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Like a proud papa, Donnie Johnston holds the 40-pound Carolina Cross watermelon he grew in his garden this year.
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I just about lived off watermelon in August. Like tomatoes, I feast off them from the time they come in until they go out.
This year's crop produced the tastiest melons in memory. The hot, dry spell in early July hit just as the melons were developing and everything turned to sugar.
My Charleston Gray melons did not do as well as some years--they did not grow especially large--but the Crimson Sweet plants produced plenty of sweet, luscious watermelons that would just about melt in your mouth.
If you have never eaten a homegrown melon, you have missed a real treat. Nothing compares to a watermelon that has been left on the vine to fully ripen. Store-bought melons pale in comparison.
Not many home gardeners grow watermelons, however. For some reason, they believe that you must live as far south as South Carolina to be able to cultivate this crop. They also think that you must have sandy soil to make watermelons grow.
Watermelons do extremely well in all parts of Virginia. And although they do love sandy soil, given the proper nutrients, this crop will thrive in even the reddest of clay.
The key is fertilizer. When I plant watermelons, I dig a hole about 18 inches in diameter and about eight inches deep. I take some manure that is broken down and mix it with dirt in the hole until it rises about six inches above ground level.
Then, about the fourth week in April, I transplant my melons, which I start in my basement in early March.
From the time the plants become established, watermelons take about 80 to 90 days to mature and ripen.
So how do you tell when a watermelon is ripe? I get that question all the time.
Some people thump them and when they hear a flat sound they assume the melon is ready. Unfortunately, that doesn't always work. Larger melons may produce that dull "thud" even though they're not ripe. Smaller melons may "ping" despite the fact that they are dead ripe.
My grandmother taught me a trick to determine a watermelon's ripeness and it seldom fails.
Just past where the watermelon's stem joins the main vine, there is a small outgrowth that is about an inch-and-a-half long and has a curlicue end. When that "second stem" (as my grandmother used to call it) turns from green to dry brown, the melon is ripe. It is as simple as that.
This year, I got five seeds of a variety called Carolina Cross, a melon that resembles a Jubilee. According to the seed catalog, these melons can grow as large as 250 pounds.
Two of my five seeds produced healthy plants, but only one of those produced a good melon. I gave this plant a little extra fertilizer and the melon grew well. It didn't weigh 250 pounds (I didn't expect it would), but it did tip the scales at just over 40 pounds.
I'll try more next year and fertilize them even better.
Back to my Charleston Gray crop. I think, for whatever reason, that 100-degree heat affected them more than it did the Crimson Sweet. These melons, too, were extremely sweet, but never achieved the 20- to 25-pound size I usually get.
Still, it was a great watermelon year.
Now a few words about corn.
My early corn did extremely well, but the heat and dry weather hit my second crop of Golden Queen just as the ears were making and it did poorly.
My third planting, however, has done well and I'm still eating tasty roasting ears.
A reader stopped me on the street the other day and asked how I froze my corn, in particular if I blanched it.
I do not. I shuck my corn, clean it, put the ears in a bag and freeze them. I have tried blanching, but found that this makes the kernels soft and soggy when the ears are cooked.
Freezing straight from the shucks makes the kernels much firmer and gives the corn a fresh-picked taste when served.
What about freezing the corn with the shucks on? Well, I suppose that is OK, but about half of the average gardener's corn has a worm at the end of the ear.
Personally, I don't want to shuck an ear of frozen corn for Thanksgiving dinner and have a frozen worm fall out. If you are 100 percent positive that your ear of corn is wormless, then freezing it in the shuck may be OK. Otherwise, you may be in for a shock when you thaw it.
One final word: If you're planting fall greens, now is the time to get the seeds in the ground.