According to the Chinese calendar, 2013 is the Year of the Snake. According to the National Garden Bureau, it's the Year of the Watermelon. Since all of us here at HGTVGardens prefer to celebrate deliciously juicy fruit over slithering creatures, we're going with the NGB on this one.
Their research shows that watermelons are one of the largest edible fruits grown in the United States. Originating approximately 5,000 years ago in Africa's Kalahari desert, the popularity of watermelons spread to Egypt, where they were buried with kings for a potential post-death snack. One of the biggest selling points of watermelon is their versatility: Every part is edible. During the Civil War they were even boiled to make molasses.
"Over the past few years, we've seen a lot of new watermelon varieties that have been bred to have shorter vines for today's smaller gardens, or smaller fruits perfect for two or three people," says Diane Blazek, executive director of the National Garden Bureau. "We thought it was time to highlight those new features."
Blazek says watermelons can be grown on an apartment balcony, as long as there's a support structure in place. "Just pick a large enough container—at least 18 inches or big enough to hold 5 gallons of potting mix—and plan to trellis the vines to grow up. This means you'll need to provide support for the growing fruits so they don't break off the vines."
Like any other kind of gardening, Blazek says regular watering and weeding is key, and watermelons do best in soil mixed with compost that is at least 70 degrees. But the most important part of a successful watermelon crop is choosing the right variety. Here are a few of Blazek's favorites:
Harvest Moon – "A hybridized version of the heirloom 'Moon and Stars,' Harvest Moon is seedless, has shorter vines, better taste and texture," Blazek says.
Yellow Baby – This novelty melon has sweet yellow flesh and matures early, usually in 70-75 days.
Congo – Blazek says this melon is one of the top varieties for people who want "that whopper 30-35 pound melon to feed the entire family reunion!"
Sugar Baby – A favorite for small-scale gardening, these fit nicely in the refrigerator and grow to be 6-10 pounds.
Watermelons are great right out of the ground—just pick, slice and serve. Or dress it up in this salad created by Jimmy Bradley, chef/owner of The Red Cat in New York City.
Cucumber, Watermelon and Fennel Salad
- 1 pound watermelon, rind removed, cut into wedges
- 5 medium cucumbers
- 1/2 bulb fennel, trimmed, very thinly sliced crosswise, ideally on mandoline
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 3 ounces ricotta salata, crumbled
- 1 tablespoon sliced parsley
Put cucumber and fennel slices in a bowl. Add the lemon juice and oil, season with salt and pepper and toss the salad well.
Pile the mixture in the center of each of the four plates. Top each one with crumbled cheese and scatter parsley over the top.
Set a watermelon wedge on both sides of each salad and serve.