Sweet, juicy homegrown watermelons capture the magic of summer with explosive taste that puts store-bought melons to shame. Like their cantaloupe cousins, watermelons demand 2 to 3 months of heat to produce ripe fruit, which makes growing watermelons in northern regions challenging, but not impossible. By using plastic mulch to warm soil and floating row covers to trap warm air near plants, gardeners in any part of the country can experience the homegrown goodness of watermelons.
Soil, Planting, and Care
Growing watermelons requires warm soil. Don’t tuck plants into the garden until soil temperature is above 70 degrees F, which typically occurs about the time peonies bloom in northern zones. To be safe, wait until at least 2 weeks past your area’s last frost date. Prior to planting, cover soil with black plastic to hasten soil warming. Because watermelons are heavy feeders, prepare your planting bed by adding seaweed, compost, or rotted manure, or amend the soil with aged compost-enriched Miracle-Gro® Performance Organics™ All Purpose In-Ground Soil to improve soil texture and nutrition. For best nutrient uptake, the soil pH should be between 6 and 6.8, although the plants will tolerate a pH as low as 5.
Give watermelon vines plenty of room to roam, which usually means spacing plants 3 to 5 feet apart. After planting, cover seedlings with floating row covers to keep out insects and trap warm air near plants.
Watermelon vines bear male and female flowers. Don’t be alarmed when some of the male flowers, which appear first, fall off shortly after they open; they are followed by female blossoms about a week later. The female flowers, which have a small swelling at the base of the flower, stay on the vine to bear fruit. When vines start to bear both male and female flowers, remove row covers. Tackle weeds before vines start to run because it will be difficult to move among vines at a later stage without crushing them. Mulching soil under the vines helps suppress weeds and slows moisture evaporation.
Water plays an important role in keeping vines healthy and producing delicious fruit. Vines are most sensitive to drought during the time from planting to when fruits start to form. Avoid overhead watering. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation deliver water directly to soil, helping prevent possible spread of fungal diseases among wet foliage. Keep soil consistently moist, but not waterlogged, which will kill plants. It’s typical for leaves to wilt under midday sun, but they shouldn’t remain wilted into evening. Water vines early in the morning so leaves can dry before sunset, which will further help prevent fungal diseases. Watermelons take a long time to mature, so be sure your plants are getting a steady source of nutrition throughout the growing season.
Keep ripening watermelon from direct contact with soil to prevent rot and protect fruit from pests and rodents. When fruit is about the size of a softball, place it on a bed of straw or cardboard. Setting fruit on a light-reflecting surface, such as aluminum foil, will concentrate heat and speed up ripening. If large critters, such as groundhogs, discover your melons, protect ripening fruits by covering them with laundry baskets weighted down with a few bricks. Some gardeners like to switch fertilizer during the course of the growing season. To do this, use a fertilizer with more nitrogen than phosphorus and potassium during the period between planting and when the first flowers open. Once flowering begins, use a fertilizer with less nitrogen and more phosphorus and potassium, such as African violet food or liquid seaweed.
Some believe that pinching off a vine’s growing shoots as watermelons start to ripen will cause the plant to divert all its energies to fruit ripening. Recent research has shown this to be false. It’s a vine’s leaves that produce the sugars that sweeten fruit, so anything that reduces the total number of leaves available for sugar production actually lessens the sweetness of the melon.
In colder regions, remove any blossoms that start to develop within 50 days of your area’s first average frost date. This will help ensure that remaining, larger fruits will ripen before frost. Give watermelon vines plenty of room to roam. Crimson Sweet is long-time favorite for its sweet and juicy crimson flesh. Wheat straw is an effective, inexpensive way to keep growing melons from coming in contact with the soil.
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