What to do this week –By Mark Govan, Host “Florida Gardening”
As we March towards spring I know many of you have started to plant your spring gardens. Tomatoes, eggplants, pole beans, and peppers are favorites many of us have planted in the past and are about to plant again. This week I would like to go over a few things that you may not have thought about planting in the garden or possibly have not even considered planting. Bitter Melons and Chayote are two items you may not have heard of before but actually can grow very well here. Both of these vegetables grow on vines and can be used as a screen or to cover a fence or arbor. One of these vegetables has medicinal purposes and one will give you a bushel full of tasty extras you will enjoy at the table. Let’s get started!
Bitter Melon (photo from bonnieplants.com) is an easy to grow vine that produces copious amounts of fruit. For those of you that may never had heard of the bitter melon, I suggest you go out and purchase one from a local fruit and vegetable dealer or Asian grocer and prepare the fruit with one of the many recipes online. If you find you like the exotic taste and you decide to grow this vine; then make sure you save some of the seeds and plant them in the garden. I normally will start my seeds in pots filled with a good quality potting soil and then transplant them into the garden once the roots have emerged from the base of the starting pot.
Why bitter melon? I like to try different things in my garden and this plant is something unusual that is rarely grown here but can give you something to talk about to your friends and neighbors. Some people will ask you why your cucumbers look so odd. This is because of the bumpy outer skin you can see from the photo above; this vegetable looks more like a cucumber than a melon the name suggests. Another reason to grow this vine is that most of our gardens are full of ground loving plants such as tomatoes or peppers and many of you have asked me to give you a few additional ideas of plants that do not take up ground space. All you need for the bitter melon is an arbor, a small trellis, or fence you want to cover.
If you grow bitter melon on an arbor, you will produce hanging fruit which will definitely gain attention from inquisitive neighbors. Make sure you start your vines in an area which receives full sun but also where the roots of the plant will get adequate moisture. As the vine reaches the top of the arbor, you should remove the terminal end of the vine along with a few of the lateral branches. Removing the tip end forces branching from this point and will give you a much stronger vine and more fruit.
Remember to keep the soil moist and to fertilize once a month with a good quality 8-10-10 granular fertilizer. Use about five pounds of fertilizer applied with a rotary spreader or hand held spreader for every one hundred square feet of garden space. Once the first flowers appear you will notice that no fruit will follow. These are the sterile male flowers and most will only last a day or so. Female flowers will follow and soon you will see a swelling at the base of the flower. This swelling is the start of your bitter melons. There are a few problems you should be aware of at this stage.
Powdery mildew and Downy mildews attack all cucurbits. Check your vines regularly for any signs of wilting leaves or a white film appearing on the upper surfaces of the leaves. If you suspect this may be happening to your vine you will need to treat the vine with Green Cure Fungicide. Green Cure Fungicide is an all natural organic fungicide which can control many diseases affecting leafy vegetable plants. If you can not find Green Cure Fungicide, look for products containing Daconil which is another fungicide labeled for vegetable crops. Be sure to read the label and mix accordingly. Use all product mixed in one application and do not leave your spray bottle half full for the next application. Once mixed with water, most fungicides loose their effectiveness so use all spray solution mixed. Repeat applications in seven to ten days.
Begin harvesting your bitter melons in about ten to twelve weeks. Look for mature green fruits about six to eight inches long which are showing the first hints of yellowing. Most people prefer to wait until the fruit turn a shade of yellow to avoid the bitterness in taste. The bitterness of the fruit varies with the length of time you allow the fruit to ripen. If you pick the fruit before the mature stage, the fruit can be very bitter to the taste. Those fruits left too long on the vine and turn completely yellow are probably over-ripe and will be soft to the touch. If the flesh inside the fruit is spongy, you waited too long.
When preparing bitter melons you will need to first wash the fruit then slice lengthwise to remove the pith and seeds. Save the seeds for future planting or sharing. Depending on your taste, you can slice or cube the remaining fruit and boil, pickle, or stuff with pork or shrimp. There are many recipes online which you can look up to help you get the most use from your garden. The most unknown facts about the bitter melon are its nutritional benefits.
Bitter melons contain quinine which gives the unprepared fruit its bitter taste. However, this fruit also contains iron, twice the beta carotene that broccoli has, two times the potassium that fresh bananas have, and twice the calcium of spinach. Chinese traditional medicine utilizes the bitter melon to aid in glucose uptake and to treat Type 2 Diabetes. (BonniePlants.com). In order to find out more about the benefits of using bitter melon in your diet you should consult your personal physician.
Another fruiting vine I highly recommend for the garden is called the Chayote.
Pick up a Chayote from the grocery store and plant in a pot filled with potting soil. Lay the chayote on its side with the bottom end facing up (see photo above). Cover with soil. Germination takes about two to three weeks. Chayote should be grown in plenty of organic soil much the same as the Bitter Melons above. Once the vine reaches the top of the arbor, pinch the tip ends to induce branching. Unlike Bitter Melon, the whole fruit can be prepared by baking, frying, stuffing, creamed, or buttered. Once the plant sprouts, you should be picking ripe fruits in about ninety days. Make sure you have a strong arbor or trellis to support the weight of your crop.
Each of these two vines can add a bounty of fruit and a new unique taste for your kitchen table. Besides being easy to grow, you will have an attractive attention grabber for the garden. Keep your eyes out for any powdery mildew problems and treat as necessary. I hope you enjoy growing both of these fruits and as always remember, without plants we would not be here!