Longing to grow watermelon in Maine

The climate just isn't right for the fruit that symbolizes summer.

A TASTE OF SUMMER: From the green rind to the sweet, red interior dotted with black seeds, a watermelon oh, so appealing on a steamy August day.

More than any other fruit, the watermelon bespeaks summer. Think picnics, barbecues, and super-market shelves brimming with these chunky zeppelins.

Once, when I was about 9 and living in New Jersey, a truck hauling a mountain of watermelons came rumbling down our street while my friends and I were playing stickball. It hit a bump and the watermelons tumbled out onto the ground. Hundreds of them. We all froze, struggling to hold temptation at bay.

The driver alighted, looked at the mess, and announced, “If you kids help me clean this up, you can each have a watermelon.”

He didn’t have to tell us twice. We swarmed over the street harvest, helped the man on his way, and each of us went home with the largest melon we could get our arms around.

In truth, the delicious watermelon is a rather comical fruit by virtue of its immensity. When I was a kid, I’d often beg my father to buy one in the supermarket.

More often than not he refused simply because he didn’t want to carry the thing home. For this reason, it’s hard to believe that in Japan the watermelon is a popular gift to bring to a host. (“Thanks so much for inviting me, Mr. Matsumoto. Here’s your watermelon!”)

For several years now my son Anton has tried to grow watermelon in our garden – even after I’d told him that watermelon didn’t have much of a chance in Maine.

But he was so insistent that we’d dutifully put seeds in the ground. They’d germinate, but always too late. By the time any flowers developed, summer was on the wane and incipient frost in the night air.

This year we tried again. We selected a variety called Sugar Baby, which has the shortest growing period I could find – 75 days. We germinated the seeds indoors while snow was still on the ground. Two tentative seedlings survived. We transplanted them outdoors in late spring, coddling them in their own little patch, with plenty of compost and mulch.

While our tomatoes form robust, junglelike walls of growth, the pole beans ascend to the sky with a vengeance, and the peppers bear so heavily that we have to stake almost every branch, Anton’s two watermelon vines are like the little engines that could. They have been creeping along, clearly healthy, but hesitant.

One day we went out to inspect them and found that one had wrapped a tendril around a dandelion, as if begging for assistance. Pitiful.

I am still skeptical about our prospects for success. The arrival of August announced summer’s denouement. The leaves of some of the oaks are already changing. And the evenings have grown appreciably cooler.

This is Maine’s dress rehearsal for the fall and winter that are already coming up the path like uninvited guests, waving at us with unbidden enthusiasm.

The other day, Anton and I were in the local supermarket. There was a display of watermelons – imported from the South, of course. They were blimp-shaped and had been stacked so they formed a pinnacle reminiscent of the Matterhorn.

Anton stood there admiring them, but then preempted me by saying, “It’s OK, Dad. We don’t have to buy one, because soon we’ll have our own. And they’ll be bigger than these.”

My heart ached for the lad. Of course, bigness is all that he’s thinking of, because it’s the characteristic one most often associates with watermelons. In 1990 a man in Tennessee grew a record melon - 262 pounds. Did Anton really expect us to provide him competition, much less get any fruit at all?

Well, favorable things do happen. In July, Maine received the gift of three weeks of intense heat and sun. It must have been just the ticket, because this morning Anton came running into the house. “Dad!” he cried. “Come quick! We have watermelons!”

I jumped up with the alacrity of a man who had a meteorite land in his yard. I followed Anton down to his melon patch and stopped short. All I could see were those two struggling plants, making their way in life but just not quickly enough.

Anton bent down and pointed. “See?” he pleaded. “Look closer.”

I did, and there, at the tip of his finger, was a small, green melon about the size of a grape.

“Isn’t it great?” he gushed.

Yes, indeed. And even if we don’t wind up with something we can sink our teeth into, I believe that the current small wonder will be enough to inspire my son to try again next year.

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