Sweet watermelons

July 15, 2011 under CANR News

Delaware watermelon connoisseurs are enjoying the moment – local watermelons are now ripe and ready to enjoy. Local watermelons are sweeter and tastier than the out-of-state melons available earlier in the summer, claim their aficionados.

“Local watermelons do taste pretty sweet. And buying local produce when it’s in season helps to support our local growers,” notes Phillip Sylvester, agriculture agent for Kent County Cooperative Extension.

The state’s watermelon crop typically ripens by July 10 and continues through Sept. 25, with the most active harvest period in mid-August.  Delaware’s watermelon industry has declined slightly in recent years but is still strong.  There are more than 2,700 acres of watermelon in Delaware, down from 3,000 acres five years ago. Crop production is currently valued at $11 million annually.

Sylvester always plants watermelons in his home garden in Felton but the bulk of commercial growing takes place further south, in and around Laurel. The well-drained, sandy soils in western Sussex County are excellent for watermelon growing.

This area has been the seat of Delaware’s commercial melon industry since the 1850s, when schooners loaded with watermelon traveled the Nanticoke River to Baltimore and points beyond. More recently, the Laurel Farmers’ Auction Market opened in 1940 to bring wholesale watermelon buyers and sellers together. At one time the price of virtually every Delaware watermelon was negotiated at the Laurel Market. Today, supermarket chains send brokers directly to growers but the market is still used by small- and medium-sized buyers.

Sylvester grows “Crimson Sweet” watermelons because he says they have an exceptionally sweet taste. But this striped heirloom melon will never win any popularity contests, tasty as it might be, because of what some view as an unforgivable downfall – its seeds.

“I don’t care if a watermelon has seeds,” says Sylvester, “but most people do.”

In the 1990s, less than 1 percent of watermelons were seedless. Today, about 75 percent of the watermelons sold in the U.S. are seedless varieties. A seedless watermelon plant contains three sets of chromosomes and is sterile so it must be pollinated by a second plant to set fruit. As a result, growers must pay strict attention to the pollination needs of their seedless watermelon crops. Most growers rent or own honeybee hives but some have started to use bumblebees. UD bee researcher Debbie Delaney and Cooperative Extension fruit and vegetable specialist Gordon Johnson are working with watermelon growers this summer to see if bumblebees improve crop productivity.

Kate Everts also is conducting watermelon research but her projects focus on combating Fusarium wilt. This pestilent pathogen causes one of the most economically significant watermelon diseases worldwide. It causes wilt and plant death early in the season and again when the plant is in fruit. Once a field exhibits severe Fusarium wilt, it’s off limits for watermelon growing for 15 or more years.

Everts, who holds a joint appointment at the University of Delaware and the University of Delaware, collaborates closely with Extension specialists Emmalea Earnest and Gordon Johnson. Her research team focuses on several areas: they’re developing plants resistant to Fusarium wilt, exploring chemical disease measures, and looking at how cover crops can suppress this nasty fungus.

Sylvester is diligent about helping commercial growers obtain maximum yields but when it comes to his own watermelon plot, he adopts a laidback attitude. Though the ag agent know his way around a garden, sometimes pests or weather get the best of his watermelons. Every spring he tells himself “maybe we’ll have watermelons, maybe we won’t.”

However, this summer he hopes for a bumper crop because his 1 1/2-year-old son, Henry, shows a liking for watermelon. What could be better than a “Crimson Sweet,” grown in the backyard by Dad?

Article by Margo McDonough

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