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How to Plant, Grow, and Harvest Watermelon

Watermelons on tiles to ripen

The watermelon is a tender, warm-weather annual. Watermelons along with muskmelons and cantaloupes are sometimes called summer melons. They thrive in hot weather.

Watermelons are easy to grow. They need plenty of sun, nutrient-rich soil, and plenty of water. Get watermelon started in the home garden after all danger of frost has passed and your harvest of sweet, juicy watermelon will come in late summer

Here is your complete guide to growing watermelon.

Watermelon Quick Growing Tips

  • Sow watermelon seeds in the garden or set out transplants 3 to 4 weeks after the last average frost date in spring.
  • Start watermelon seeds indoors 4 to 6 weeks before transplanting seedlings into the garden. Start seed indoors in 4-inch or larger biodegradable peat or paper pots that can be set wholly into the garden so as not to disturb the roots.
  • Harvest will come 65 to 90 frost-free after seed sowing depending on the variety of watermelon you are growing.
Watermelons nearing harvest in late summer
Grow watermelon in garden
Watermelons nearing harvest in late summer

Where to Plant Watermelons

  • Plant watermelons in full sun.
  • Watermelons grow best in loose, well-drained, but moisture-retentive soil rich in organic matter.
  • Add aged compost and aged manure or a commercial organic planting mix to the planting bed before planting. Turn the soil to 12 inches (30cm) deep.
  • Watermelons prefer a soil pH of 6.0 to 6.8. A soil test will tell you if you need to amend the soil.
  • Plant watermelons on hills or mounds or on raised rows. Solar heat hitting the soil on a mound or raised row will keep plants and roots warm.
  • Create a mound 6 to 12 inches (15-30cm) high and 5 feet (1.5m) across.
  • If planting in ground-level beds, warm the soil in advance of planting by laying black plastic sheeting on the bed two weeks before planting.
Grow watermelon in warm soil
Watermelon seed will germinate in about 10 days at 65°F (18°C), sooner in warmer soil.

Watermelon Planting Time

  • Sow watermelon seed in the garden or set out transplants 2 to 3 weeks after the last average frost date in spring when all danger of frost has passed.
  • Garden soil temperature should be at least 70°F (21°C) at planting time. Pre-warm the soil by placing black plastic sheeting over the planting bed for two weeks prior to planting.
  • To get a head start on the season and in short growing season regions, start watermelon seed indoors about 4 to 6 weeks before transplanting seedlings into the garden; start seed in biodegradable peat or paper pots at least 4 inches (10cm) in diameter that can be set wholly into the garden so as not to disturb roots.
  • Watermelon seed will germinate in about 10 days at 65°F (18°C), sooner in warmer soil. Seedless watermelon varieties are best germinated at about 85°F.
  • Average room temperature is just about right for germinating watermelon seeds indoors.
  • Watermelons grow best in warm temperatures ranging from 70° to 90°F (21-32°C).
  • Avoid growing watermelon where night temperatures dip below 50°F (10°C); this will cause the fruit to lose flavor.
  • If temperatures exceed 90°F (32°C).
  • for several days, flowers will drop without setting fruit.
  • Watermelons require 65 to 90 frost-free days to reach harvest depending on the variety.
  • Watermelons will tolerate no frost. In cool or short-season regions, grow smaller varieties that come to harvest quickly.
Watermelon seedling
Sow watermelon seeds in the garden or set out transplants 3 to 4 weeks after the last average frost date in spring. Start watermelon seed indoors about 6 weeks before transplanting

Planting and Spacing Watermelons

  • Sow watermelon seed 1 inch (2.5cm) deep.
  • Sow 4 to 6 melon seeds on a mound or hill.
  • Germination will occur in about 10 days when the soil is 70°F (21°C).
  • Thin watermelon seedlings to 2 or 3 strong seedlings on each hill when seedlings have developed three or four true leaves. Cut the thinned seedlings at the soil level with scissors so as not to disturb the roots of the remaining seedlings.
  • Space mounds or hills 5 to 6 feet (1.5-1.8m) apart.
  • Mounds can range in height from a few inches to more than 12 inches (30cm) tall; mounds will allow vines to run away down the slope. You can train vines to circle the mound.
  • If you are growing watermelon in rows space plants 4 to 5 feet apart (1.2-1.5m) and space rows 6 feet (1.8m) apart.
  • Grow 2 watermelon plants for each household member.

