It’s been Watermelon Central around here. Through a sponsorship gig with the National Watermelon Promotion Board, I’ve done recipes for salads, drinks, fruit pops and appetizers, tips on how to pick and cut watermelon, and even experiments such as how to cook with watermelon (in a spicy beef stir-fry) and what happens if you boil it down.
But city girl that I am, I had never seen a watermelon growing until I went to a watermelon farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland a few weeks ago. You know it’s going to be an adventure when I go to a farm:)
My hosts were farmers Danny, Ellen and Christopher Magee; Brenda Baker-Mack, a member of the board of directors of the Watermelon Promotion Board; and Gordon Hunt the Board’s VP for Marketing and Communications.
The Magees met us at one of their fields, 45-50 acre plot, roughly half of the acreage they now use to grow watermelons. They grow other crops too, including corn, strawberries, and soybeans, but hope to expand the acreage they set aside for watermelons next year. Watermelons are labor-intensive to grow and bad weather or crop damage can decimate an entire harvest, but the Magees clearly know what they are doing. The family has been farming since 1865 – Christopher is part of the family’s fifth generation to farm.
My hosts patiently answered my questions, ranging from the obvious to the obscure. Here are a few highlights.
Where Did All Those Seeded Watermelons Go?
In the summertime, as kids, we used to enjoy spitting watermelon seeds. Now when I go grocery shopping, I buy seedless melons. In fact, seeded watermelons are a rarity where I live (in Washington DC) and I doubt that you could find many kids in this area who know the joys of seeing how far they can make a seed go.
Seedless varieties, which were developed about 50 years ago, became commercially available about 10-15 years ago. Easier to store than their larger seeded cousins, and with no pesky seeds to ferret out when you cut them, seedless varieties are now much more popular than seeded watermelons.
Seeded and Seedless Watermelons Grow Side-by-Side. Why Grow Seeded If They Won’t Sell?
The answer is simple – seeded watermelons are needed to grow the seedless ones. Seedless melons are sterile and must be cross-pollinated with seeded melons grown in the same field.
How Do Watermelons Grow?
Cue the eye-rolling – how does a woman with 2 grown kids and a graduate degree not know the “birds and the bees” chapter on watermelon? I don’t have a good answer, but I do have some fascinating watermelon pictures and a few tidbits that were news to me.
Watermelon flowers are pretty and baby watermelons are adorable.
In order to propagate, watermelons need to be insect pollinated, by bees carrying the pollen from one watermelon flower to another. There is currently a terrible plague afflicting pollinating bees. As whole bee colonies die off, they aren’t around to pollinate the watermelons. I had previously heard of the mysterious death of bees across the US, but I hadn’t realized how it affects crops like watermelon.
What Happens to the Seeded Watermelons If Consumers Prefer Seedless?
Some do make it to market. (In my experience, the seeded type is a much better deal pound-for-pound.) But the farmer Danny Magee said that they can’t even sell their seeded crop because consumers have such a strong preference for the seedless varieties. He and his family donate their seeded watermelons to the local foodbank instead of throwing them away. The Magee family has farmed since 1865 – Christopher is the fifth generation – an they care aobut their community, as well as the land they till.
How Are Watermelons Harvested?
Watermelons have to be hand-picked. Unlike corn or other crops that grow uniformly if they are planted at the same time and can be machine-harvested with a combine, watermelons ripen on their own “personal timetable” and have to be individually detached from the vine on which they grow.
What’s the Best Way to Pick a Watermelon at the Store?
- When choosing between several melons, pick the one that is heaviest for its size, free of bruises and dents.
- Look for a creamy yellow patch on the melon’s exterior, indicating that it is sun-ripened.
- Yes, there is the “thumping test” (ripe watermelons are supposed to sound different from ones that are not quite as ripe), but because I don’t have a sound clip for you and I can’t explain the difference in the sounds, I’ll leave that tip out.
How Should You Store Watermelon?
- If it is chilly when you buy it, store the watermelon in the refrigerator.
- On the other hand, if it is at room temperature at the store or market, then leave it in a cool, dry place, unrefrigerated.
- Once you cut into the watermelon, store the remainder in the refrigerator, with the cut side covered in plastic wrap.
Watermelon Every Which Way
Shortly after that adventure, I traveled to the 30th Annual Carytown Watermelon Festival in Richmond, Virginia. What a lively and fun street fair!
It was truly watermelon-mania, with people:
Serving watermelon (raising money for charity)
Selling food with watermelon themes
Using watermelon in rather unusual ways (essence of watermelon in soap that smells pleasantly sweet and just vaguely watermelon)
Selling watermelon-themed just-about-anything-you-could-imagine, from adorable jewelry to somewhat more exotic items.
Can you guess what the items are in first picture below? (Hint – they are for dogs.)
Using watermelon for laughs
And even dressing in watermelon style.
What’s your favorite way to show some watermelon love? Let us know how you show the love by leaving a comment below. I’ll randomly choose a commenter to receive one of the cute watermelon soaps pictured above from Naokeidoe Creations. Open only to US residents.
PS – The soap-seller (and creator), Dorenda Coger, is pictured above with her son, Keith Johnson, the creator of the bowties. Once I figured that out, I couldn’t resist asking them to pose together.
Disclosure – This post is part of a series sponsored by the National Watermelon Promotion Board. The Board compensated me to write about watermelon, but did not dictate or review the content. All opinions expressed and editorial decisions are completely my own.