Picked at the peak of ripeness, homegrown watermelons are beyond compare. Commercial growers focus on just a handful of varieties, making the incredible diversity of the watermelon world unavailable to grocery-store shoppers. The most delicious melons are only available to those who grow their own.
If you’d like to try your hand at growing some of the most flavorful watermelon varieties, here are six tips to ensure your success.
1. Select The Right Varieties
Watermelons love hot weather and require a long season to mature. If you live in a northern climate, select a variety with a shorter number of days to maturity. While southern growers will have no trouble growing a melon that takes 100-plus days to set fruit, northern gardeners would do better to choose one that matures in 75-80 days instead. Also, look for varieties with noted disease resistance. Watermelons are prone to powdery mildew, anthracnose, Alternaria blight. and a few other diseases; if these diseases have been problematic in your garden in the past, choose only resistant varieties.
2. Plant Only In Warm Soil
Planting watermelons too early is the kiss of death, especially north of the Mason-Dixon Line. You can get a jump start on the season by starting watermelon seeds in plantable peat pots three to four weeks before the danger of frost has passed. Move started seedlings out into the garden only after the soil temperature has warmed to 60 degrees F. If you plan to start your watermelons by sowing the seeds directly into the garden, wait until soil temperatures reach 70 degrees F.
Black or dark-green plastic mulch can be used to raise soil temperatures prior to planting. Lay the plastic over the planting beds two to three weeks before planting, and wait until well after the danger of frost has passed before planting watermelons through holes cut in the plastic.
3. Space Plants Properly
Watermelons require a lot of room. Their rambling vines can easily cover a lot of garden real estate. Space vines 3 to 4 feet apart, and keep 5 feet between rows. After planting, mulch the plants with a 2-inch layer of straw or shredded leaves if plastic mulch isn’t being used.
4. Protect From Pests
For the first few weeks of growth, watermelon seedlings should be covered with a layer of summer-weight floating row cover. This transparent fabric keeps cucumber beetles, squash bugs and other pests at bay. Remove it when the plants come into flower to allow access to pollinators.
5. Feed & Water The Plants
Watermelons love hot weather, but they do not love drought. Make sure your watermelon plants receive an inch of water per week throughout the growing season. Not enough water results in poor fruit set and small fruits. But, too much water the week or two before harvest, can result in watered-down watermelon flavor or even cracked fruit.
Watermelon plants are heavy feeders. Before planting, work lots of organic matter into the soil, such as aged horse manure or compost. As soon as the fruit begins to set, begin to fertilize with an organic liquid fertilizer twice a month. Select a fertilizer that provides more phosphorous and potassium than nitrogen to encourage good fruit set and growth.
6. Harvest When The Time Is Right
To pick watermelons at their peak flavor, check the tendril closest to the fruit every day. When it dries and turns brown, the melon is ready for harvest. There should also be a bright-yellow spot on the bottom side of the fruit. Remember, watermelons will not ripen once they’re severed from the vine, so waiting until they’re fully ripe is absolutely necessary for the sweetest flavor.
My Top Watermelon Picks
Here are a few delicious watermelon varieties worth growing:
- Golden Midget: yellow rind with pink flesh; miniature melons; great flavor
- Blacktail Mountain: dark rind with crimson flesh; fast-maturing heirloom; 8-pound melons.
- Klondike Blue: extremely sweet; oblong-shaped heirloom; vigorous vines with good production
- New Queen: bright-orange flesh; juicy with few seeds; super sweet, 6-pound fruits
- Sugar Pot: compact plant that’s great for containers; 10-pound fruits on small plants; nice, sweet flavor.