More tips: Watermelon Seed Starting Tips.

Watermelon growing from trellis
Support melons growing on a trellis with netting.

Growing Watermelons Vertically

  • Watermelons can be grown on a trellis.
  • Use a trellis at least 8 x 8 feet (2.4m) wide or wider. Make sure the trellis is well-anchored.
  • Space plant at the base of the trellis 3 to 4 feet (.9-1.2m) apart.
  • Train vines up the trellis; secure the vines to the trellis with elastic garden tape.
  • Support melons growing on a trellis with netting. Nylon netting will easily support a whole watermelon if tied into a well-anchored support.
  • You can also grow watermelons on an A-frame trellis. Lean two trellises together, tie them at the top and anchor the base of each trellis.

Container Growing Watermelons

  • Watermelons are usually too large to grow in a container.
  • Select a bush, dwarf- or mini-cultivar to grow in a container.
  • Chose a container that is at least 18 inches wide and deep to grow one watermelon.
  • Grow watermelons in a compost-rich potting soil; check at the garden center for recommended commercial mixes best suited for melons.
  • In short growing season regions extend the season by starting melons in containers indoors; move them outdoors when the weather has warmed but be careful not to pinch or break the vines.

Small watermelon fruitWatering Watermelons

  • Watermelons are 95 percent water. They require plentiful regular, even watering for quick growing.
  • Give watermelons 1 to 2 inches (2.5.-5cm) of water every week (1 inch equals 16 gallons/60.5 liters.)
  • Keep the soil moist until the fruit reaches full size then stop watering while the fruit ripens.
  • Mulch to retain soil moisture. Spread straw or dried chopped leaves around watermelon plants after the soil has warmed. You can also lay black plastic sheeting or garden fabric across the planting bed. Cut an x-slot in the fabric to plant.
  • Water at the base of plants with a soaker hose or drip irrigation. Wetting the foliage will leave plants susceptible to fungal diseases such as powdery or downy mildew.
  • Keep the soil evenly moist during flowering and fruit development. A week or so before harvest cut back on water; dry soil will help plants concentrate sugars in the fruit.
  • If leaves are wilted in the morning, the plants need water. Wilting leaves at the end of the day is not uncommon.

Watermelon growingFeeding Watermelons

  • Prepare planting beds with aged compost and aged manure or a commercial organic planting mix. Turn the soil to 12 inches (30cm) deep.
  • Watermelons are heavy feeders. Add several inches of aged manure across planting beds the autumn before planting.
  • Side dress watermelons with compost or manure tea or a dilute solution of fish emulsion every 2 to 3 weeks during the growing season.
  • Watermelons can be side dressed with an even organic fertilizer such as 10-10-10 early in the season but once flowers and fruit appear, reduce nitrogen and increase phosphorus and potassium; use a 5-10-10 fertilizer.

Companion Plants for Watermelons

  • Plant watermelons with corn, radish, beans, and nasturtiums.

Watermelon Pollination

  • Watermelon plants produce both male and female flowers.
  • Male flowers appear a week or two in advance of the female flowers. Male flowers attract bees that are needed for pollination once female flowers appear.
  • Female flowers will have a small bulge at the stem end of the flower. This bulge is an embryonic fruit.
  • Some male flowers will die and drop before female flowers set fruit.
  • You can hand-pollinate watermelon flowers using an artist’s bristle brush. Rub the brush in the male flower to collect pollen then rub the brush in the center of the female flower to transfer the pollen.
  • You can attract bees to your garden by planting flowering herbs such as dill, borage, and lavender nearby.

