How do watermelons grow?
There's nothing quite like biting into a juicy slice of watermelon at an afternoon picnic or barbecue. They're truly one of summer's best gifts. But do you know how watermelons arrive at your local grocery store?
It's a long, delicious journey...
Fast Facts About Watermelon
Watermelons are traditionally grown in warm weather climates and have been around a very long time. They were originally cultivated in West Africa, and, over 3,000 years ago, they were recorded in Egyptian hieroglyphics.
And while most people think watermelons are fruit, they're actually vegetables, descended from the cucumber family.
Although there are many types of watermelon, some are more common than others. In the U.S., for example, seeded, seedless and mini are the most popular grown today. Seedless watermelons were developed through hybridization—the process of breeding two different plants—and became very popular with consumers. Today, approximately 90 percent of the crop is seedless to meet demand.
Until about 50 years ago, traditional seeded melons were the most popular variety grown and what you'd find in most supermarkets and farmers' markets.
Where Is Watermelon Grown?
There are over 1,200 varieties of watermelon grown across nearly 100 countries around the world. China produces most of the world's watermelon, with the U.S. coming in as the seventh largest grower.
In the U.S., Georgia, Florida, California and Texas account for nearly 70 percent of U.S. production, growing about 40 million pounds each year.
Even all those pounds of watermelon can't keep up with American demand. Millions of additional pounds are imported from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras each year, especially early in the season before the crop is ready in the U.S.
Farm to Table
When it comes to growing watermelon, it's an intensive process.
For most farms, melons start as a seedling in a greenhouse during the late winter. Watermelons are sensitive to water. So rows are pre-prepped with irrigation lines and plastic to ensure no extra water gets in before seedlings are planted.
Once the early spring comes—anywhere from February to April, depending on the location—seedlings are planted through holes in the plastic in the rows, about 10 feet apart.
Each week, during the growing season, farmers go out and inspect their rows, cutting samples from the plants and the soil. Then they make adjustments on how much water or fertilizer is needed.
About a month into the growing process, those seedlings will have become long vines about three to six feet long with flowering blooms. Here's when another vital part of the growing process, honeybees, come into the picture. Bees are crucial for the growing process because they pollinate the flowering blooms that become watermelons. If the blooms aren't pollinated, no watermelon will grow. Many watermelon farmers will also have hives of bees on their farm to help assist in pollination.
From there, it's watching and waiting for the next two months. In the U.S., peak watermelon production is in June, however you can also find melons during the growing season which runs from April to September. Once the winter comes, however, watermelons come from Mexico as well as Central and South American farms.
Watermelons are harvested by hand. For farmers and pickers, there's a real science to knowing when a watermelon is ripe by just looking at it. The best watermelons are free from bruises, cuts and dents, and feel heavy. Another secret tip is to flip the melon over, and look for a yellow patch, that's where the melon sat on the ground while ripening. The more yellow that patch the better the melon.
Farm workers are pros and can quickly work through a field of melon, finding the ripest ones, slicing them from the vines and gently boxing them (watermelons bruise easily). From there, the boxed melons are washed, sorted and cooled overnight. The next morning, the watermelons get loaded on trucks that are kept at 50 degrees and transported off to your local grocery store or processing facility.
So, the next time you're about to enjoy a red and juicy bite of watermelon, remember the journey it took to get to your plate.