Watermelons and Muskmelons are two of our most important summer crops here at Terra Firma. Both crops like hot weather more than anything else we grow; the hotter it gets, the bigger and more lush the plants get, and the better the melons taste.
Our muskmelon season is fairly short, primarily late July and August. And while we grow several varieties — cantelopes, orange honeydew, Galia and Piel de Sapo — you will likely see some of them just a single time in your box. I will talk more about those in a later newsletter.
Watermelon season is much longer, generally running from late June until October. In order to better serve our CSA customers, we have always focused on growing varieties of watermelon with relatively small fruit. That led us to try out seedless, “personal” size melons not long after they were first introduced. They are now the majority of what we grow.
How is it possible to grow a plant from a fruit that doesn’t have seeds? Well, seedless watermelon actually do produce seeds, they just take much longer to mature than the seeds of other melons. When the melon is ready to harvest, those seeds are just tiny white embryos — “pips” — that are flavorless, edible, and relatively few in number.
But the seeds that the melons do produce if left to mature completely are much fewer than an old school watermelon. As a result, they are comparably very expensive. To protect their investment in the seed, most watermelon farmers grow the fruit from transplants.
Seedless watermelons are pollinated by bees, and require a second, seeded variety nearby. We plant those intermixed with the seedless ones, making sure to use a variety that is visually distinct so we know which is which. Some of those varieties produce edible fruit with seeds that you may see in your box from time to time; others do not.
At Terra Firma, we do 5 plantings of seedless watermelons. Each of those fields produces at least two and sometimes three relatively concentrated harvests. Like with tomatoes, these “flushes” tend to start during or after a hot spell and then slow down once the weather cools off. Sometimes we are harvesting three fields at a time, followed by 5-10 days when we harvest little or no watermelon.
Unlike other types of melons, watermelons do not ripen off the vine, so knowing how to harvest them is critical. Ripe fruits are not easy to identify by sight or smell like Cantelopes or Honeydew. Harvesters have to pick them up to check for the right “heaviness”. Sometimes ripe fruit has a light colored “ground spot” on the bottom, but not always.
As a result, watermelon harvest is tricky and requires lots of “fruit testing”, which essentially means smashing or cutting lots of fruit to make sure you’re picking good ones. We only have a few staff that are allowed to select the ripe melons, which they leave in small piles for a larger crew to pick up and place on the belt that takes them to bins pulled behind a tractor.
Perhaps not surprisingly, watermelons produce more weight of fruit per acre than any other crop we grow. But despite what you might think, they don’t take more water to produce than other summer crops. That’s partially thanks to the dense canopy of vines they create to shade the fruit, which covers the ground entirely and makes its own microclimate underneath.
We had a slow, hesitant start to melon season this year (and last year as well) due to the cool weather in June. This not only slowed the ripening of the earlier plantings, but retarded the growth of the later fields. So we had a week of watermelon harvest right after the hot July 4th weekend, and then a long period during which no melons of any kind ripened.
The season is in full swing now, and you’ll see alternating watermelons and melons in your boxes every week or so, depending on which box size you get.