With some TLC, watermelons do just fine in Utah

Published: Sunday, May 8 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

Crimson Sweet watermelons get to be 15 pounds to 25 pounds and have red flesh.

Larry Sagers

In a perfect garden everything would flourish.

Pests would not exist, plants would bear sweet abundant produce and frost would never thwart our growing efforts.

After more than 50 years, I still feel a little sting when I think of trying to grow watermelons as a young child.

I was successful at growing almost everything else, but successfully growing watermelons always eluded me.

Readers of this column know the importance I place on selecting the right cultivars for their gardens. I learned this lesson long ago and it has stuck with me well.

I can claim ignorance those many years ago because there are more than 1,200 watermelon cultivars. My limited experience and education meant I did not choose wisely.

At the time, my entire garden library was a book published in 1903 that my grandfather gave me after he finished teaching school. Even the USU Extension Service had little information on successful melon production.

My difficulty was that my seed source was very limited. In my hometown at that time, we did not have many outlets for purchasing seeds, and the packaged seed available was not always the kind that were well adapted to growing in Tooele County.

Watermelons originated in Africa, so there are differences between their native climate and my garden. Looking at the kinds available, it was easy to see why I failed.

I was trying to grow Texas Improved, Congo, Charleston Gray and Kleckley Sweet, a cultivar from Alabama.

These grow well in the South, but I was living in a high mountain desert.

I grew large melons, but when the frost came in the fall, the best I could show was some light pink, tasteless flesh.

It is critical that you start with those varieties that grow well here.

If you do not have your own favorites consider these.

Crimson Sweet and Mirage Hybrid are large (15 pound to 25 pound) red-fleshed melons.

Mickylee and Minilee are smaller (10 pound to 15 pound) icebox types. Golden Crown and Yellow Baby are yellow-fleshed varieties.

There are many other good watermelon varieties, but select those that will mature here.

After selecting the kind you want, select the growing location.

Watermelons need full sunlight and plenty of heat. Wait until it gets warm as they grow best if the soil temperature is 65 F before planting.

Pay attention to the soil. They prefer organic, rich, well-drained, sandy soils for best growth, but any soil that is well drained will grow acceptable watermelons.

Improve your soil by incorporating up to 4 inches of well-composted organic matter. Add 4 to 6 cups of 16-16-8 or 10-10-10 fertilizer per 100 square feet before planting.

After the vines start developing runners, add 2 tablespoons of ammonium sulfate per plant or mound. Place the fertilizer at least 6 inches away from the plants to avoid burning the roots.

Watermelons grow well from seed or transplants. Plant the seeds 1-2 inches deep in hills about 4 feet apart. Rows need to be 4-6 feet apart.

Well-grown transplants will allow you to harvest melons two weeks or earlier than by planting seeds. Transplants that are too large and have started to vine, or those that are root bound or those that are yellow and stunted will not give you earlier melons.

A good transplant has two to three mature leaves and a well-developed root system. Melons do not transplant well, so handle the plants carefully to prevent root damage.

Black plastic mulch warms the soil, conserves water and helps control weeds. Clear plastic mulches allow earlier planting and maturity, especially with transplants.

Plastic mulches and row covers or Wall O' Waters allows seeds or plants to be set out two to three weeks before the last frost. Remove any covers when plants start to flower or temperatures exceed 90 F.

Do not apply organic mulches around plants until soil temperature's reach at least 75 F. These help conserve water and control weeds but insulate and cool the soil if applied too soon.

Watermelons prefer deep, infrequent irrigation. Never overwater because it can lead to a problem called sudden collapse because the roots are not getting enough oxygen. I prefer drip irrigation, if possible, to keep the water near the plants.

Of course the real test is the eating. I love to pick a ripe melon, slice it open and enjoy the wonderful, fragrant bouquet.

Finally, I lift that melon slice to my mouth and enjoy what nature has created in my garden. It helps take away a little of that sting of failure from long ago.

Garden tips

Wasatch Community Gardens is holding a workshop on saving seeds, May 14, 10 am.-noon, at the Grateful Tomato Garden on the corner of 800 South and 600 East in Salt Lake City. The workshop will teach you how to become more self-reliant and to free yourself and your garden from seed scarcity. Cost is $10. Registration is required at www.wasatchgardens.org

Red Butte Garden is holding a Summer Bulb Container Workshop, May 14, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Participants will learn about layering bulbs to create living flower arrangements and which summer bulbs are best for containers. Cost is $45 for members, $55 for nonmembers. To register, call 801-581-8454 or log on to www.redbuttegarden.org.

Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist for the Utah State University Extension Service at Thanksgiving Point.

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