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GARDEN FRESH : They Call It Melon Yellow

August 11, 1994|SYLVIA THOMPSON

Does yellow watermelon taste richer than red? To me it does. Golden foods seem to have golden flavor. Butterscotch. Peaches, nectarines, papayas, pineapple. Buttery crookneck--and acorn, banana and spaghetti squashes. Corn and wax beans. Some tomatoes, melons and plums. The sunny side of an egg. Olive oil from Provence.

Does home-grown watermelon taste better than store-bought? You bet! Cutting into a golden watermelon you've raised is downright thrilling.

Watermelons have been giving pleasure for thousands of years. For their part, the melons enjoy the hot days and nights of summer with the softness of humidity in the air.

Seeds are sown indoors in spring. Order early. From seed to table, big watermelons take about 3 1/2 months. If you're in a warm-to-hot-summer part of Southern California, sow directly into the soil from April through June. Along the coast, sow May and June. In the high desert, mid-March through June; in the low desert, February and March. In the mountains, where I live, we start watermelon seeds indoors in May.

Willhite Seed Co. in Poolville, Tex., offers a mouthwatering assortment of goldens. Willhite says farmers grow Orangeglo for themselves (in catalogue descriptions, "a fine home garden variety" means the rind is too thin to ship without breaking, so grow it for your own pleasure). Orangeglo's flesh is the color of ripe peaches, and the oval fruits can weigh 50 pounds.

Tastigold is a round golden watermelon half Orangeglo's weight. Picked at the peak of ripeness, Tastigold's flavor rivals the best watermelon of any color. For an open-pollinated melon--you can save its seeds and grow them--choose sugary crisp Golden Honey.

In inland areas where citrus thrives, you can grow any golden watermelon cultivar you like, but in warm areas where water is in short supply, plant sweet Desert King. I have, and it's not only delicious but enormously drought-tolerant. In cooler arid climates such as the high desert, try Hopi Yellow Meated, which is grown in the sandy Southwest on nothing but rain water. I've grown that one too, and it's exciting. Both are open-pollinated.

Where summers are cooler or the seasons shorter, choose small icebox-size melons that ripen in 70 to 75 days. You can rely on Yellow Baby to yield sweet seven-inch golden watermelons with few seeds. Sunshine F1 is slightly larger, with crisp, juicy flesh and thick rind for pickling. Delicious Early Moonbeam is open-pollinated. Yellow Doll, a small, very sweet hybrid with thin rind, ripens earliest, about 68 days.

To germinate seeds, wrap them in moist paper towels and seal in a plastic bag. Keep the bag at 75 to 85 degrees. Check every day to make sure the towel is moist. It takes five to 10 days for the seeds to sprout.

Watermelons need warm soil, so the day you sow your seeds, get a jump on the season: For each plant, lay a four- to five-foot square of black plastic mulch on a patch in full sun--a southern exposure is best. The soil must be light, loose, well-draining, super-rich in organic matter and slightly acid (a pH of 6 to 6.5).

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When your seeds have sprouted, set two of them 1/4-inch deep in a three-inch container of good potting mix in a paper or peat pot. Grow in bright light at 75 degrees and never let the soil dry out. When they are a couple of inches tall, pinch off the weaker of the two.

When the weather has settled and the soil is warm, slit an opening in the plastic mulch (where there's frost, wait until the last frost is a couple of weeks behind you). Carefully pull away the pot from the seedling and set the plant in the ground (mustn't disturb the roots). Space bush cultivars--the ones that mature fastest--about 3 feet apart. Water thoroughly with a Vitamin B1 solution.

If the nights are sometimes chilly, cover the seedlings with a floating row cover (a sheltering veil that lets sun and water through), but remove it when the nights turn warm or when the first flowers appear. If it's a cool spring, leave the plastic mulch in place until the days get hot, then remove it. Replace with a mulch of straw or leaves kept a few inches away from the vine.

Water every four days until fruits are developing; after that, once a week give an inch of water. Always water before 3 p.m., using a drip system if possible. Once a month, in the morning, spray leaves with a solution of half liquid fish, half kelp. Pick off any bugs. Around the middle of September, pinch off all blossoms--this permits the plant to throw its energy into ripening existing fruit.

You don't have to plant watermelons in a traditional watermelon patch. A bush watermelon looks charming in a garden border. The leaves resemble large, elongated maple leaves--sometimes they're speckled white or gold. If there's room in your border for a vine to trail along the ground, remember--the best-flavored melons come from long vines.

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