Growing Seedless Watermelon

  • Seedless watermelons are not truly seedless, though they look seedless. They contain nearly transparent seeds.
  • Seedless watermelons are known as triploid watermelons. They are a cross between a common diploid melon and a teraploid melon. The female flowers on a seedless plant must be pollinated by male flowers from a seeded variety. This process can be complicated for a home gardener.
  • Home gardeners can purchase seedless watermelon seed packets that will include the seed of a pollinator cultivar to be planted nearby.
Watermelon on wood to absorb sun
Set the growing watermelon on a tile or wood. This will keep the melon off the ground and help it stay warm,

Caring for Watermelons

  • Early in the season cover plants with a floating row cover. This will keep insects away and hold warm air around plants. Once plants begin to flower, remove the row cover during the day so that bees can get to the flowers.
  • Encourage watermelon plants to set three or four fruits at the same time; if a plant sets one fruit early, pinch it out to encourage the plant to develop several fruits at the same time. One fruit off to a head start can suppress all further fruiting on the vine until that fruit matures.
  • Cultivate carefully around vines until they cover the ground and smother out competing weeds.
  • Mulch around watermelons with straw, dry chopped leaves or set down black plastic mulch (sheeting) or garden fabric. Mulch will keep down weeds and conserve soil moisture.
  • For sprawling watermelons, place a tile, wooden shingle, or a piece of plastic under each melon to keep the fruit clean and dry and to store solar heat which will help ripen fruit.
  • About 50 days before the first expected autumn frost, remove all new blossoms from a plant; this will allow the plant to concentrate its energy on the development and ripening of fruit already on the plant.

More tips: How to Grow Watermelon for Best Flavor.

Watermelon Pests

  • Aphids and spotted and striped cucumber beetles will attack melons.
  • Hose away aphids with a blast of water or pinch out infested foliage.
  • Hand-pick and destroy cucumber beetles promptly; they can transmit cucumber bacterial wilt to melons. You can also control cucumber beetles by spraying insecticidal soap, neem oil, or dusting with kaolin.
  • Organic pesticides such as horticultural oil or neem oil are best suited for controlling insect pests.

More tips: Melon Growing Problems: Troubleshooting.

Watermelon Diseases

  • Watermelons are susceptible to anthracnose, Alternaria leaf spot, bacterial wilt, and powdery and downy mildew.
  • Planting disease-resistant varieties when they are available and maintaining the general cleanliness and health of your garden will help cut down the incidence of disease.
  • Do not handle the vines when they are wet; this can spread fungal diseases.
  • If a plant does become infected remove it before it can spread the disease to healthy plants.
  • Anthracnose is a soil-borne fungal disease that can cause leaf spots, leaf drop, wilting, and sometimes death. Keep the garden clean and plant disease-resistant varieties. Remove diseased plants from the garden immediately.
  • Bacterial wilt which is spread by cucumber beetles can cause watermelon plants to suddenly wilt and die just as they begin to produce fruit. Control cucumber beetles as soon as they appear.
  • Fusarium wilt is a fungal disease that causes leaves to curl and drop and stems to curl. Add lime to the soil ahead of planting; avoid overwatering during the season.
  • Gummy stem blight is a fungal disease that causes leaves to yellow and die. This disease is hard to control; pull up plants and dispose of them in the trash. Rotate crops each year.
  • Powdery mildew and other fungal diseases can be prevented and slowed by spray-misting plants with compost tea or a solution of 1-part skim milk and 9-parts water.
Growing watermelon to harvest
Limit water for a week in advance of the harvest to concentrate sweetness.

Harvesting Watermelons

  • Watermelons will be ready for harvest 65 to 90 days after sowing depending on the variety.
  • When watermelons are ready to harvest vine tendrils will begin to turn brown and die off. If the tendrils are green the melon is not ripe.
  • You can also test for watermelon ripeness by rapping your knuckle against the melon; a ripe watermelon will make a dull hollow sound when thumped.
  • The soil side of a watermelon will turn from white to pale yellow when the fruit is ready for harvest.
  • Ripe fruit will have a sweet aroma at the stem end.
  • Limit water for a week in advance of the harvest to concentrate sweetness.
  • Watermelons on a single plant will all be ready for harvest over a two-week period.
  • Use a sharp knife or garden pruner to cut the watermelon away from the vine.
  • Watermelons do not continue to ripen off the vine.

