It’s juicy, it’s re­fresh­ing and it’s one of the great de­lights on a hot day. PHIL DUD­MAN ex­plains how to grow your own wa­ter­melon, even when you don’t have masses of space

Gardening Australia - - CONTENTS -

There are few ex­pe­ri­ences that are more sat­is­fy­ing than sink­ing one’s face deep into a big chunk of sweet, juicy wa­ter­melon on a hot sum­mer’s day. If it’s a wa­ter­melon you’ve grown your­self, the sat­is­fac­tion level goes right off the scale!

This guar­an­tee of grat­i­fi­ca­tion is what I used to spark my youngest son’s in­ter­est in grow­ing food. When he was in pri­mary school, we planted some seed to­gether in our gar­den, then pol­li­nated the flow­ers by hand and nur­tured the vine right through to har­vest. Every day af­ter school he ran out into the gar­den to check on its progress. I can still re­call his ex­pres­sion of unadul­ter­ated joy as we cracked the first one open.

An­other great thing about grow­ing wa­ter­mel­ons is the in­ter­est­ing range of va­ri­eties avail­able. You may be think­ing, “I don’t have enough space in my gar­den for a wa­ter­melon vine.” Well, the good news is, there are some com­pact va­ri­eties, and with a lit­tle train­ing, you can con­tain a vine in a 2–3m² space or grow one up a trel­lis.

grow­ing & har­vest­ing

Wa­ter­mel­ons need 3–4 months of warm to hot con­di­tions to pro­duce a crop. Oc­to­ber is ideal for sow­ing and plant­ing in most ar­eas, ex­cept for the trop­ics (sow April to July, so crops ma­ture be­fore the wet be­gins). If you’re in a cold area where the sea­son is short, con­sider grow­ing early-crop­ping va­ri­eties. Try get­ting seeds started this month in small pots in a warm, sunny spot, or buy seedlings to plant out in Novem­ber, when the soil warms.

Lots of sun is needed, and a well-drained soil en­riched with plenty of com­post and well-rot­ted ma­nure, plus a lit­tle or­ganic fer­tiliser. A pH of 6–7 is ideal. If yours is be­low 6, add some lime. Lime also sup­plies cal­cium re­quired for fruit de­vel­op­ment. If your pH is within range, add gyp­sum for cal­cium.

Cre­ate a raised mound of soil to as­sist drainage, then shape a shal­low de­pres­sion at the top to catch and di­rect water. Space the cen­tre of the mounds 1.5–2m apart. Di­rect sow­ing is best. Plant 3–4 seeds at a depth of 2–3cm in each mound, then pick out the weak­est seedlings, al­low­ing the strong­est one to grow. If you’re plant­ing seedlings, be gen­tle be­cause they dis­like root dis­tur­bance.

De­vel­op­ing vines need plenty of mois­ture, but you can back off as fruits reach ma­tu­rity. Mulch around the base to con­serve mois­ture. Once vines start to creep along the ground, give a light ap­pli­ca­tion of or­ganic fer­tiliser. Re­peat when fruits start form­ing.

Get to know the dif­fer­ence be­tween male and fe­male flow­ers. The fe­male ones have a tiny fruit at their base. If you see fe­male flow­ers but the

fruit aren’t form­ing, it means they aren’t get­ting pol­li­nated. If this hap­pens, you can pol­li­nate them your­self by sim­ply pick­ing some male flow­ers and dab­bing their pollen onto the fe­male flow­ers.

I used to al­low vines to ram­ble in among young shrubs in new gar­den beds. I’ve also con­tained a vine in a 3m x 1.2m vegie bed by pinch­ing out a few of the tips and redi­rect­ing any rogue run­ners so they stay in their al­lot­ted space. My favourite space-sav­ing method is train­ing vines over an A-frame of heavy-duty steel mesh. This works bril­liantly as long as you pro­vide some sort of sup­port for the heavy fruit, such as a length of fab­ric tied to the frame. Check out the video on our Face­book page to see how I do it (face­book. com/ABCGar­den­ingAus­tralia­magazine).

There are a few meth­ods to de­ter­mine when a wa­ter­melon is ripe, in­clud­ing check­ing the un­der­side, which should be cream or yel­low in colour, and tap­ping it – it should make a hol­low sound. I find the most re­li­able in­di­ca­tor is the tiny ten­dril near the fruit. When this is to­tally brown and dried up, the wa­ter­melon is ready to eat.

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