateurs.
There are dozens of ways to use watermelon, but nothing beats simply biting into a thick triangle of the cold flesh. Otherwise the flesh can be added to smoothies, fruit salads, used in sorbets or blitzed with ice for a refreshing drink. You can also use the rind in a preserve or pickle.
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