Storing and Preserving Watermelons

  • Watermelons will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week if not cut or sliced, but sweetness and flavor may diminish.
  • A cut watermelon will keep in the refrigerator for about 4 days. Wrap the melon tightly in plastic to prevent cold burn or dehydration.
  • It takes about 12 hours to chill a large watermelon.
  • Watermelons can be kept in a cool, moderately moist place for 2 to 3 weeks without refrigeration.
  • Melon flesh can be frozen and rinds can be pickled.

More tips: How to Harvest and Store Watermelon.

Watermelon sliced at harvest

Watermelon Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Should I start watermelons indoors?

A: To ensure watermelons have enough warm and hot weather to ripen, start seeds indoors 3 to 4 weeks before the average date of the last frost. Plant seeds n peat pots or other biodegradable containers that can be set directly in the ground; watermelons don’t like their roots to be disturbed at transplanting time.

Q: When can watermelons be planted outdoors?

A: You can transplant watermelons into the garden when temperatures average 60°F, even warmer is better. Protect young seedlings with hot caps or cloches. Plastic milk jugs with their bottoms cut out will work, but remember to remove them during the day if the sun is bright.

Q: What’s the best way to plant watermelon seeds?

A: Sow seeds 1 inch deep in hills, two to four seeds per hill, 4 to 6 feet apart. Some bush varieties can be spaced closer together.

Q: Can watermelons be grown on a trellis?

A: Yes. To be certain the fruits don’t break off, or pull the vines away from their support, create a little “hammock” for them with nylon netting or pieces of cloth.

Q: Can I grow watermelons in very dry regions?

A: Yes, try this: create a depression 3 to 5 inches deep and 12 to 15 inches across. Sow seeds or set transplant halfway up the sides of the depression then train the vines away from the depression. Water in the depression and the water will wick up to the roots, and the vine trained away will not get muddy.

Q: Can I grow watermelons in cool summer regions?

A: In cooler climates, grow smaller “ice-box: varieties. Plant these smaller melons in the warmest spot in your garden. Use black plastic mulch to trap heat in the soil.

Q: How much fertilizer do watermelons need?

A: Give watermelons a complete organic fertilizer at planting ot transplanting time and again when plants are established and just starting to send out runners. Work the fertilizer into the soil in circular furrows 8 inches away from the plants.

Q: Will watermelons need extra water?

A: Watermelons need plenty of water, but they also must have good drainage. Keep the soil evenly moist. Planting on mounds will ensure good drainage.

Q: How can I tell when a watermelon is ready to harvest?

A: Rap the melon with your knuckle. If the sound is sharp and high, the melon is not ripe. If the sound is dull and hollow, the melon is ripe. When the tendril closest to the melon is alive and green, it is not ripe. When the tendril dries up and turns brown, the melon is ripe. You can also look for yellowing on the spot where the melon rests on the ground.

Watermelon Varieties to Grow

  • Icebox size watermelons: ‘Early Midget’ (65 days); ‘Garden Baby’ (70 days); ‘Golden Midget’ (65 days); ‘Sugar Baby’ (68-96 days); ‘Tiger Baby’ (80 days).
  • Oblong, green rind: ‘Northern Sweet’ (68 days).
  • Oblong, grayish rind: ‘Allsweet’ (100 days); ‘Calsweet’ (92 days); ‘Charleston Gray’ (90 days); ‘Desert Storm’ (80 days); ‘Fiesta’ (85 days); ‘Regency’ (82 days); ‘Royal Majesty’ (80 days); ‘Sangria’ (85 days); ‘Strawberry’ (85 days); ‘Sun Sweet’ (85 days); ‘Sweet Favorite’ (64-79 days).
  • Round, green: ‘Black Diamond’ (75-95 days); ‘Black Diamond Yellow Belly’ (90 days); ‘King and Queen’ (80-90 days); ‘Moon and Stars’ (100 days).
  • Round, striped: ‘Crimson Sweet’ (80-96 days); ‘Navajo Sweet’ (90 days); ‘Super Sweet’ (90 days).
  • Giant-sized: ‘Carolina Cross’ (100 days).
  • Space savers: ‘Bush Sugar Baby’ (80 days); ‘Garden Baby’ (75 days); ‘Petite Sweet’ (75 days); ‘New Hampshire Midget’ (77 days); ‘Sugar Baby’ (79 days).
  • Yellow or orange flesh: ‘Arikara’ (85 days); ‘Yellow Doll’ (75 days).

