I’ve not had a lot of luck growing watermelons in my home garden. The climate’s all wrong for them: at this elevation we get hot, dry days and cool (often cold) dry nights for most of the growing season. Watermelons want moist heat around the clock to really thrive, which is why they tend to grow so well in the deep South.
Still, I do love watermelons, so I keep trying every year. And I have noticed that as my soil gets richer from one summer to the next, the watermelon seeds I plant have begun to at least concede the possibility that they may eventually become productive. I get vines, and sometimes even one or two edible melons.
I should mention that my food garden is fertilized only with horse manure. We have plenty of horses, so there’s no shortage. I’ve had people tell me with great conviction that horse manure is bad for a vegetable garden: it’s too strong, or it’s not strong enough, or it has the wrong nutrients in it, and so on. In response I can only point to the glowing, productive health of my vegetables (not counting the darn watermelons of course), and keep piling on the manure.
It’s true that timing is important when you’re using fresh manure. Where I live the ground doesn’t really freeze solid in the winter, so I do my soil prepping around January or February as the weather permits. First I rake off all the remains of last summer’s crops. Then, because Bermuda grass is the unending bane of my gardening experience, I go through the entire garden and dig out all the evil invading rhizomes that have crept into my soil from the surrounding areas since last spring. I can’t dig them out over the summer without uprooting my crops along with them. Yarg!
Once the garden is thoroughly tilled and weedfree, I bring in the horse manure. I like to spread a good four-to-six-inch-deep layer on top of the broken-up soil. Ideally at this point a nice helpful rain will come along to water it in, but if the weather’s not that accommodating I just turn on the garden sprinkler for a few hours.
A few days later, or whenever the soil is still moist but no longer wet, I till again, digging the manure deep into the ground. Then I let Mother Nature handle the work of composting, which she does admirably: by spring planting time there are literally millions of earthworms going about their business in my soil, and the manure is rotted enough to be safe for seedlings.
The earthworm thing didn’t happen right away. When we first moved to this property the “soil” was really just sand and decomposed granite; nothing grew very well in it other than mustard weed, wild buckwheat and sagebrush. For the first few years I had to buy bags of planting mix from the nursery just to create pockets of soil that veggies could struggle along in. More than once I was tempted to use chemical fertilizers to boost things along (I managed to resist). The horse manure I piled on every winter seemed to vanish without a trace by the following winter. (Actually it still vanishes, but since my garden soil gets blacker and richer every year I assume the manure is playing its part in the great circle of life.)
Then I discovered the magic of mulching with straw, and things started turning around in a big way.
Wow, I’m seriously digressing here, aren’t I? This post was supposed to be about watermelons. I’ll get into mulching and fertilizing more in another post.
So, watermelons. The one crop I can’t seem to succeed with. Occasionally I’ll get a melon or two, but if I don’t pick them THE INSTANT they ripen, they very quickly rot right back into the ground. Even the earthworms seem to be against me here: they’ll wiggle up through a solid layer of straw mulch to nibble happily on the rind of a ripe watermelon.
Then there was this spring: the strangest planting experience I’ve ever had. Half the crops I planted simply declined to sprout. My soil has become so rich now that I normally only have to wave a packet of lettuce seeds at the ground and pretty soon there’s lettuce everywhere, but this year…not so much. I planted my carrot bed twice and got no carrots. Ditto with the cantaloupe seeps and the watermelon seeds. I got a handful of beets, but not nearly as many as I’d planted. Only half the corn I planted grew. My early lettuce crop sprouted, but the later planting didn’t. It was Puzzling, to say the least. It’s like the seeds somehow knew what a horrifically dry year we were going to have, and wanted to save themselves for a better year or something. Even the bell peppers, usually one of my most productive and gratifying crops, did not much of anything this year. It was always to hot or too cold for them — by the time they finally set fruit, Fall was moving in. The tomatoes, potatoes, onions, garlic, herbs and broccoli did well, but even the tomatoes and potatoes didn’t really have a stellar year.
Watermelons. Right. Focus!!
When my watermelon seeds didn’t sprout, I planted more. When those didn’t sprout, I picked up a seedling at the nursery and planted that. It sat there and sulked for a few weeks, then decided to grow. To my pleased surprise, it actually produced some very nice melons, two of which I enjoyed over the summer, and a third that I found all ripe and ready when I returned from my road trip at the end of October.
I saw another watermelon developing when I picked that last one in October, but I pretty much wrote it off. I figured a frost would get it long before it ripened.
So last Sunday I was down in the garden picking an onion for supper. I like to let the onions stay in the ground until they’re needed, since we don’t have a root cellar to store them in. They stay nice and fresh out in the garden.
Anyway, it was snowing Sunday, and all the tender summer crops were dead and blackening and kind of sludging back into the earth the way they do, and sitting there in my watermelon patch amid the dead remains of old vines was a perfectly lovely looking watermelon! It looked as fresh and ripe as a summer day. Apparently the cold weather had sent the earthworms into hibernation before it had ripened enough to appeal to them.
Out of sheer curiousity I picked it and brought it up to the house along with my onion. I wasn’t expecting much, I just wanted to see what the inside of a watermelon looks like in December. I washed it off and sliced into it.
And it was good! Crisp and sweet and juicy and red, in spite of all the hard freezes that had killed off its mother vine. It was like, I don’t know, a pumpkin or a winter squash, impervious to ice. I didn’t know watermelons could do that!
So I’m thinking next summer I’m going to try setting each young watermelon on something that earthworms and soil microorganism can’t chew their way through, like maybe pieces of wood planks, and see if they’re a bit more durable that way. Who knows, I might actually start having some real success producing watermelons!
I hope so, ’cause I do loves me some watermelons.
Now if only we don’t have another bizarro spring like that last one….