Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Crazy About Watermelons

If you are not Crazy About Watermelon, prepare to have your pants bored off.

This was a very good year for growing watermelon in the open, without much use of row covers or irrigation. It could have been hotter, and therefore better, but it was still better than average. This is also, I think, the 3rd year from our deciding to let all (or rather most) of our watermelons cross, and growing out the seed to see what we get. We are now at the point where a few preliminary conclusions can be drawn; so this will be a post about watermelon seed-saving, selection, and breeding as well as a look at my best results of the year.

Watermelon seed saving is easy: eat your melon, putting your seeds aside in a small bowl and discarding any you have bitten. Fill the bowl with water, swish them around, then let them sit a minute. Decant off anything that's floating, then wash the remaining seeds with a little dish detergent. Rinse and drain well. Spread them out on a (labelled) piece of paper towel and dry well for about a week. If you want pure seed, you must plant just one variety, or keep varieties apart by 1/4 to 1/2 mile. Ha ha! Good luck with that. (About 100 feet actually worked passably well for me - but there was a little crossing.)

However, I mostly have not, up until now, wanted to keep my watermelons isolated. In fact, I wanted them to cross. I have had 3 main goals: to just let everything cross with everything else ad lib, and select the results for size, flavour, earliness, and keeping qualities, amongst others; to create an early melon with the golden ripening gene but larger and tastier than Golden Midget; and to cross Sweet Siberian with Orangeglo to produce a larger, tastier melon than Sweet Siberian but one that is adapted to northern growing unlike Orangeglo. This last project required a separate bed, as noted about 100 feet from the mass-cross bed. The mass cross bed contains lots of Golden Midget and Golden Midget crosses, and therefore it has been where I have been looking for my improved Golden Midget offspring to show up. Now that it has, I need to find a way to keep it isolated from here on too.

One of the things that happened this year is we got lots of really fairly small watermelons. Not surprising. I'm looking for the Golden part of Golden Midget, but the Midget part is also well represented. In the next few years I hope to shift melon size up a bit while still pursuing the golden ripening gene. Still, I am not against small watermelons. In a 2-person household, cutting a watermelon in half and eating it all at once has much to be said for it. 

The melon above is MC01-0920. MC refers to our mass cross project, 01 means that it was the first mass cross watermelon we cut open and ate, and 0920 is the date upon which this happened. Unfortunately this is only a general indication of how ripe and how early the melon was. Others may have been just as ripe and ready at the same time but we can only eat so much watermelon at once, and so they may sit and end up much further down the list through no fault of their own. I try to select early watermelon seeds for replanting, but this is a point I must keep in mind.

September 20th is a rather late date for watermelon, at least from the point of view of wanting to eat them. Ideally, ripe watermelon would appear from mid-August until the end of September, and here is our first watermelon perilously close to that end date. This is certainly one of the problems with growing watermelon in this climate. We get a lot of ripe watermelons right through October, but it is not necessarily when one would like to have them.

I think I could likely have picked it up to a week earlier. After a number of sad experiences cutting under ripe watermelon, I do now tend to err on the side of caution. I think I only picked one under ripe watermelon this year, other than a couple that got picked because the season was over and there was no point leaving them longer.

Not only was this watermelon early (for us), it was quite large (for us). In general, larger watermelons are likely to be later ripening watermelons at least comparing them variety to variety. In our patch of mixed-up seeds, large watermelons were just as likely to ripen early as smaller ones, because they were often the first melons produced by a vine and therefore they were large because they got a lot of the plants resources, not because they were a variety that naturally produces large watermelons. None of our watermelons were really massive, because all the varieties that have gone into the mix varied from mid-sized to small (midget, in fact).

This watermelon, being our first, is likely to contribute seed to next years planting. However, flavour was fine but not outstanding, and the texture was a little... tough, almost. It won't be as heavily represented as it might have been otherwise. 

