Heirloom Watermelons – Size vs Flavor

Fearing Burr had this to say about Watermelons in his 1863 book Field and Garden Vegetables of America:

“The Watermelon is more vigorous in its habit than the Muskmelon, and requires more space for cultivation; the hills being usually made eight feet apart in each direction. It is less liable to injury from insects, and the crop is consequently much more certain. The seed should not be planted till May, or before established warm weather; and but two good plants allowed to a hill.”

We have had the opportunity to taste several of the watermelons that we offer at our grower’s farm, including the smaller Katanya Watermelon and the much larger Klondike Striped Watermelon. Did you know that watermelon seeds are fully mature when the melons are ripe, so seed harvesting and eating can go hand in hand? This is unusual in fruit, as the seeds normally mature only after the fruit has become overripe and inedible.

The Katanya, Sugar Baby, and Golden Midget watermelon are very popular choices because they are smaller in size and can be eaten readily in a couple of meals. They also take up less room than larger watermelons in the garden while growing and in the refrigerator. The Klondike Striped and Moon and Stars are much larger – coming in as big as 35lbs under certain growing conditions. These are perfect for parties and large gatherings but may be too much melon for a small family, a smaller garden or in a community garden plot.

During our tastings we learned that the larger melons actually have a much more pronounced “watermelon” flavor. Sweeter, richer and with a fuller body, larger melons have a flavor that lasts longer on the tongue. In comparison, the smaller melons had a milder, less noticeable or intense flavor. Not to say that the smaller melons didn’t taste good or have a pleasing flavor, they just weren’t as rich or complex in flavor as the larger ones.

For the absolute best flavor, grow your own watermelons and let them completely ripen on the vine. Watermelons don’t ripen or get any sweeter once picked – what you pick is what you get, thus the bland, underwhelming supermarket melons. Some watermelons, like the Golden Midget, will turn yellow all over as the fruit ripens but most will show the ripeness by the foliage starting to turn yellow and the stem starts to curl. Most will start to show some yellowing where the melon rests on the ground, changing from a greenish white or straw yellow to a richer, creamy yellow. The top rind will change from a bright to a dull green. In areas where the soil is naturally moist, it is a good idea to put straw or cardboard under the watermelon to prevent it from rotting where it contacts the ground.

The ripening process takes about two weeks, so as soon as one melon is ripe the others won’t be far behind! To increase the flavor as the melons ripen, reduce the amount of water to just enough to keep the vines from wilting. This will concentrate the sugars in the watermelons, intensifying the sweetness and flavors. Over-watering will dilute those sugars and flavors, much the same as with tomatoes.

Watermelons have experienced large amounts of hybridization over the years for the commercial market – how else do you think we got to the seedless watermelon? As with many of the commercial hybrid fruits, flavor has taken a backseat to breeding for even ripening, tolerance to shipping and repeated handling. For proof, just think of the juicy yet watery and bland tasting watermelon your family had from the supermarket last summer. Once again, heirloom varieties with their flavor trump the mass-produced cheap tasting commercial offerings.

The smaller watermelons were bred most likely from their larger relatives. The smaller melons have a great flavor, but maybe this summer try growing a large variety and a smaller variety and taste them yourself. Watermelons are the fruit of summertime; why not give them a try? If you grow some larger watermelons you’ll have a great reason to have a summer barbeque and celebrate the bounty of your garden.

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