Garden to Table: Melons
Watermelon with Vine
The first step in growing watermelons organically involves finding seed that is not treated with fungicide. Most commercial seed companies coat watermelon seeds with thiram and other fungicides. If the seed is pink, red, green or blue in color, it has been treated with fungicides and cannot be used for organic production.
Image courtesy of Rinne Allen
Nothing feels more like summer than a chin-soaking bite of a perfectly ripe, bursting with flavor sweet melon. In the South we typically seed or plant out our melons early in May, after the passing of the last spring frost, for delicious hot-weather July harvests. We grow both watermelons and cantaloupe types of melons, or muskmelons. All melons live in the cucurbit family along with cucumbers, squash and gourds.
For watermelons, we usually grow two different open-pollinated varieties, striped, juicy Crimson Sweet and leatherback green, meaty Sugarbaby. However, we have grown and loved the Moon and Stars watermelon, an Amish heirloom, and might have to give the Sorbet Swirl, a multi-colored hybrid variety, a whirl next year. Watermelons — which originated in the southern part of Africa — have found their way around the world, but they have been a mainstay here in Georgia for a while. In south Georgia, you are hard pressed to drive 20 miles in the summer without seeing a pregnant pick-up bed with watermelons for sale on the roadside.—Joe and Judith
This year we chose to try out the San Juan melon from Johnny’s Selected Seeds as our muskmelon. Their floral, mildly sweet smell and taste intoxicated us. We’ve discovered that different varieties of melons make a wonderful chilled, refreshing soup. Incidentally, the San Juan melon is a F1 hybrid, which basically means that it is a cross of two different parents that produce a unique progeny in the first offspring generation. In the past, we have grown and enjoyed the Pride of Wisconsin and Minnesota Midget heirloom varieties.
What I’m Wearing
Encompassing round to oblong shapes and sizes, watermelons come as stripes, solids or star-embossed. Muskmelons can come smooth or netted, with flesh ranging from milky white to sun-kissed yellows and oranges.
All watermelons are usually sweeeet! and we prefer those with seeds, as they tend to taste the best. For a luxurious bite, cut out the heart of a juicy or meaty watermelon. Muskmelons can bring floral and fruity profiles like the San Juan melon, and sometimes a spice-hinted note, like the heirloom Tigger variety.
How to Grow
- Plant seeds or young plants 18” apart in the row and 3-5’ between rows.
- Fertilize lightly with nice compost or balanced organic fertilizer. Don’t overdo it.
- Use plastic or landscape fabric weed blocker to shade out weeds around the vining stems of plants. If black, it will also warm the soil up a little more as it retains heat.
- Plant early and cover with wire hoops and a woven fabric that allows most of the light through to keep emerging cucumber beetles off of your plants. Their little mouth pieces spread many damaging plant diseases. Don’t forget to water your plants underneath and take the fabric off when you see the first blooming flowers.
- Water well in the beginning of the plants’ life, but back off to minimal watering after the majority of the fruit is set for sweeter meat in your melons.
- To harvest watermelons, look for a dull-ish color on the fruit. Also, the nearest tendril to the fruit should also have browned and died back, and the sound of a slap should carry a high pitched note. It also helps to keep track of the days to harvest on the seed pack.
- For muskmelons, we opt for those that slip off the stem easily when ripened.
Melon isn’t just for fruit salads and the occasional prosciutto-wrapped appetizer. There is a whole lot more melon has to offer as seen in this recipe for Fish Tacos with Watermelon Salsa from Food Network Magazine, which swaps out the traditional tomato-based pico de gallo with our old friend watermelon. Or try the titillating flavors of salty mixed with sweet in the Watermelon-Feta Salad, also from Food Network Magazine. Still not convinced you can make melon work beyond breakfast? Tyler Florence’s Watermelon Gazpacho flavored with serrano chile and red onions will open your eyes to the adaptability of this hard-working, delicious fruit. Still with us? How about a delicious Cantaloupe Soup from Alex Guarnaschelli, brightened with lemon and sparkling cider? We hope these recipes are as inspiring to you as they are to us!
In this Garden to Table feature, farmer-bloggers Judith Winfrey and Joe Reynolds offer their tips for sowing, growing and harvesting. And then we kick it over to FN Dish for some delicious recipes using this seasonal produce.