Here is MC03-0921, and one of my champions of the year. Yeah, I know it looks like a runt. It IS a runt, but a very special one. This watermelon turned yellow (apart from the green stripes) when ripe, like its parent Golden Midget. To get this required saving seeds for 2 years, in order to get Golden Midget - Something Else crosses on both the maternal and paternal side in the first year, then a cross between those that passed the golden ripening gene on from both sides. Odds of that happening were approximately 64 to 1, although I brought those odds down to approximately 4 to 1 by planting multiple plants.

Because this melon will almost certainly have been fertilized by something else yet again, I don't expect it to produce nothing but golden ripening offspring. However, I planted plenty of pure Golden Midget plants in the mass cross melon bed this year, and in general my genetic material may be up to 65% Golden Midget in there, given the rate at which I have been planting Golden Midget, so it is not ridiculous to hope for the golden ripening gene to come in from both sides in many of the seeds next year. What I would like to do is to find a spot where I can grow the offspring of this melon in isolation next year, so that they cross only with each other.

It is interesting to me that this melon has such distinct stripes. I have not grown a lot of striped melons; Crimson Sweet, Orangeglo, and Cream of Saskatchewan being the ones I can think of. Those stripes look like Crimson Sweet to me. I hope so. Crimson Sweet is a very popular watermelon in many places including around here, because it produces decently large, early, tasty, trouble resistant, attractive and adaptive melons - all qualities I would like to have in upcoming generations. But are stripes dominant, or could they too have come from hidden genes in some other variety of watermelon? I just don't know.

Here is the flesh from MC03-0921. I forgot to take a cut-in-half photo until too late. However, while the flesh is a little on the pale side, it was sweet and tasty, and the seeds are interestingly small and black. One of the flaws of Golden Midget is that it has large, coarse seeds and lots of them. So this too is good!

MC11-0930 was a melon I was watching from as soon as the plants went out. We had 6 volunteer watermelon plants come up from seeds left in the garden last year. This is the only large melon produced from one of those plants; I lost track of the rest. It was not the world's greatest melon, and if it had not been from a volunteer plant I would have been a lot less interested in it. That splitting is not unusual in large melons (and this was one of our largest melons) but it's not a quality I want to encourage. It also had ridiculous numbers of seeds. However, it tasted really good in spite of possibly being a tad overripe when picked. (Also not a good thing - I'm looking for melons that hold). Still, this has "survivor" qualities I'd like to keep in the gang.

Sweet Siberian was clearly one of the parents of MC12-1002. We had a lot of good orange fleshed melons this year, and this was one of them. Looks like there are hints of red or at least a different orange in the flesh.  Crossed watermelons of different colours can produce almost a marbled effect or so I am told; most of ours were pretty solidly coloured and any internal colour variations were pretty subtle.

Many of our watermelons looked a lot like this one, MC27-1016, and the one below. Pretty small - I didn't weigh these but they were probably just under 3 pounds each - with crisp pale pink or orange flesh, smallish seeds, and very decent keepers. I suspect that many of these had Grover Delaney as a parent. They tended to have that size and configuration, with a fine netted pattern over a more or less green background on the rind.

MC28-1018 wasn't picked on October 18th; that's when we ate it. It was probably picked about 2 weeks earlier. Keeping qualities really tend to show up in the last few watermelons eaten (or not) and so they are just as likely to be selected for seed as earlier melons. This one was great - very small, but nice thin rind, crisp texture not deteriorating in storage, small and few black seeds, and a nice sweet flavour. A winner for sure. Could have had a bit better colour, but life is tough. We'll see what happens with it next year, because it will get planted.

We got quite a lot of melons that looked like this one. From the outside, PJ02-0920 looked a lot like a large Sweet Siberian. That's PJ for project - in addition to the mass cross, I planted a more-or-less separate bed for a planned cross between Sweet Siberian and Orangeglo. I'm pretty sure that's what this is. It's two shades of orange rather than a weak red, and the seeds have the look of Orangeglo - cream with dots on each side of the "pinched" end of the seed, although these are more of a buff, and the dot now extends down around the side of the seed as a stripe. Watermelon seeds are surprisingly diverse, and can be a good clue as to who your parent melons were.

