The Ancient Gardener's Instructor: Dispatches from Wesley Greene
August 8, 2012
Wednesday, August 08
We have experienced a prolonged season of wetter-than-average weather in Williamsburg that has been a great benefit to the watermelons. This summer’s extreme heat has greatly damaged the cantaloupes, but as Mr. Jefferson is fond of observing, “The failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another.” The watermelon, being a native of the Kalahari Desert of south-eastern Africa, seems much better suited to our extreme summer heat than the cantaloupe, which is sensitive to sun scald when the weather remains hot.
Virginia has long been famous for the quality of its watermelons, and as an example of their excellence I have recently received a copy of a journal entry written by Lieut. William Feltman who, while marching to Yorktown with the First Pennsylvania Regiment, recorded on August 17, 1781: “This evening I had an invitation from Capt. Pierson to assist him in eating two water-melons, which were the best and finest I ever see. This country is full of them; they have large patches of two and three acres of them.”
This morning I counted a dozen well-formed watermelons in my garden and many smaller fruit just set. They will soon be ready for harvest and must be inspected daily. There are some who claim that they can tell the fitness of a watermelon through thumping the fruit and listening for a perfectly hollow tone. For those of us with a less well tuned ear we must employ a different method. If the gardener will examine the stem end of the watermelon, a small tendril will be seen where the stem attaches to the vine. When this tendril turns brown and falls off, you will know that the melon is very close to ripe. At this time you must closely monitor the underbelly of the fruit. When it turns from a greenish-white to a pale yellow, you will know the fruit is ready for harvest.
For further information on the management of the kitchen garden I invite you to examine Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way, 18th-century methods for today’s organic gardeners (Rodale Press).