Two University of Florida researchers, Nicholas Dufault and Xin Zhao, are currently on the team to examine grafting possibilities for the watermelon industry.
Dufault, an assistant professor and plant pathologist for vegetable and agronomic crops, said that crop rotation has been the primary technique for managing fusarium wilt in the past. This method has not worked as well recently as it has in the past, he said.
Around 2015 is when Dufault said growers were struggling with fusarium wilt in fields that had used crop rotation and had overall quality management practices. Creating another effective way for growers to manage fusarium wilt is one of the main ideas behind the research program, he said.
Zhao, associate professor, says grafting is performed by taking a susceptible cultivar and grafting it onto a rootstock of a resistant cultivar. In this instance, research is being done by grafting watermelon cultivars onto squash rootstocks. The research has been carried out through a Florida Specialty Crop Block Grant.
While disease management is a main goal for this project, there are some other goals as well. The first is to focus on maintaining the taste and eating quality of the fruit, Zhao says. She explains how a test was held in which consumers tasted the fruit and then answered a questionnaire. The answers helped researchers understand whether or not many of the eating qualities of the fruit had changed. Zhao says the questionnaire revealed there were not consistent, drastic changes to the fruit quality.
A possible issue with grafting is that it can be a costly tool for growers, Zhao says. Researchers are working alongside economists to conduct cost-benefit analysis.
Grafting with selected rootstocks can help plants deal with environmental stress conditions, such as low temperature. Zhao says there are some rootstocks that would help watermelon cultivars become less susceptible to cold stress. However, this research is in its early stages.
Zhao is continuing to work to optimize the efficiency of the grafted watermelon production system to help seedless watermelon growers tolerate some of the critical issues they face, such as soil-borne diseases.
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