More varieties to grow: Watermelons for Home Gardens: Top 12 Varieties.

About Watermelons

  • The watermelon is a long-trailing annual plant.
  • Watermelons can be solid green or striped green and white.
  • Watermelons can be oval, oblong, and round.
  • Fruits can weigh from 10 or 15 pounds to more than 100 pounds. Fruits are commonly 30 pounds or more.
  • The watermelon has a thick, solid rind with sweet, succulent flesh that can be pink, red, yellow, orange, or grayish-white.
  • Male and female flowers appear on the same vine.
  • Botanical name: Citrullus vulgaris
  • Origin: Tropical Africa

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. Harvesttotable.com has more than 10 million visitors each year.

Comments

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  1. Hi Steve ,
    I live in Pensacola Florida. My March batch of watermelons are getting chocked out from the weeds. From what I’ve read I can plant a second batch in July. I want to use weed barrier this time but my concern is it getting to warm and possibly burning the leaves or melons. Any suggestions or advice to using the weed barrier with hot temperatures?

    • Horticultural weed barriers include bio-degradable paper which is often brown and may not soak up as much solar heat as black weed fabric. You can also put down cardboard. You might be able to salvage your weed-choked melons by lifting the melons and placing cardboard beneath them.

  2. Good Morning! I’m back at trying to grow watermelon again. I notice that my plants look healthy and are sprawling everywhere. I have to hand pollinate because we don’t have any bees. Many melons took well to my efforts and started off growing well. But now, it looks as if they are stalling. (Smaller than a golf ball.)

    Watermelons are all over the place but I haven’t gotten at least 3 on 1 vine yet so I can cut the shoots off. I gave them one feeding of liquid food with low nitrogen and higher p+k. Please, what can I do to help them out? I don’t like using the granular food.

    The roots are everywhere and I don’t want to disturb them. The first liquid feeding was last Saturday and I plan to give them more this Saturday as well, but the forecast calls for rain so I may have to either fertilize again either Friday or Sunday. Please, what can I do? 😐😔😔

    • Watermelon plants will be stressed if more than 3 fruits are growing on a plant; trim away the smallest fruits. Keep the soil evenly moist. Continue to feed every 7 days with a liquid organic fertilizer high in phosphorus–this will support fruit growth. If you expect a hard rain, place a row cover over the plants before the rain starts to protect the plants and fruit.

  3. Good Day Sir,

    May I please ask what’s good to get rid of mushrooms popping up all over in my garden? It normally happens when either I water my melons or feed them fish fertilizer. I am also encountering leaf curl and brown spots. I’m using daconil but I’m not sure if I need something else. Can you please help here?

    • Mushrooms are fungi. They are feeding on undecomposed or slowly decomposing organic matter in your lawn or garden soil. You can break down organic matter by adding nitrogen to the soil; however, this may result in leafy growth and fewer melon fruits. When mushrooms appear, you can remove them one by one and dig down a few inches below the mushroom to see what organic matter they are feeding on. Mushrooms thrive in moist soil. You can increase natural drainage by adding a commercial organic planting mix or aged compost to the soil when the planting beds are fallow.

  4. Hello Steve. Melons are starting to appear on the vines but it’s been about 3 days and the flowers on about 2 of them never opened. The flowers seem to be turning a little brown as if pollination occurred which is impossible in a screened house we built. I’ve pollinated 2 melons so far but I’m concerned as to why some of the flowers are not opening for days now.

    I also want to mention that the melons still looked healthy although the flowers look fist clenched tight with a touch of brown. I decided to remove them. Do you know why this is happening? Or is there something I should be doing? Even flowers in other areas of my container garden are experiencing some brown turning flowers with no melons present yet. Please help.

    • Too much nitrogen in the soil and too little phosphorus can cause flowers to not open. Temperature–too hot or too chilly–can also be a factor. Avoid high nitrogen fertilizer; use a fertilizer higher in phosphorus than nitrogen such as liquid kelp or kelp meal which is about 4 percent nitrogen and 13 percent phosphorus.

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