Orangeglo has a reputation as a fantastic watermelon. I obviously grew it out once, but it has problems growing here. Its season is too long, and if the melons are less than 20 pounds, they do not develop their famous good flavour. I got my first grow out of melons ripe enough to save seed, but they were neither large enough nor ripe enough to eat. However, I think it will do good things crossed to Sweet Siberian, a smaller and more northern adapted orange melon.

PJ09-0923 was the best of the Sweet Siberian - Orangeglo crosses. It resembles an Orangeglo more than a Sweet Siberian, but at just over 15 pounds it was not big enough to be a good Orangeglo. Since it wasn't pure Orangeglo, though, it was able to be superb! Five of us tried this watermelon and all of us rated it as fantastic for flavour and texture, including 2 people who don't actually really like watermelon much. I have no trouble describing it as the best watermelon I have ever eaten.

I was worried that my separate Sweet Siberian x Orangeglo bed would not be isolated enough. I did have one red watermelon show up in the patch, but all the rest seemed to be either pure Sweet Siberian, pure Orangeglo, or a cross between the two. So I am concluding it's not great, but good enough to go on with. Now I just have to decide for next year: do I grow a mix of seeds from various successful Sweet Siberian - Orangeglo crosses, or just from this one fab melon?

I'd love to have comments and suggestions from experienced watermelon growers/breeders, if there are any out there reading (and the peanut gallery too, of course).


Angela said...

This is fascinating- I've been growing melons for a couple of years now, but not saving seeds or making crosses- and this year was a good one, in Manitoba for Watermelons- we try not to water our garden too much, for sustainability reasons (and sometimes laziness as well), so this year was a challenge for many things- but the watermelons did very well with that dry hot weather. This year we grew- Petite Yellow, Blacktail mountain, sweet siberian, small shining light, scaly bark, and several musk melons. The petite yellow was by far the earliest melon in our climate- ripening in early august- and it was very sweet and juicy, flavour improved with chilling, and a nice size too- maybe 2-3 lbs at most. It's a nice looking striped fruit with pale yellow flesh- much better flavour and colour than Cream of Sask, too in my opinion. I would love to read a bit more about your growing process for growing out your crosses- where do you even start- you can't grow out all the seeds from a chosen melon right? You'd have hundreds of plants to examine fruit from- do you have a post or a good place to start if i was interested in starting to grow out some of my own seeds? Thanks!

Ferdzy said...

Hi Angela! Thanks very much for commenting.

Let me deal with the muskmelons first. Unless you have 2 you specifically would like to cross, and only grow those 2, I would suggest you keep getting pure seed for these. I’ve been letting mine cross, but I have been unimpressed with the results. I’m going back to pure varietals myself, I think. With the watermelons everything I have gotten has been perfectly good eating, and the flesh colour/rind colour/seed size and colour/ flavour and texture combinations have been really interesting.

Did you save any watermelon seeds from this year? If so, you have crossed seeds and are ready to go. The Petite Yellow is an f1 hybrid, so it is already, in sense, crossed seed, and in the next generation should show a certain amount of variability. I’m not sure why Cream of Saskatchewan gets so much love. It was originally grown to be boiled down for molasses, so it was selected for sweetness rather than flavour. I guess some people are perfectly happy with sweet mild (bland) melons.

Since you are not trying to narrow down to anything yet, just grow a selection out next year and see what you get.

In general, no, I cannot grow out all the seeds of a particular melon. I have a few little melons that had fewer than 50 seeds in them and I might be tempted to try with them if I could find an isolated spot, which is always the trick. But usually it is more like 3 to 6 from a particular melon at most.

I tend to save all the seed from each melon unless they produced ridiculous amounts. Usually with my small melons it amounts to a couple of tablespoons of dried seeds and it is no problem to store them in metal cookie tins in the basement. At some point I will get rid of them but there is always the possibility, for a few years anyway, that I may wish to go back to a certain line and focus on it again.

