Watermelons are the quintessential summer fruit. Simply smelling one can conjure up images of hot pool days and backyard barbecues. Their sweet and abundant flesh make them perfect for a stand-alone dish, or in salads, drinks, or charcuterie board.
But what does it take to bring that perfect melon from the farm to your table? And can you replicate it in your own gardens?
“Melons like hot days and cool nights,” said Chris Dunham, owner of Dunham Farms in Green River, Utah. “That’s what makes them sweet, so the best place to grow them is in the desert where there are large temperature swings.”
Green River has become famous for its melons, and they may make it look easy, but watermelons can be difficult to grow.
“Watermelons like the heat and sandy soils, but they don’t like Utah’s cold springs, so there is a tight window to plant and harvest them,” said Matt Peterson, a 5th generation watermelon and produce farmer in Taylor, Utah (west of Ogden).
Watermelons are susceptible to normal diseases and pests, like wilt or mildew, and can be quite temperamental to over or under-watering.
“I enjoy the challenge though,” Dunham said. “Farming has always been a challenge, some years are better than others. My dad started this farm over 50 years ago. We originally grew beef and alfalfa before we switched to melons.”
Peterson also recognizes the difficulties of growing watermelons.
“My grandfather sold watermelons door-to-door during the depression for a nickel, and my family has been growing them ever since, but we had a hard transition in the early 2000s when we switched most of our watermelon production to seedless watermelon," Peterson said. "They are less vigorous than seeded and more temperamental.”
There are multiple types of watermelon, the most popular being varieties that are large with red flesh, like Crimson Sweet. But many other varieties grow well in Utah, including some with yellow flesh like Yellow Baby and Golden Crown, and smaller, “personal” melons. Different varieties can be seedless or seeded.
“I think seeded have a better taste,” Peterson said. “And they are easier to grow.”
Dunham also recognizes the debate between seedless and seeded watermelon lovers.
“I think it comes down to personal preference,” Dunham said. “Lovers of seeded watermelons say they have more flavor, but seedless varieties have been improved over the years to increase their sugar content so they can compete with the flavor of the seeded.”
Growing Watermelons at Home
You can grow your own watermelons in a home garden, but be patient, it may take a few years to get right. According to Utah State University Extension, Watermelons grow best in sunny locations and fertile, well-drained soil.
Surprisingly, even though watermelon’s water content is 92%, they don’t take any more water to grow than other popular Utah crops, like alfalfa or corn.
“The biggest mistake I see home gardeners make with watermelons is actually overwatering them,” said Peterson. “The symptoms of over and under watering look similar, so it can be confusing, but watermelons like to have their ‘feet’ dry, so they need a really good watering and then a period to dry down.”
Jude Peterson enjoys watermelon on his family's farm in Weber County.Only plant watermelons after the soil has reached 65 degrees. Peterson plants his starts on or after Mother’s Day. Watermelons should be harvested once the tendril (the curled up bit of vine emerging from the stem) is dry, the ground spot is yellow, and the skin is dull. Good varieties to grow in Utah are Crimson Sweet, MickyLee, and Yellow Baby.
“We’ve also had good success with ‘Black Diamond’ watermelons,” said Peterson. “They are a seedless variety that has a deep green rind and a crisp red flesh.”
If you don’t find success growing your own, we can always thank farmers like Dunham and Peterson for supplying our grocery stores with local watermelon so we can all enjoy the crisp, sweet, summer fruit. It takes a lot of work and knowledge to produce the perfect melon.
“I never thought I would come back to the farm,” said Peterson. “But I really love it. It’s hard, but I love it.”