A crisp wedge of watermelon rounds off a summer plate like nothing else — and it’s also a work of art. Flecked with seeds, the rosy flesh is surrounded by a green rind, which can be served pickled or stewed — or, more often, simply thrown in the compost pile. At 91 percent water, the fruit is an excellent complement to a juicy burger or succulent rack of ribs.
Watermelon has been refreshing the human palate for centuries. Originating in southern Africa, where it still grows wild, remnants of the fruit have been found at the tomb of King Tut and in ancient India and China, now the world’s leading producer. Spanish settlers were growing watermelon in Florida by the late 1500s, and now the fruit is grown in 44 U.S. states.
Here in Wisconsin, where the growing season is famously short, certain cultivars thrive. Watermelon requires 100 days from planting to produce mature fruit, and growing conditions need to be right. According to Kelly Berg, former Door County resident and founder of the Growing Collective in Stevens Point, Sugar Baby, Sweet Dakota Rose and white-fleshed Cream of Saskatchewan are popular varieties.
Here are a few growing tips for those who have the space and the stamina to nurture their own watermelon patch.
- Melon seeds live for more than 10 years with proper storage.
- Use liberal amounts of compost or aged manure in each hill for planting.
- A cold start can permanently stunt a melon’s growth. Be patient and wait for a warm spell after all danger of frost has passed to plant your seeds.
- Keep well watered.
“Harvesting watermelon is an art,” said Berg. “When you thump your melon, it should make a low hollow sound.” Another good indicator is the “ground spot,” the part of the fruit that touches the soil. When it changes from white to creamy yellow, the melon is ready to be picked.
Whether you grow your own melons or find them at the farmers’ market or grocery store, there are many ways to use up the ample amount of fruit — the average watermelon weighs 20 pounds at harvest.
Smoothies, salads and even grilled kabobs are great ways to make the most of your melon. For those embracing a gluten-free diet, try a watermelon sandwich: fresh mozzarella, herbs and sweet pickles sandwiched between two rindless slices of watermelon and secured with a skewer.
Watermelon, Feta and Mint Salad
6 cups watermelon, cubed
4 oz feta cheese, crumbled
1 cup fresh mint, roughly chopped
juice of one lime
1 cup arugula leaves (optional)
Toss ingredients in a large bowl and serve immediately.
Watermelon Basil Sorbet
8 – 10 cups watermelon, cubed
1 cup Greek yogurt
¼ cup basil simple syrup*
Place cubes of watermelon in sealable bag or on a baking sheet in freezer for four hours or until well frozen. Working in batches, puree in blender or food processor until smooth. Combine watermelon puree with Greek yogurt and simple syrup. Place puree in baking dish and freeze for one to two hours more. Scoop and serve garnished with a sprig of basil.
*Basil Simple Syrup
½ cup sugar
½ cup water
½ cup fresh basil leaves
Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan and boil until sugar is dissolved. Steep basil leaves in liquid until cooled. Strain, and pour into a glass jar. Simple syrup will keep for a week in the refrigerator.