Growing watermelons can be a real chore. A lot of it is trial and error, especially that "error" part. But the payoff is special indeed. This summer's sweet payoff comes in the form of the Sweet Diane watermelon. This is the largest melon I've ever grown, and this is small for Sweet Diane standards. But when the top of the striped green rind began to turn yellow, I knew it was time to bring it out of the garden.
This is not the first time that I've grown melons in the garden. However, it is the first time that I've started melons like this from seed. Most previous melon experiences involved starter plants purchased from nearby nurseries and those efforts yielded melons that were no bigger than the size of an average softball. While it was nice to get ripened fruit, I was hoping for something a tad larger.
And, past melon patches also brought rather unwelcome surprises. That includes that "weeding" incident in the Madera Ranchos, where that patch of weeds I pulled up from my backyard melon patch also brought forth a three foot long King Snake (I came to find out much later that snakes just LOVE watermelons patches). There's nothing quite like grabbing a big weed, only to discover that you've also grabbed a snake as well, and suddenly "you and the big guy" are face-to-face. King snakes might not be dangerous, but who am I kidding? Snakes are snakes....Coming face-to-face with one is no great joy, plus it's hard on the ticker....
This year, however, the situation was slightly different. I had the land. I had ways to control weeds. More importantly however, NO SNAKES. I might get buzzed by the occassional hornet or have a run in with a slightly agitated wolf spider, but that's nothing compared to sharing garden space with King or Garter snakes.
The first order of busines however, was choosing the melon I would grow. I didn't want the normal starter plant from your neighborhood nursery. I've been there. I've done that. I didn't want softball sized watermelons. I wanted WATERMELON SIZED watermelons. Melons that said "I can feed an army!" And I found that watermelon in the form of seeds from Pine Tree seeds. It was called the Sweet Diane, and it promised a "watermelon-sized" watermelon. Perfect. It's exactly what I wanted.
But, I had never grown watermelons from seed before. How does this work? When my packet of seeds arrived in February, I decided to get to an early start and planted those seeds with my tomato and cucumber seeds.
Oh sure -- those seeds took off sure enough. They literally jumped out of those peat moss starter pods. And they continued to grow after transplanting. But it soon became apparent that watermelons do not do well indoors. Watermelons want sunshine -- not some cramped grow room. Watermelons want HEAT -- far more heat than a space heater can provide. Soon, each of my six starters wilted and then died.
I was disappointed, but not ready to give up. I again started seeds indoors and they again jumped out of starter cups, only to wilt and meet the same fate that the first set of starter plants met -- an early death. I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out what I was doing wrong.
Actually, it was very simple. Unlike tomatoes or peppers, watermelons are not good performers inside a room or in a greenhouse. The best way to plant melons? Wait until the weather warms up, drop some seeds in the ground and water. It was that simple. And with the six remaining seeds I had left, I did just that. Sure enough, the plants jumped out of the starter bed I had created for them and started growing just fine in that warm, spring sunshine.
Unfortunately, the new housing development I live in doesn't contain all the features that you find in more established neighborhoods. One of the disadvantages is there are no mature trees. There is no mature landscaping. And that means there is precious little room or space for things like a colony of bees, which is absolutely essential for pollination of watermelon vines. I did have hornets -- by the dozen -- but they just don't scratch after that pollen like normal honeybees do.
After waiting several weeks for the bees and the first fruits of my labor to appear I finally took devices into my own hands. If Mother Nature wasn't going to pollinate my Sweet Diane watermelon -- I was. And I did just that -- using a small paintbrush. It wasn't difficult, however it was time consuming. I scratched as many male flowers as I could with that brush, and then deposited what pollen I had into the open female flowers.
Not every pollination attempt was a success mind you. But, in some cases, it worked. Soon there was one melon. Then two. Then three more. And soon I had a garden full of Sweet Diane melons.
Although I had been told that Sweet Diane was an heirloom melon out of South Carolina, I appear to have been given the wrong information. Sweet Diane is a hybrid and a recent introduction to the melon market. No matter, because the taste is still outstanding. And these "melon-sized" watermelons provided fruit that was cotton-candy, out-of-this-world sweet.
Despite my success in the garden this year, I did make some mistakes. I planted corn in the same bed as my melon seeds. The wife also planted sunflowers. Those were big mistakes. The sunflowers grew quickly, cutting off sunshine to the melon patch and the corn wasn't much of a help either. I did get lots of melons out of the Sweet Diane, but I could have received that much more with smarter planting practices.
So, this is the first year for Sweet Diane, but it won't be the last when it comes to melons in the garden. There's a lot more to try and the lesson has been learned. Next year's melons will get a little more space, they won't have to share that space and they'll get a little more water as well.
And that's what gardening is all about, isn't it? Trial and error......