Watermelon can be grown in all counties in South Carolina. However, commercial production is centered in counties of the low country and in the sand hills region of the upstate. Aiken, Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Colleton, and Hampton counties are the leading production counties in the low country. Chesterfield county leads production in the upstate.
Watermelon can be planted from seed or as a seedling transplant into raised soil beds. These beds can be open soil, or more commonly today, covered by plastic mulch which helps to heat up the soil quicker, holds moisture better, and provides a good jump start to the young watermelon plant. The use of plastic mulch helps improve yield, quality, and early market timing which is very important in the overall profit potential for this crop. South Carolina has been an innovative leader in the use of plastic mulch and fertigation systems to bring the best watermelon possible to market.
How does all of this happen?
PLANTING . . .
In preparing a field, land is disked, fertilized, and rows laid out by the farmer. Beds are then fully shaped, treated for weeds and soil borne pests, drip irrigation lines run, and plastic placed on top with the edges buried under the soil to hold it in place. This seems like a long process, but in fact, farmers have equipment that allows them to complete the soil treatments, lay irrigation lines, and lay out the plastic in one pass over the field.
Rows are typically laid out on eight or nine foot centers between rows in rows of six. A drive row or "heap row" of approximately 12 feet in width is left open after each sixth row to allow access for pest and disease management. This row allows access for farm equipment to work without destroying the watermelon vines. It also provides access for harvest equipment to get the end product out of the field.
Once a field is prepared, transplanters that are attached to a tractor are then pulled through the field over each row. These machines have an attached wheel that punches a hole in the plastic and the soil at predetermined intervals and places water in the planting zone. Plants are typically planted from 3 feet to 12 feet apart in each row. A mechanical planter then plants the seed in the ground or individuals hand place transplants into the plant zone.
IRRIGATING . . .
Once the field is planted, growers manage their plant beds to provide optimum growing conditions. Fertigation, which is the art of applying nutrients through irrigation water, then takes place to "spoon feed" proper nutrients throughout the field.
GROWING . . .
As the young watermelon plants begin to grow, they will "run" across the plastic and out into the row middles forming a beautiful canopy for fruit production. Vines are turned or clipped in the drive rows to keep them open for field operations. Blooms begin to open, pollination occurs as bees travel across a field, and less than thirty days after pollination, a mature watermelon is ready for harvest. From planting until the start of harvest typically takes from 70 to 80 days. Watermelons can produce well over 40,000 pounds per acre under well-managed systems. Even higher yields per acre are common by producers who take a managed approach to production utilizing drip irrigation, plastic mulch and fertigation techniques.
HARVESTING . . .
South Carolina Watermelons are typically planted from mid-March through April. Harvest will begin in early June and continues through July and into August.
Watermelons are harvested by hand. The first people in a field are a "cutting crew" that walks over a field and cuts mature watermelons off of the vine. These melons are then turned over so that their yellow underside will shine so that the harvest crew can easily see them.
Harvest crews enter the field and harvest three rows on either side of the drive row in each pass. Watermelons are passed to the drive row where they are placed in a field truck.
The harvested watermelons are then carried to a central loading location where they are graded for quality and sorted by size and packed into bins that will hold 35 to 55 watermelons, depending on the customer's specifications. Watermelon can also be placed into cartons that hold from four to six watermelons that are then placed on pallets for shipment. The old standby method of loading flat bed trucks with rows of watermelons is also used when a client prefers bulk loads. Watermelons are then transported by tractor-trailers to distant markets for consumers to enjoy.
PACKING AND SHIPPING . . .