Scott Koll, Senior Horticulturist
Synonymous with summer, picnics, and cookouts - what could be more wonderful than a sweet slice of watermelon?
Watermelons have a long and distinguished history. Believed to be native to west Africa, watermelons have long been cultivated in the Nile valley. Watermelon seeds were even found in the tomb of King Tut! Brought to the new world by Africans and Europeans, watermelons have been grown in Florida since the 16th century.
Watermelons require a long growing season and rich, sandy, well-drained soil. For these reasons cultivation is well suited to the deep South. Make sure you have plenty of room! Vines will soon overwhelm a small garden.
At the Zoo, watermelons are planted on hills, to provide good drainage, and watered close to the stem with micro-irrigation. This keeps the leaves drier, cutting down on fungal type diseases. Although watermelons require drainage, they also are heavy feeders and drinkers. Be sure to amend your soil with compost and perhaps an organic fertilizer and provide plenty of water.
Knowing when to harvest at the peak of delicious ripeness is an art. Some folks swear to thumping the skin, searching for a hollow sound. I prefer another method. Check the bottom of the fruit, where it rests on the ground. When the skin on that spot becomes more yellow/green then white (you may even see some slight striping in the spot) I harvest. I love my melons chilled, providing relief during the hot summer weather, but many prefer their fruit at room temperature.
Watermelon is really a very healthy item. Loaded with vitamins and lycopene (the same chemical that makes tomatoes red) which battle free radicals in the body and help to prevent many cancers. Watermelon also contains good amounts of fiber and is relatively low in calories.
At the Zoo we once grew a large variety of watermelon, ‘Carolina cross.’ We had one fruit measure in at 140 lbs! An amazing treat for our elephants, who love them, along with other animals including our great apes.
So tip your hat to this juicy fruit, and make sure you have plenty of napkins!
Botanical Garden Concept Plan: Setting a New Standard
For decades, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens has given Jacksonville and Northeast Florida residents a place to love animals. Now our mission is to offer our community a public place to love plants, while setting a new standard for zoos in the process. We are in the process of building a first-of-its-kind botanical garden inside our Zoo that, unlike other zoos, is integrated among the animal exhibits. Unlike most other growing and culturally-rich cities, Jacksonville cannot list a botanical garden as one of its cultural treasures.
Beyond filling an educational need, botanical gardens benefit their communities in many ways. They become tourist attractions, benefit the green industry, serve as an employer and pump millions of construction dollars into the regional economy. Over the past 400 years, botanical gardens evolved from a menagerie of medicinal plants to entering the 21st century with a strong focus on the concept of environmental sustainability. While some zoos have enhanced the natural habitat of their animal collection, none to our knowledge have committed to the idea of combining a zoo and botanical garden. This combination will only serve to strengthen each institution’s ability to foster a clear vision of sustainable conservation of our natural resources. With the help of a nationally-renowned botanical garden design firm, the Zoo developed three major garden zones in its Botanical Garden Concept Plan:
The Main Path, known as the River of Color: Visitors will begin their garden journey in the Main Camp Garden greeted with a celebratory display of striking foliage and flowering plants. They will be drawn toward the River of Color by drifts of colorful bloom swirling through ribbons of contrasting foliage and textures in the distance. Throughout the Zoo, the River of Color will be a linear garden that links garden destinations and animal exhibits.
Themed Pocket Gardens: Distinct and unique garden jewels of horticultural display that immerse the visitor in through plant themed forecourts to the animal exhibits that follow. Each garden is about 2 acres in size. Currently our Pocket Gardens include the African-Savanna Blooms Garden, South American-Range of the Jaguar Garden, the native gardens of Wild Florida and Play Park, the formal Gardens of Trout River, and the Asian Garden.
The Primary Gardens: In Jacksonville, visitors to the Zoo have recognized the unique relationship the Zoo shares with the Trout River. The beautiful native water-edge plants and spectacular panoramic views over the River set this area aside as something quite special. Recognizing this potential, we selected this area as the home for the Primary
Gardens which will cover approximately twelve acres and include Collection Gardens and the Conservatory.