A big world of watermelons for Sonoma County gardens

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There is no other fruit that so epitomizes summer. Watermelons refresh us like no other. They are a perfect combination of thirst-quenching and sweet. Vibrantly colored, each fruit when cut open is a glistening jewel.

Watermelons are believed to originate in Africa. Those early watermelons were bitter, with a hard rind. It is thought they were used initially for the valuable water contained inside and were selectively bred by the Egyptians to remove the bitter taste. Harvests are recorded in Libya and Egypt from over 4000 years ago. Watermelons spread from northeastern Africa to countries around the Mediterranean from 400 B.C. to 500 A.D. and may have been used on ships as natural canteens. Watermelons were spread to India in the 7th century and China in the 10th. They were first grown in the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries in Florida and Massachusetts, Panama and South America. Drought resistant, the ancestors of our modern watermelons still grow wild in deserts in Sudan and Egypt, and are a tantalizing sight growing in such arid regions. They are so bitter in the wild state however, even camels and goats don’t eat them.

Watermelons were originally yellow-orange. The gene for sugar content is paired with the color red, but over time many variants have developed in a variety of colors.

Watermelons are high in vitamin C, and are about 90 percent water and 6 percent sugar, though sugar content varies among varieties and can be higher. Watermelon varieties have great variation. The flesh comes in colors from white to yellow, orange, red and bicolor. A variety called Moon and Stars has a dark green rind decorated with planetary stars and moons and no two watermelons are alike in their depictions of the cosmos. Rind colors range from yellow to pale green, to pale green with dark green irregular stripes to a deep green. Rinds can be practically eggshell thin, to thick and strong. Fruit shapes can be round or oblong. Sizes go from about 6 pounds to over 40. Days to maturity also vary greatly and range from 70 days to about 95. New, modern hybrids can be seedless.

The small round melons with thin rinds are some of the most delicious, sweet and fine textured, and are a size (4-10 pounds) that can be consumed in one sitting or one day. The flesh is dense, very crisp and tends to be very sweet. They are sometimes referred to as “icebox” melons. This type comes in white, yellow and red. A couple of good very sweet white to pale yellow varieties are “White Wonder” and “Cream of Saskatchewan”. A good yellow hybrid variety is “Sweet Favorite” and an open-pollinated variety is “Janosik.” “Sugar Baby” is a standard red variety.

Orange-flesh watermelons are gorgeous. The color is vibrant and glowing and the flesh is usually rich. Each time you cut into them it feels like a surprise. An old standard is Orangeglo. The texture of the flesh can be somewhat variable, and its flesh quickly becomes soft when overripe. An excellent hybrid variety is “New Orchid”. A small melon growing to only 9 pounds, its flesh is extremely rich and sweet with hints of orange sherbet. A new orange variety from Territorial Seeds is called “New Queen” and is described as having few seeds and 12 percent sugar.

“Crimson Sweet” is a standard red watermelon. Highly adaptable, with crisp flesh and a sweet flavor, this variety is grown in many places in the world. Baker Creek Seed Co. calls “Ali Baba” their favorite watermelon of the many that they grow and sell. It is an oblong, light green skinned variety from Iraq that grows well in many areas, and has very sweet, crisp flesh. There are many more red varieties with different shapes, sizes and maturity dates to fit each garden.

How can you tell if a watermelon is ripe? Not by thumping the melon and listening to the sound. Where the watermelon stem attaches to the vine is a small green tendril that is curly like a pig’s tail. When this begins to turn brown, the melon is ripe. Watermelons do not “slip” where the stem attaches to the melon like cantaloupe type melons do.

If diabrotica beetles (AKA spotted cucumber beetles) are a problem in your garden watermelons are a good melon to grow as they are not attractive to them. Cantaloupe-type melon flowers and leaves are. Issues with diabrotica beetles vary from garden to garden and year to year.

A great place to see and sample a big variety of different watermelons is the National Heirloom Expo, coming up this year Sept. 11-13 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa.

Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at: katebfrey@gmail.com, freygardens.com, Twitter @katebfrey, Instagram @americangardenschool

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