The Arid Watermelon: Gardening in Times of Drought

Picking the right plant varieties can make gardening with little water a real possibility.

(Photo: Doug Cannell/Getty Images)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The one thing my dad refused to plant in the garden, despite my youthful demands, was watermelon. Unlike zucchini or cucumbers, other members of the Cucurbitaceae family, melon vines are lengthy, searching things, reaching tendrils out into each and every available nook and corner around them. That, and the promise of harvesting numerous twenty-pound-plus melons from the vines—perhaps too much of a good thing?—was enough to keep the plant out of his yard.

Apparently, I’m not quite finished with rebelling against my father, because I’m determined to grow watermelons in my own garden this year, even if I have less space in my terraced L.A. yard then he did on our quarter-acre lot in Fairfield, Iowa. If the vines take over, the vines take over. There’s another problem with the plant, however, that we wouldn’t have had to worry about in the humid climate of a Midwestern summer: water. As their name—and texture—suggests, watermelons are largely liquid. For the fruit to swell with all of that sugary juice, the plants prefer to be watered regularly and deeply. And with the drought dragging on into its third hot, dry summer, that kind of gardening just doesn’t make sense in Southern California.

But I’m still growing watermelons this summer—an heirloom variety called Desert King, supposedly favored by growers in Arkansas—which is one of the more drought-tolerant varieties of watermelon around. With genetics mitigating the plant’s legendary thirstiness, and Southern California supplying plenty of summer heat, I’m hoping that I can get a decent crop of the yellow-fleshed melons without causing a spike in my water bill.

Driving through the Central Valley—which is as dry and miserable as I’ve ever seen it—over the holiday weekend, I thought a lot about my watermelon plan. Interspersed between dusty, fallow fields and brown patches of rangeland were the acres and acres of tree orchards—almonds and citrus and stone fruit—that drive the economic engine of California’s agriculture industry. Almonds, the state’s biggest cash crop, consume a full 10 percent of the state’s water; much of the harvest is destined for export. All things considered, almonds aren’t a particularly thirsty crop.

If the Valley represents a system of water management and agriculture that’s deeply threatened by drought, then what kind of small-scale alternative can I culture in my own garden? Is it really possible to have my watermelons and my water conservation too? Of course there are “water-wise” solutions like drip irrigation and moisture measuring tools that make the application and timing of watering more efficient and effective. While that’s all fine and good, I’m interested in planting a garden that intrinsically needs less water—not smarter irrigation.

This experiment goes back a couple of years, when I was living in an apartment and trying to grow tomatoes in terra-cotta pots. Like melons, tomatoes are composed largely of water, and a certain school of gardening thought says that plants should be watered heavily and regularly—as much as twice a day if you’re using planters, like I was at the time. So I watered my tomatoes daily, and even with the small pots and aggressive shade of an ever-larger ficus tree, I managed to harvest a decent amount of fruit that summer. Two other experiences, however, convinced me that I needed to be using far less water on my tomatoes in the coming year—and not for any ecological reasons but because of flavor.

I tasted a dry-farmed tomato, grown without any irrigation, at the Santa Barbara farmers market that summer, and it was far and away the best I had ever eaten. Unlike the fat heirlooms I was buying in Los Angeles, the smaller tomatoes were more dense—in texture, yes, but mainly in flavor. They were like the tomato-paste equivalent of fresh tomatoes, the sum of five fruits stuffed into one. The reason was simple: When tomatoes are grown with less water, the fruit is less diluted, leaving the flavor unadulterated.

The history of tomatoes suggests that the ancestors of today’s varieties, the Mortgage Lifters and Black Krims alike, preferred things on the dry side. The wild relatives of our domesticated species still grow in the Chilean Atacama, one of the driest deserts in the world. Similarly, watermelons are thought to have originated in the Kalahari Desert, in Southern Africa, and were being cultivated in Egypt 5,000 years ago. Attempting to grow tomatoes and melons in an arid climate is nothing new.

Last year’s tomatoes, the first I planted in this backyard, were watered as infrequently as I could manage, the hose turned on only when the leaves that drooped in the afternoon heat didn’t perk up after sunset. The bed I grew them in, six plants in all, started out as hardpan in the spring—a patch of dirt so dry and compact that a shovel couldn’t break it up. My dad, visiting from Iowa last April, bought me a pickax so I could deal with it properly.

Having started the year with what resembled a concrete slab more than a garden bed, I didn’t end up with too many tomatoes last summer, although the plants stayed healthy, even with the infrequent watering. The deep roots they developed to seek out more moisture helped further break up the soil. A few week ago, after I pulled the fava beans that preceded them to make way for peppers and eggplant, the drainage was perfect—the water immediately soaking down into the soil, going straight to the new transplant’s roots.

Part of the reason I spend so much time thinking and writing about gardening—aside from finding the subject endlessly fascinating—is to make up for the lack of free time I have to do the actual work. I haven’t got around to planting tomatoes yet, and the Desert King seeds remain in their packet. I’m expanding from the one bed I had last year, and while I hammered together the frame for the new bed weeks ago, I still haven’t spent the quality pickax time I need to break up the new plot.

I did, however, manage to plant another small experiment planting, one that likely won’t yield any of the actual product that the crop is used to make—but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a success.

Back in the spring, I planted two rows of sweet sorghum, the stalks of which are pressed for their juice and boiled down into a molasses-like syrup. Long before corn and soy dominated the Midwest, before sorghum came to be strongly identified (in this country, at least) with the South, it was grown by farmers across Iowa. The state produced 3 million gallons of sorghum syrup in 1863. One of the varieties I planted, Iowa Sweet, is named for that all-but-lost tradition.

The row of Iowa Sweet is still getting going, the stalks just reaching knee-high, but the other variety I planted has taken off—the tallest plants, topped with red-hued tassels, are already six feet tall. I’ve only watered them once.

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