Seed Production

by Todd C. Wehner
Department of Horticultural Science
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, NC 27695-7609

and Gary W. Elmstrom
Sunseeds Co.
7087 East Peltier Rd.
Acampo, California 95220

Early watermelon varieties were mostly inbred lines produced commercially by open pollination of bulk-increased or hand-pollinated breeder seeds. In the 1970s, large-scale production of diploid hybrid seed began. Diploid hybrids have now taken over most of the commercial production in North America, Western Europe, and Japan.

Hybrid Production

Hybrid seeds are produced in the seed parent by pollination from staminate flowers in the male parent. Hybrid production can be by hand pollination using inbred lines grown in adjacent rows in the field, or by planting the two parental lines in an insect-proof cage. Pollinations are marked for later seed harvest using tags or bags after pollination. Each fruit will have 200 to 800 seeds, and fewer than 4000 seeds are needed per acre of commercial production.

A less expensive alternative to hand pollination is to plant the two parental inbreds in an isolation block. Staminate flowers are then removed daily from the plants in the seed parent rows to avoid self- and sib-pollination. All pistillate flowers in the seed parent row that are pollinated during the days of staminate flower removal are tagged for hybrid seed harvest. Another solution would be to incorporate a recessive seedling marker such as non-lobed leaf or the glabrous gene into the seed parent. Seedlings resulting from self- or sib-pollinations would have the marker and could be removed from the planted field or removed from the transplant flats to get 100% hybrid seedlings. Conversion of the seed parent to a near-isogenic male sterile line offers the possibility of hybrid seed production without the work associated with the above three methods. However, genetic male sterility requires that male fertile plants be rogued out of the seed parent rows in the hybrid production block.

Seeds can be sorted after the seed cleaning operation by size, weight, or density to increase the proportion of hybrid seed in the lot. Diploid open-pollinated seed yields should be higher than 251 lb./acre (average for United States in 1976-1977). Very good seed yields would be 400 lbs./acre. Triploid seed yields average about 20-40 lbs./acre (about 10% what diploids would produce).

Commercial Systems

Most commercial watermelon seed production is located in arid or semi-arid areas of the world such as western China, Chile, Mexico, Thailand, and the United States (California and Colorado). Arid conditions favor the production of high quality, disease-free seeds. With the outbreak of bacterial fruit blotch of watermelon in the late 1980s, seed production in areas of low humidity and no rainfall has become even more desirable in order to produce disease-free seed.

Sanitation is important at all stages of production. Workers should wash their hands with antibacterial soap or rinse them with 70% isopropyl alcohol before handling plants or fruit and between seed lots. All equipment should be cleaned and all soil and plant material removed before use in production areas. Clean and disinfect harvesting tools and equipment with alcohol or 0.5% NaOCl or Ca(OCl)2 between seed lots. Sanitation, harvest, and control procedures for production of foundation and stock (parent) seed should be at least as stringent as that for commercial seed.

The process of growing watermelon seed crops is similar to that for growing market crops except that site selection is more critical. Choose a field that has not had any cucurbits (watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, cucumber, summer or winter squash, pumpkin, or gourd) in it for at least 2, but preferably 4 years. A field that has a history of fusarium wilt or anthracnose should be avoided. Fields for open-pollinated watermelon seed production should be isolated by at least 1 mile from other watermelon fields to prevent contamination by outcrossing. Isolation also prevents disease spread from fields containing watermelon and cantaloupe crops of unknown origin or planted with seeds that have not been tested for seed-borne disease. The production site should be as far as possible from fields where bacterial fruit blotch occurred the previous year to reduce contamination from leftover debris. Wild cucurbits, such as citron and volunteer watermelons, must be removed from a 1-mile radius surrounding the production field to eliminate outcrossing and disease contamination.

