Watermelons: Summer at Its Finest
Summertime is a season that fills all of our senses. When thinking of summer, I picture beautiful evenings sitting out on the porch, listening to cicadas, while soaking up the last rays of the day. I can often smell the chlorine still in my hair and the suntan lotion on my skin. Although the one thing that brings to mind summer most of all, is the sweet juicy taste of fresh cut watermelon. For everything that is a part of summer, from county fairs to summer picnics, watermelon is a woven into each of them. The watermelon with its unique sweetness and beautiful, bright interior, dotted with little seeds, all held together with a deep green rind, is the ideal fruit of summer and has no equal.
How Sweet It Is…or Isn’t
While it may be common for many of us around the world today to eat watermelon, we aren’t the first to enjoy its beneficial offerings. The watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) is a member of the Cucurbitaceae (cucumber) family and has been documented as being consumed over 5,000 years ago in Libya and depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics over 4,000 years ago. The first watermelons, thought to have originated in Africa, were not the sweet fruits, with bright tender flesh, that they are today. They were typically bitter, tough, and had yellowish flesh. However, the first watermelons were not sought after for their taste, but instead for their capacity to supply water. This was needed in arid regions, especially for travelers. Soon though, through some creative cultivation, those growing the watermelon were able to breed a sweeter variety. Today we have over 1,200 varieties of watermelon, with variances in sweetness and color of flesh, including pink, yellow, orange, and white.
Grow Your Own
If you feel the need to work on your cultivation skills, the watermelon is a fun fruit to try. When growing watermelons, it is ideal to plant them when soil temperatures are above 70 degrees. You can start watermelon seeds indoors; however, watermelons are sensitive to being transplanted, so sowing seeds directly in your garden is best. Be sure to plant in an area that receives full sun. Before planting prepare your garden with organic compost or rotted manure to ensure there will be enough nitrogen for the watermelons to grow well and to establish a preferred pH of 6-6.5. To learn more about composting, click here: http://permaculturenews.org/2017/01/12/small-scale-composting/
As you plant the watermelons, sow 2-3 seeds in small mounds 3-5’ apart, as these viney wanderers need roving room. Since watermelons are 92% water they need a lot of water to grow and produce. However, be sure to water evenly and don’t overhead water. Instead, use drip hoses to minimize the risk of spreading fungal disease. You can use mulch to retain soil moisture and as way to keep weeds from taking over your garden. To learn to grow your own mulch, click here: http://permaculturenews.org/2016/12/01/how-to-grow-your-own-mulch/
As your watermelons start to flower, you will see both male and female flowers. Male flowers will fall off, and female flowers, noted by the small bulge of fruit growing, will develop into your watermelons. Once watermelons are growing on the vine, keep them off the direct ground by placing straw underneath them. This will help protect them from rotting. You can cover watermelons with small wired cages or mesh baskets to keep unwanted animals from eating up your hard work. If you find squash bugs have invaded your garden, it’s best to avoid pesticides and just manually remove these little critters. Also, work to keep your garden nice and tidy and this will help prevent these unwanted pests.
After 35-50 days, the watermelons will be ready to harvest. A ripe watermelon will sound hollow when thumped and will have a yellowish patch on the underside where it has been resting in the garden. The rind of the watermelon will have also turned from a bright green to a duller shade. Once you pick your watermelons you can keep them unrefrigerated (and uncut) for 2-3 weeks.
Plethora of Benefits
The benefits of watermelon go beyond its taste and the ability to add water to our diets. One cup (152 grams) of diced watermelon flesh gives us 46 calories, no fat, 1 gram of protein, and 11 grams of carbohydrates (1 gram of which is dietary fiber). The flesh is an excellent source of vitamins A and C, and a good source of potassium. It also offers us a little iron, calcium, and some of each of the B vitamins (except B-12). Watermelons also contain the phytonutrients beta-carotene and lycopene which help prevent inflammation and cancer development. The rind of the watermelon also has some great benefits. Most notably it contains the amino acid citrulline. Citrulline, which converts to the amino acid arginine, enhances nitric oxide, therefore improving blood flow and cardiovascular health.
Sweet Taste of Summer
Now that your little piece of summer has grown and been picked, you can enjoy it in so many ways. My favorite way to enjoy it is to simply cut the watermelon into thick juicy wedges and eat them out on the porch in the cool night air. However, if you are feeling adventurous there are so many recipes you can try. Below is a recipe that fits with any summertime meal.
Watermelon Mint Feta Summer Salad
1 medium sized watermelon cut from the rind* and very coarsely chopped
1 medium red onion coarsely chopped
1 cup torn mint leaves
8 oz crumbled feta cheese
½ cup olive oil
Juice from 2 lemons
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Combined all ingredients in a large bowl and stir together. Chill for an hour before serving. Add more or less of each ingredient to create your own unique summer salad.
*Don’t toss the rind. As mentioned before it has nutritional value and can be used in a variety of recipes. When eating the rind, most people eat the white portion, but all can be consumed especially if pickled. You can also cut the rind up (mainly the white portion) and sauté in olive oil with salt and pepper. For additional flavor add in cilantro, crushed red pepper flakes, turmeric, ginger, or whatever herbs and spices sound good. The rind can also be added to soups and stews along with other vegetables.
Even the seeds of the watermelon are edible. However, it’s best to sprout, shell, and dry them before consuming. Doing this will make the nutrients more bioavailable and improve the taste and texture. They’re a great addition to stir-fries and salads, including your Watermelon Mint Feta Summer Salad or even great for tossing in with your sautéed rinds. They will add 8 grams of protein/ounce and are good sources of magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, and manganese.
Enjoy Your Summer!
The watermelon is an unmistakable and delicious symbol of summer. It offers hydration, nutrition, and culinary utility. When readying your garden for the next planting season, be sure to create an area for these beauties, so you can enjoy the fresh taste of summer in your own backyard.
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