I have two watermelons on the counter. They were grown here at our home, in the front yard, in my small planter bed that I have been reclaiming to use as more garden space. It still has three rose bushes, but the rest of the ground is unused, so it seemed natural for me to use the area for something productive.
This year, I asked my son what he wanted to grow, he suggested watermelons, and it seemed like a sensible thing to try. But it ended up being more complicated than I imagined.
I started with the idea that I would grow a seedless watermelon. That is the type that we would buy at the store. Nowadays, it is even difficult to find a seeded watermelon at a regular supermarket.
From my background, I knew that growing a seedless watermelon necessitates a pollinator watermelon plant from a seeded variety.
What I didn’t know was why or how this worked.
In the farming business, when they grow watermelons, for a set number of seedless watermelon plants, they plant one that is a different variety. The bees will come and transfer the pollen to the different flowers, fertilizing the flower that grows into the seedless watermelon.
For the pollinator, they have a few different options here. One is to grow a seeded watermelon. The other is to grow a watermelon plant that acts as a pollinator but doesn’t bear fruit. The specialty pollinator plant allows for easy cleanup because many farmers don’t bother to sell the seeded fruit. Most people don’t want to bother with the seeds.
In my dilemma on the counter, this is where I was. I didn’t want to bother cleaning the seeds out of the watermelon for my family. Of course, I can always use the “shut up and eat it” line. But in today’s world of plenty, they would find something else to eat.
I tend to overthink, and now after looking at two watermelons for a month (it’s a good thing that they last). And after talking with a gardener friend, who swore she didn’t eat seedless watermelon, told me they are not natural, I became interested in how seedless watermelons came to be. I knew that they were not genetically modified (GMO), because you can grow them organically, and certified organic growers are not allowed to use GMO seeds.
I learned that there is a bit of biochemistry involved and that while the genes might not be modified, there is manipulation in a way that causes the watermelon to be sterile and, therefore, not produce real seeds.
“Seedless fruit” is a botanical contradiction. (The scientific definition of a fruit is: mature ovaries containing seeds.)
Now, here comes the hard science…
By treating the ordinary watermelon plant flowers with colchicine, a natural product derived from a poisonous flower, the plant doubles its chromosomes, causing the new fertilized flower to have four sets of chromosomes instead of two.
These fruits with four chromosomes will go on to make healthy watermelons with seeds. But when you mate a two-chromosome watermelon with this new four-chromosome watermelon, you end up with a three-chromosome watermelon, that is sterile.
Crossing the two varieties is a somewhat “natural” process that is similar to a mule, which is a cross between and donkey and a horse and cannot reproduce. But, in the watermelon scenario, the lab has created one of the two parents.
A biochemistry lesson was probably more you bargained for, but I felt like my genetics training was lacking; it gives a little background information about the process.
And, I am going to leave it up to you to decide if you want to eat seedless fruit or not. I might argue that there are benefits to eating fruit regardless of the “seedlessness”, and it probably comes down to what you would eat instead.
What was important to me as a gardener is that the three-chromosome seeds that you use to grow the seedless watermelon are more sensitive. They needed more specific conditions to germinate. And you need to plant two types of melons in your backyard. And, you can’t readily buy the seeds at your local garden store, but you can easily order them online.
So, my seeds failed to germinate, and I ended up at the garden store, buying watermelon seedlings that had seeds.
The quality and sweetness of either variety can be excellent. You will hear about bad experiences that people have with seedless watermelons. I attribute most of this to growing the melon on the shoulders of the season, spring and fall. And the watermelon is selected to withstand some heavy bowling as it is loaded onto a truck and shipped in large crates.
In California, the Imperial Valley, east of San Diego, is a region where they grow watermelons in the spring and fall. It is warm enough to produce the melons but not warm enough to ripen them as well. I always tell people to try to wait until June to buy a watermelon. And, even better July, but even I only have so much willpower when the weather is hot enough to enjoy the juicy fruit.
In my region, if I get a plant started in April, it won’t be ready until July anyways. I got a late start, playing around with my seeds, and harvested in early September.
I have since peeled and cut up the watermelons, and they are sitting in the fridge waiting to get eaten. Both ripened nicely, but because of the slightly cooler nighttime temperatures that we get in August combined with the fact that this part of my yard does not have full sun, my watermelons are not quite as sweet as they could be although they are not tasteless.
This whole process brings to light the difficulty of growing plants, the adventure of being a first-generation farmer, the complexity of our food system, and the science involved in creating a plant that is not able to propagate itself.
I like to think that gardening is as simple as putting a seed in the ground, watering, weeding, and harvesting, but it is not.
Without a heritage of farming in your family, the simple acts of selecting the right spot in your yard and planting at the right time for your region, require research and experience that are not common knowledge.
My ambition and excitement often get ahead of my knowledge. And at the garden store, there is no benefit for them to sell me something that is past its “plant by” date.
The production of seedless watermelons comes from simple genetic practices, optimized over time, with scientific discovery, allowing a seasoned farmer the ability to produce a crop that is much more desirable to the eating public.
Now that you know how they make it, you can decide if you want to eat it.
So what will I do with all that watermelon.
Cucumber Watermelon Agua Fresca
Blend 3–4 cups watermelon with 2–3 cucumbers, strain the pulp and seeds, then drink.
Watermelon popsicles would be a great idea too, with added sugar, to please the masses.
Julie Moreno is a chef and writer, now trying to get more people to cook their own food and understand where it comes from. She lives in the middle of California, where she’s learning to landscape with fruits and vegetables. Find her blog at The Wooden Cutting Board on Twitter @juliehouse and Facebook @thewoodencuttingboard