How They’re Grown: Watermelon 

 

Sun + bees + well-drained, sandy soil + water are what’s needed to grow watermelon. Two growers talk about how this summertime favorite fruit gets from the fields to the back door of the kitchen, plus some notes on selecting, storing and using all parts of the plant.

Planting & Growth

Watermelon seeds are typically planted in January for crop in South Florida and “later as you move up north,” says Jordan Carter, director of sales and marketing for the third generation family farm Leger & Son, Inc., in Cordele, Georgia, founded in 1965, with farms in Georgia, Florida and Indiana.

For commercial production, seedlings are planted in rows spaced about eight to 12 feet apart and in raised beds, about four to 12 inches high. Irrigation is carefully managed throughout the growth cycle to optimize fruit set, fruit size and yield.

“Biodegradable plastic is then rolled out over [the beds] covering both sides; this helps prevent weeds and keeps the ground moist,” says Carter. “During the growing process, we have to keep a close eye on [the plant] for watering and to deal with any pest or fungus issues that arise.”

The ideal growing condition for watermelon is between 80 to 90 degrees F and “some rain but not a lot,” says Carter, who notes that hail, wind and excess humidity are problematic.

Watermelon, which has origins in Africa “prefer a well-drained, sandy soil,” says Lee Wroten, vice president of Global Produce Sales, Inc., in Lakeland, Florida. “They’re a desert fruit, so they don’t need as much water as one would think.” Global Produce Sales manages its own farms and contracts with others to grow watermelon primarily in Florida and Georgia, but also in the Carolinas, Maryland and Delaware, Southwestern Indiana, Southern Michigan and the foothills of Southeastern Missouri.

Bees and Pollination

A fun fact about watermelon is that bee colonies help with natural pollination of the plant, says Carter. This is a win-win for both the bees and the plants; research has shown that bee populations have dwindled over the years so watermelon production actually helps keep them active. The recommendation is that there are 1.3 colonies per acre, or about one bee for every 100 watermelon flowers. At Leger & Sons’ farms, the beehives are stationed alongside the edges of the fields and are managed by an external apiary.

“Watermelon flowers open in the morning and close in the afternoon; honeybees forage for pollen most actively in the morning,” Carter says. “It’s a small window so you need a lot of honeybees on your farm to make sure they’re pollinating efficiently. It’s such a huge crop that’s dependent on the bees.”

Global Produce Sales also contracts with external apiaries to manage thousands of hives; they’ll then collect the excess honey and sell that for retail and commercial use as well.

Harvest & Processing

Though watermelon is a year-round crop, domestically, in the spring and summertime, watermelon is ready for harvest; this season starts in about mid-May and lasts through the end of October. The fruit is picked by hand and loaded into trucks or hollowed out school buses where they’re taken to the processing facilities. There, at these fully automated, computer-backed facilities, the watermelons get a “shower and a good scrub and continue on conveyor belts to be inspected, weighed and graded,” says Carter. “The most desired size is a 45-count at about 15 to 18 pounds.”

Selecting Watermelon

There are more than 1,200 varieties of watermelon, so recommendations for selection and stripes will vary. “The belly should be creamy or yellow in color; if it’s bright white it might be a sign that it’s not ripe or was picked too early,” says Wroten. When sliced in half, the flesh should be a nice, red color and firm to the touch. Watermelon has about a week to go from harvest to their destination; anything outside of that causes the fruit to break down and have that mealy, mushy consistency.

Storing Watermelon

There’s no need to refrigerate watermelon if they’re to be used somewhat soon. “They can actually be held without for a week up to 10 days in an air conditioned environment,” Wroten says. “You can also cut it and refrigerate it but you don’t want to store whole watermelon below 50 degrees.”

No-Waste Watermelon

Though the most popular variety today is seedless, those pesky black watermelon seeds that we spit out as kids are actually very good for you; Wroten says they’re high in omega-3 fatty acids and do well when roasted up like pumpkin seeds and tossed into salads and atop soups.

Wroten says he also encourages people to do more with the rinds. “They have a lot of vitamins and nutrients and amino acids, and in other countries like Asia and India, this part is used just as much as the melon,” he says. Chefs should consider pickling the rinds so they “eat like a cucumber” or even julienning them for use in stir-fry dishes and curries.

Chefs might do well to work with their distributors to collect the “ugly fruit,” aka, watermelon that’s not the right size for retail or have ugly but harmless knicks or chips in their rinds. “I would hope that more end-users would generate interest in this,” says Wroten who adds that non-retail-worthy watermelon typically get used for processed watermelon foods and drink, shipped to roadside stands or even fed to animals.

For recipes and more ideas working with watermelon, visit watermelon.org.

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