Maine just doesn't have the ideal climate for his son's favorite summer fruit.
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.