There is evidence that watermelon originated in the Kalahari Desert of Africa. There are 5,000-year-old Egyptian hieroglyphics that depict watermelon harvests, and remains of melons were found in the burial tombs of kings to nourish them in the afterlife. By the 10th century, watermelon found its way to China, which is now the world’s No. 1 producer. It’s believed that it was brought to America’s shores by Africans on slave ships. It thrived here as a crop, and early American explorers even used dried watermelon hulls as canteens. The largest recorded watermelon was grown in Arkansas in 2005, weighing in at 268.8 pounds. (There is no record of how it was served or how it tasted.) In the U.S., 44 states commercially grow watermelon, and Georgia is one of the most productive.
Botanically, watermelon is cousin to cucumbers, pumpkins and squash. Its composition is 92 percent water, hence the common name. About 200 to 300 varieties are grown commercially in the U.S. and Mexico; about 50 varieties are regionally popular here in the South. They’ve been bred into hybrids that are seeded, seedless, mini, and yellow and orange, and you can find seeds for planting any of these at local garden stores or online.
To plant or to buy? That is the question. If you have a very large garden you can grow watermelon. Seeds or plants should be placed 4 to 6 feet apart in early spring, about two weeks after the last frost, so plants have plenty of room to spread. Even smaller melon varieties need as much space, and vines may grow as much as 6 to 8 feet in a month. If you don’t have that kind of room, you might try to plant just a few seeds for fun in a part of your garden where the melon vine can trail along the side, being sure there’s enough room for melons to enlarge as needed. Honeybees must pollinate the yellow melon blossoms. First melons appear within 60 days and are ready to harvest within three months — a long growing season, and worth waiting for.
That said, most of us will buy our melons at farmers markets or supermarkets. Select melons that look firm and are free of bruises, cuts or dents. The melon should feel heavy for its size due to its high water content. Finally, the underside of the melon should have a creamy yellow spot from where it sat on the ground and ripened in the sun. In season, the majority of Georgia watermelons will come from Crisp County, the No. 4 growing county in the United States, and known as the Watermelon Capital of the World due to the quantity and quality of watermelons grown there. Cordele’s Farmers Market in Crisp County (right off Interstate 75, about three hours south of Cherokee County, if you’re thinking of going) is a major shipping point and shopping destination for seekers of fresh watermelons and all kinds of produce.
At Cordele and other local markets, you may find the Yellow Crimson variety of melons, which has yellow instead of crimson flesh, and it’s sweeter and honey flavored. Orangeglo has very sweet orange flesh with light green rind with dark green stripes. There are many smaller “personal” melon varieties with flesh that ranges from red to dark purple. If you’re a watermelon connoisseur, search these out any of these, as there are no watermelons you won’t enjoy.
If you can’t make it to Cordele, the best type of watermelon you can buy is the one that’s either in a truck at the side of the road, at your local farmers market, or in a bin at your local supermarket. Take your melon home and, when you’re ready to have at it, wash and dry the melon, then quarter it. Remove the rind and either save it for pickling or compost it. Then slice or cube the flesh and refrigerate any remaining melon. It will stay fresh for several days, and you’re more likely to eat it if it’s pre-cut and ready for recipes or snacking.
Information about Extension Solutions for Homes and Gardens can be found on the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension website at www.caes.uga.edu/extension/cherokee or by contacting the Cherokee County Extension Office at 100 North St., Suite G21 in Canton at (770) 479-0418. The Georgia Extension Master Gardener Program is a volunteer training program offered through county offices of the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.