The first Watermelons of the season are in your CSA boxes this week.  Personal-sized seedless watermelons, aka “Seedless Minis” are now the only type we grow at Terra Firma.  They are a relatively new type of melon, but despite not having seeds, for us they suc-ceed better than any other.

Watermelons of all kinds — as well as other melons — grow incredibly well here in the Sacramento Valley.  They love the hot, dry summers as well as the deep, loamy soil we farm.  The soil has more clay in it and we get more winter rain than further south in the Central Valley, so most years that we don’t really need to irrigate the melons much.  They are vining plants that sprawl across the ground, creating a shady microclimate for their fruit while their deep roots pull moisture from several feet down.  Especially in summers like this one that are preceded by wet winters.

For years, the “biggest” problem growing watermelons for us at Terra Firma was fitting them into the CSA boxes.  Twenty years ago even the smallest so-called “Icebox” watermelons were 8-10 lbs.  Any time we included them in your CSA boxes, we had to use a larger box.  And despite their “small” size, many subscribers still found them to be more watermelon than they could eat.  In the early 2000s, we found two “personal size” hybrid watermelons — a yellow-fleshed one and a red, but the seed was hard to find and was not always available.  These melons were about the size of a large Cantelope or small Honeydew, about 3-5 lbs.

Seedless watermelons were first developed in the late 90s but started to become more common around 2010.  Maybe you’re wondering how it is possible to grow a crop that doesn’t make seeds?  It’s all a bit of a trick.  In a traditional watermelon, the seeds are fully formed by the time the flesh ripens.  With a seedless melon, the seeds form much later — well after the flesh has reached optimal ripeness.  If you look carefully at your melon, you will see small white “pips” — seed embryos.  Occasionally there will be a whole seed or two.  If we were growing the “seedless” watermelons in order to harvest their seed, we would leave the fruit in the field for much longer.  By the time the seeds are mature, the melon itself is entirely inedible.

All hybrid watermelon seed is expensive. But not surprisingly, the seedless varieties are even more expensive.  While they are not quite $1 per seed, they may as well be.  That’s because the seeds need nearly-ideal conditions to sprout and grow, so you have to have a specialized nursery grow the plants for you.  You also need to have a second, seeded variety growing in the field to cross-pollinate the seedless melons — otherwise they make no fruit.  Honeybees are critical in order to ensure that the otherwise-sterile flowers of the seedless variety receive pollen from the non-sterile pollinator variety.  And the pollinator variety has to be visually distinct from the seedless one, so that harvest crews don’t mix them up.

In 2015, one of our seed suppliers convinced me to try a new red watermelon, seedless and personal sized, that he promised would be a “game changer”.  I was skeptical, but I planted a small amount alongside our other watermelon varieties.  The contrast was dramatic — the seedless melon outperformed the seeded varieties in every way.  Not only were the plants big and vigorous, the yields high and the disease resistance better — they also consistently tasted as good or better than the seeded melons.  They also had better “field holding”, meaning that they didn’t like the seeded ones do turn to mush if you missed a day or two of harvest.  And they keep better after they are harvested.

Despite all the extra cost and added complications, growing seedless melons is easily justified by the tremendous amount of fruit they produce.  Unlike traditional seeded watermelons that produce a single set or cluster of fruit that ripen over a 7-10 day period, seedless watermelons have been bred to continue growing and producing fruit over a long season.  Some years we harvest a single field as many as 4 or 5 times, making them very appealing for smaller farms like ours.

One of the only problems with the seedless personal watermelon variety we’ve been growing is that it is a bit slow to mature.  That meant that even if we planted it in the early spring, it rarely would be ready to harvest by July 4th — indisputably the most important day of the year for watermelon consumption.  So for several years we continued growing seeded watermelons for the holiday.  But beginning last year, we added a second variety of seedless mini that is faster growing and earlier to ripen.  Those are the melons in your boxes today.

We are happy with our current Watermelon program, and hope you will be as well.  You can expect to see them in your boxes every week or two through mid-October.