I am going to draft some of my friends with gardens next year to grow out some sets of seeds, either from a single melon or a few similar melons, in whatever isolation they can give them. I’m hoping that if I hand them a bunch of started plants in May and say, please grow and eat, and save seed from the best and give me photos and a report, that they will feel they are getting something out of it themselves.

Here is an article about commercial watermelon breeding that might be interesting to you:

Karen Hine said...

Interesting results! Thanks so much for sharing.

Hey, have you ever tried Early Moonbeam? Supposed to be tasty and easy. It's a dehybridized Yellow Doll. Looks similar to Petite Yellow.

I've only ever grown Sugar Baby but I've been considering Golden Midget and Blacktail Mountain. I'm very tempted by Sweet Siberian but I was wanting to grow a smaller fruited kind for trellising. Maybe I'll start with Early Moonbeam.

I would love a yellow-fleshed watermelon with a rind that ripens gold too. Or orange-fleshed. Especially a personal or icebox sized one. How cute would that be? Maybe it can be done?

-- Karen Hine

Ferdzy said...

Hi Karen; thanks for commenting.

I've heard of Early Moonbeam, and I have Blacktail Mountain seeds, but I have not grown either of them yet. I hear very good things about Early Moonbeam. Blacktail Mountain seems to get fairly mixed reviews.

I tend to think Sugar Baby is overrated. Small Shining Light is similar, but a little larger, a little later, a little thinner rinded, and it keeps much better. After a few years of trellising things, I find I can trellis larger squash and melons than I supposed at the beginning, but no doubt there is a limit.

A yellow or orange fleshed golden ripening watermelon ought to be possible. If you were to work on that, I would suggest you only grow 2 kinds of watermelons at once to start - maybe Golden Midget and Sweet Siberian or Golden Midget and Early Moonbeam. Either project would almost certainly give you pretty small melons.

It would be a long project - I suppose I should mention that if I ever end up with a stable variety out of my experimenting, I expect the process to take about 10 years. Could be worse; I could be working with biennials. Oh, wait! I am. (Hello onions and carrots.)

Karen Hine said...

Ooh, thanks for the tips. I had overlooked Small Shining Light. It'd be so cool to develop a new variety! Maybe someday. Ten years is not bad at all. I have a lot of gardening to do first.

I'm sort of new-ish to gardening and I'm still deciding where to focus my energies. Beans are my first love. I think I want to get into selecting seeds from frenched runner beans especially (like Snowstorm or Tenderstar), or work on the purple runner beans. I think I'll make cucurbits my other focus. Maybe watermelons and winter squash especially. I don't have quite as much space as you. Oh, but of course I need to grow a few nightshades too. I'm going to need lots of trellises.

Wow, you do that with carrots even? Nice! Besides being biennial, I heard you need a lot of plants to maintain good genetic diversity, and you have to be careful about wild carrot weeds nearby. I might be too lazy for all that effort! But I'd love to hear about your results. I think for now I'll use hybrid seeds for my roots and greens. Well, maybe I'll use open pollinated salad greens.

Anyway, you've been a great resource and inspiration. I live in London (ON) so I also appreciate that it's local information. And I like the healthy recipes with lots of plants.

Angela said...

Thanks for that info! I will save some seed from some of the melons I've got storing and see what pops up next year- that sounds fun and not too daunting. I suppose if I save seed from melons that store particularly well I could end up with a good storing variety right?

Ferdzy said...

Karen, I'm so glad you are enjoying the blog.

Angela, yes watermelons are pretty straightforward. It's not absolutely guaranteed, but yes, good keepers tend to be the parents of other good keepers.

keen101 said...

Awesome! Just finished planted the rest of my watermelon landrace seeds for this year. Yes i know, in March?! But it's the only way i will continue to get early cool watermelon germination. I've had success with this method in the past, so i'm not too worried. Here's hoping for a good watermelon year with my landrace watermelon seeds!

Ferdzy said...

Hi Keen101! That's pretty crazy, especially since you are in Colorado! I'll be watching at Homegrown Goodness to see how that goes for you. Now you're making me think I should try early planting... I do have lots of seed; hmmm.