This summer I traveled back to eastern North Carolina to visit Farmer James at Fresh-Pik Produce. Last year he showed me his strawberry fields. This year he took me to visit fields of watermelons.
North Carolina is the eighth largest watermelon grower in the United States. Farmers can grow seeded, seedless and mini watermelons. Farmer James grows mini, or personal size, watermelons and seedless watermelons.
His season starts in March, when he plants the seeds in styrofoam trays and puts them in a greenhouse. A greenhouse is a building with clear plastic walls and roof. The temperature inside the greenhouse is warm enough for the seeds to start growing. Plants stay in the greenhouse until late May, when they are transplanted to the field. Some farmers plant them on bare ground. Most farmers use a bedder, which is a piece of equipment pulled by a tractor, to form the soil into raised beds. They cover the beds with black plastic. The plastic keeps weeds from growing, helps warm the soil because it absorbs sunlight and keeps dirt off the watermelons. Drip tape, a thin tube with tiny holes, is laid under the plastic. The farmer uses the drip tape to water his crop.
Farmer James also grows strawberries on plastic. After the strawberry plants are finished growing berries, he plants watermelons on the same plastic. You can see the old strawberry plant and the new watermelon plant in this picture of me in the field.
Watermelons are planted by hand. Workers ride on a setter, placing one seedless watermelon plant in a hole punched into the plastic by a water wheel.
Do you see the workers walking behind the setter? The plants they are putting in the holes are seeded watermelons. If Farmer James planted a field of only seedless watermelon plants, they would not grow any fruit. The seeded watermelons are needed for pollination.
Most watermelon farmers keep bee hives near their fields. A bee must visit each yellow flower seven times to fully pollinate it. You can find the first baby watermelons growing in the field about 60 days after the plants were transplanted.
The vines will grow to be 6 to 8 feet long, covering the ground between the rows. In North Carolina watermelons are usually ready to be harvested around July 4.
Each ripe watermelon is cut from the vine by hand. Workers load them on a trailer. The melons are washed and loaded up to sell. Farmer James sells watermelons at his roadside market, Deans Farm Market, and to grocery stores in the eastern United States. He has even shipped watermelons to Canada!
I always wondered how to tell if a watermelon was ripe. Farmer James told me to thump it with your hand. If you hear a flat sound like a thud, it is ripe. You can also look for a creamy spot on the bottom of the fruit. This shows the watermelon was ripened in the sun. These watermelons are ready for me to eat!
To learn more about Farmer James, visit Dean’s Farm Market at deansfarmmarket.com and freshpik.com. For more information on growing watermelons in North Carolina, visit the
NC Watermelon Association at www.ncmelons.com.