Selection of parental seed from elite or foundation seed is the first critical element of seed production. Use seed that was produced in dry climates and has been tested to be free of the pathogens causing gummy stem blight, watermelon fruit blotch, anthracnose, and squash mosaic. Direct-seeded plantings reduce the risk of seedling contamination in greenhouses. If transplants are used, they should be produced in a greenhouse that does not contain other cucurbits. Irrigation of transplants in the greenhouse preferably should be from an ebb and flow or a float system. Overhead irrigation of seedlings in the greenhouse should be avoided. Greenhouses for transplant production should have good air circulation and low relative humidity.

Drip or furrow irrigation should be used in the production field instead of overhead irrigation to reduce leaf wetting and disease spread. Roguing of off-type and diseased plants within the field should be done throughout the growing season. There are four useful stages for roguing. The first is before flowering when vegetative characters are checked. The second stage is at early flowering when morphology of undeveloped fruit is checked. The third stage is when the developing fruit are checked for trueness to type, and the final roguing is confirming the external morphological characters of the fruit to be harvested. Roguing for off-types is not effective after pollination in a field for open-pollinated seed production. It is only effective when fruit have been self or cross-pollinated and the male has no off-types. Inspectors should be trained to recognize variations in watermelon fruit blotch symptoms.

Preventative applications of copper fungicide can also help in reducing fruit blotch contamination of seed. The first spray should be 2 weeks before flowering. Application of registered fungicides will reduce gummy stem blight seed contamination. Seed should not be harvested from fields where there is confirmation of fruit blotch or until the possibility of fruit blotch is eliminated. Seeds harvested from fields in which fruit blotch is confirmed or which were adjacent to contaminated fields should not be used.

All fruit should be inspected by trained technicians for symptoms that are suspected to be fruit blotch. All fruit suspected of having fruit blotch must be discarded. No fruit should be harvested from vines that have anthracnose or gummy stem blight symptoms. When seeds of open-pollinated fruit, and in some cases, hybrid fruit, are mature the fruit are windrowed by machine. Windrowed fruit are picked up by self-propelled vine seed harvesters that crush the fruit and separate the seeds and pulp from the rind. For some hybrid seed production, fruit are harvested by hand and various sized seed extractors are used (Fig. 3.13). In either case, the diploid seed slurry is transferred to bins where it is allowed to ferment for 24 to 48 hours. During this time the sugars and gelatinous material surrounding the seeds are degraded.

Fermentation plus acid washing (1% hydrochloric acid) can reduce the chance of seed transmission of fruit blotch. Fermentation and acid treatment of triploid seed reduces seed viability, so is not recommended. Seeds extracted from tetraploid fruit for triploid seed production should be washed immediately. Seeds are separated from pulp and juice by washing in a rotary washer or flume system (Fig. 3.14). Some seed lots are dried by heat from the sun. However, higher quality seeds are produced using forced air warmed by propane heaters. Seeds are placed on flat drying beds or in large rotary dryers. Dry seeds are run through a mill containing sizing screens that separates large seeds from trash and small seeds.

All seed lots should be assayed for the presence of the fruit blotch bacterium, squash mosaic virus, and gummy stem blight pathogen by the best methods available. In Asia, cucumber green mottle virus is a problem and is seed transmitted. For fruit blotch, seedling grow-outs of at least 10,000 seeds per lot are currently used, but polymerase chain reaction (PCR) techniques may provide more efficient and sensitive methods. Coupling seedling grow-outs with PCR may be necessary for some situations. Squash mosaic virus can be screened with grow-outs. For gummy stem blight, seedling grow-outs or blotter tests using a minimum of 1,000 seeds per lot are recommended. However, PCR techniques may provide better methods in the future. Commercial seeds should be treated with a registered protectant such as Captan and Thiram before sealing them into cans, bags, or packets. Seeds should be stored in hermetically sealed containers at 6.5% moisture content, and no greater than 10% moisture. Under favorable storage conditions, seeds should last 4 years. To be salable, germination of the seed lot must be at least 70%.