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Seedless Watermelons, Less Work for Consumers, More for Farmers

There's nothing like a cold slice of watermelon on a hot summer day -- if it weren't for all those seeds.

Watermelon lovers must agree. Consumer reports have shown that shoppers are willing to pay more to get their melons seedless. And farmers are hearing them loud and clear.

More and more growers are adding acres of seedless watermelons to their crops each year. In fact, of the 35,000 acres of watermelon grown in Georgia this season, 25 percent were seedless melons.

Introduced in the 50's

An estimated 20 percent of the watermelons grown in the United States are seedless. But seedless melons aren't new. The first were bred in 1951 by Dr. H. Kihara of Kyoto University in Japan.

"Seedless watermelons are actually called triploid watermelons by seed companies and growers," said John Duval, a horticulture graduate student with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"The name was developed," he said, "after consumers complained because every now and then, a seedless watermelon will have a seed inside."

A Little Smaller Than Traditional Melons

Seedless watermelons are normally red-fleshed and smaller than traditional melons. "One of the most popular varieties grown in Georgia is Genesis," Duval said. "You can tell if a melon is seedless by looking down it from the stem end. It will have a slightly triangular shape."

With the popularity of seedless melons on the rise, the acreage of Georgia-grown seedless watermelons is expected to rise to 50 percent over the next 20 years.

"Most of the seedless watermelons in the United States are grown in Georgia, Florida, Texas and California," Duval said.

Duval has spent the past three years researching seedless watermelons. Working at the UGA Georgia Experiment Station in Griffin, Ga., he developed techniques that could encourage more farmers to grow seedless melons.

Pricey Seeds, Stubborn Seeds

One reason they shy away from growing them now is the cost of seed. The other reason is that the seeds often don't grow well. "Seeds for seedless melons cost from 15 cents to 25 cents each," Duval said. "And then, there's only a 60 percent to 80 percent chance the seeds will produce."

Duval says the high seed price is a direct result of the difficulty breeders have in producing the seeds.

"It's like crossing a horse and a donkey," said Duval. "You get a mule, but it can't reproduce. Producing seedless watermelon seed is a long, tedious process. One successful cross produces just a few seeds."

Working on his research thesis, Duval found two methods that may help farmers' success rates with seedless melons.

"Seedless watermelon seeds don't germinate well. But I've had success by clipping the seeds before planting," he said. "You just clip a hole in the round end of the seed. Many Asian seed companies actually recommend doing this."

The other method Duval has found effective involves presoaking the seeds in a 1-percent hydrogen peroxide solution. "This helps pregerminate the seeds," he said.

Try Growing Your Own

Duval said backyard gardeners can try these techniques at home next season. "You can grow seedless watermelons at home," said Duval. "Just remember you need to start them as transplants before you put them in your garden spot."

He also warns backyard gardeners not to over water their seedless melon transplants. "They should be lightly watered to improve the air movement around the seeds until they emerge," he said. "If you water them too much, the seeds can't breathe."

Duval said seedless watermelon seeds should be available in small packets at lawn and garden centers. "If you can't find them there, you'll find lots of choices in seed catalogs," he said.

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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