There's not much better on a hot day than a cool, sweet watermelon. Farmers from all over south Georgia have worked hard for months to provide that juicy treat.
"There's a good supply of quality melons this year," said Darbie Granberry, a horticulturist with the University of Georgia Extension Service. "People willing to look just a little can find a bargain on a melon -- at least a reasonable price."
Last year, Georgia farmers sold nearly $63 million worth of watermelons, mostly in Brooks, Crisp and Wilcox counties. That was up by just over 25 percent over 1994. And it added up to less than 10 cents per pound.
Granberry said most Georgia watermelons get to market in late June or very early July.
"Farmers plan to harvest just in time for the Independence Day holiday," he said. "So many people plan picnics or other meals then and want a watermelon."
But you can buy melons much longer, he said. Some farmers start picking in early June and others continue through early August.
This year, lingering cold and then rain kept farmers from planting early. That delays their harvest, too, by the same length of time. But Granberry said he expects plenty to be available for holiday picnickers.
Watermelons come in all shapes, sizes and color patterns. There are nearly round ones, long ones and short, fat melons. All of these shapes come in many shades of green and many patterns on the rind. Some even have yellow-orange flesh.
"The shape, or if it has seeds or not, or the color of the rind or flesh doesn't make a lot of difference when it comes to taste," Granberry said. "How it's grown and when it's picked are much more of a factor than variety."
This year saw superb weather for watermelon growers, once they got their crop into the ground. Hot, dry days helped keep disease problems from even starting. And farmers irrigated to give their plants the water they needed.
Getting enough water helps the vines grow and makes larger leaves, Granberry said. The leaves generate the substances that form the sugar that makes watermelons sweet.
Farmers must pick their melons at just the right time, too. Once picked, sugar formation all but stops. "If it's not ripe when it's picked, it never will be," Granberry said.
As the watermelons mature, they show certain signs of ripeness. People use many ways to test for a ripe melon. "Thumping" is a popular way, but Granberry said only the most experienced watermelon pickers rely on this method.
"If you're looking at a melon in the grocery store, the most accurate way to tell if it's ripe is the ground spot," Granberry said. "That spot will be a yellowish-white on a ripe melon as opposed to a greenish-white on an unripe one."
Often, seedless melons can be sweeter than seeded ones, but they can cost more. It takes a little more effort to grow seedless melons, and farmers ask more for them.
"Some of the best-tasting, most delicious melons I've tasted were seedless," Granberry said. "But people's preferences vary."
Their needs differ, too.
"There's no reason to deprive yourself of a watermelon just because they're all too big," Granberry said. Farmers grow smaller melons, too, for just one or two people. Some stores even offer melon halves or quarters.