This time of year is exciting- The insatiable aromas of cookouts and BBQs fill the air. Summertime and the flavors of summer are very nostalgic. If you live on the west side of Gainesville and Alachua County, you may see trains of school buses delivering delicious, green orbs of summertime nostalgia to your local markets: Watermelons (Citullus lanatus).
I remember entering my first watermelon-eating contest when I was three-years-old. I do not remember how well I did, but I know that I loved the t-shirt I got for participating. Oh, how I love watermelons.
A Brief History
Did you know watermelons have been in cultivation all over the world for hundreds of years? Originating in Africa, watermelons have been grown in China since the 10th century and in the Americas, prior to the arrival of French settlers.
Over time, through cultivation and breeding, watermelons became the tasty snack we know today. Prior to the 1600s, watermelons were much smaller and looked alien compared to the watermelons we find at our local markets. Take some time today and lookup Renaissance still life paintings, specifically of 17th-century artist Giovanni Stanchi. His still-life paintings exhibit watermelons prior to modern breeding and cultivation.
Watermelons in Florida
Watermelons are part of the cucurbit family, which also includes cantaloupe, honeydew, pumpkins, gourds, and squash. In Florida and Alachua County, watermelons are a major agricultural commodity. In 2017, Florida watermelon production accounts for 23% of US value with a $136 million value.
Florida’s environment is perfect for watermelon production too. Our climate allows producers to harvest watermelon during the summer and the winter. Florida is the only state that has the ability to produce watermelon from December to April.
Watermelons for the Garden
You do not need to be an agricultural expert to grow watermelons either. It’s a great fruit to grow in your home and you may explore different varieties like Sugar Baby, Mickeylee, Jubilee, Crimson Sweet, or Charleston Grey 133. Watermelons do require lots of space because their curly tendril vines spread across your landscape. Plant your happy watermelons 36 inches apart and in rows 7-8 feet apart- they can spread.
Environmental Conditions and Planting
Watermelons will do great in any soil type, as long as the soil drains well and they get plenty of sunlight. Plant timing is important too. Although we are now harvesting watermelons throughout the northern part of the state, you can plant watermelons in July and August. This is primarily due to temperature. Watermelons prefer temperatures between 70 and 85 degrees.
Common Watermelon Issues
Just like most plants, there are pest and disease concerns with watermelons. Gummy stem blight is a major disease for watermelons and other cucurbits. Although, you can buy seeds from reputable sources to help reduce the threat of blight in your watermelons.
But Seedless Watermelons? How?
But I know you still have a major question looming…how do they make seedless watermelons? Surprisingly it relates to specific breeding techniques and a plant-based chemical treatment called colchicine. Watermelons have a complete set of chromosomes (diploid, 22 chromosomes per cell). When treated with colchicine, watermelons double their chromosome count (tetraploid, 44 chromosomes per cell). Then breeders cross-pollinate a diploid and tetraploid watermelon to create triploid (33 chromosomes). The triploid seeds are sterile and do not produce seeds. Check out this additional info: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/mv152
A Very Important Note
Although it is wonderful not having to spit out seeds while eating our watermelon, seed spitting contests are still a necessity to the summertime nostalgia.