Bitter Melon

Fall in Love with Bitterness

Bitter Melon… the name itself puts a lot of people off.  Many people in regions where it can grow year round don’t eat them because of the bitter taste.  At the same time many people who tried them fall in love with that bitterness and the heady after taste.  We include ourselves.  I have since childhood, in any type of cooking: in soup, stir flied, par boil with dip and in curry dish.  Then I got Bill hooked on them.  We have been looking forward every summer to our first bitter melon dish of the season.  I can feel its taste in my mouth just thinking about it.  It makes my mouth water.

Our neighbor disagreed at first.  We gave some to her another year, but she didn’t like it.  She diplomatically referred to it as an “acquired taste.”  I prepared a couple of dishes for her later on, soup and stir fried with egg, then she said it was interesting.  She will take some melons this year on condition that I show her how to prepare it.

This year we grew only one type, the greener, shorter, bumpier looking and more bitter type of the melon.  We used to grow the larger, lighter and milder type as well but it didn’t do well.  Maybe because we grew them next to one another and they cross pollinated.  The shorter type seemed to have  a stronger gene.  It turned the longer one to a half grown size and more bitter than usual.  We may try again next year but grow them on the opposite side of the garden.  We may also ask the bees to please not cross-pollinate them this time.

Greener and more bitter

I was surprised to learn that bitter melon has been around in the US since Colonial time.  Back then they grew it as a decorative vine for cottage gardens.  I can imagine why.  The canary yellow flower of the melon stands out from the green toothed foliage, and the fragrance is exceptionally sweet.

Canary yellow with sweet fragrance

When I was in the garden, especially in the morning when the fragrance is strongest, it’s very soothing. The bright yellow of ripe fruit when it splits open is such a contrast with the bright red seeds inside.  It’s also a sight to see.  We don’t see this sight that often since we always picked the fruit when they were still green.  You can’t eat the ripe one; it will make you sick.

Pretty, but you shouldn't eat this.

Well, it’s not just a pretty looking vine.  You can eat every part of it, except the ripe yellow fruit.  Throughout Asia, it is well known as a medicinal plant.  Leaves and the unripe fruit are good for combating diabetes. I knew this fact years ago because my mother did research on this subject among others at her pharmacology department.

Mentioning bitter melon to colleagues at work, they all have their own recipes,  Needless to say, I’m begging them for their recipes.  I want to try as many different ways of preparing bitter melon as I can find.  I’ll share all that I get with you.

Grouchy Gardener

Things I Shouldn’t Have Done in the Garden

I have always loved a long weekend when the weather is nice.  There are many things I can do in the garden without having to end early to accommodate work the next morning.  I had a plan for this past Memorial Day weekend, a long list of things that needed to be done in the garden.  Seedlings that needed to be put in, moving the solar fountain, dead-head spent flowers from the Azelias and turning the compost pile were just part of the list I needed to accomplish during these three days.

Then came Sunday May 30, I went out in the garden bright and early to take photographs of new blooms.  It was a breezy morning so I had to pause during takes and wait for the wind to stop.  Instead of wasting time standing by the tripod, I looked around for a new photogenic objects for my next shoot.  He showed up.  A mole.  This tiny dark grey fuzzy guy crawling up the grass slope with his little paws.  What on earth was a mole doing above ground during daylight…this thought came to mind when I ran toward the mole.  I guess he sensed the vibration because he wheeled and ran down the slope.  That prompted me to turn as well.  Bam! It became the Memorial Day weekend that I will remember for the rest of my life.

The culprit

My right foot slipped on the slope while my left foot tried a different direction and I fell on it.  I didn’t exactly see stars, more like a whole galaxy and simultaneously a sharp pain in my left ankle.  Still able to wriggle my toes, no blood, nothing protruding from the skin, but I couldn’t stand up.  Everytime I tried, the galaxy reappeared with enough pain and nausea to knock me out.  Now what?  I was home alone, my cellphone was in the house and I couldn’t walk. I crawled back to the patio door.

Orthopedic surgery to add a metal plate and seven screws to my ankle and a month later I’m still in a cast.  I look longingly out at the garden, upset with myself.  I should have known better.  Things I shouldn’t have done that morning: Running + crocs + a steep slope = toast. Well, that’s all fibula over the dam now.  Gardeners be warned: Crocs are great for working in the garden but avoid the 50 yard dash, and if you’re a nose tackle stick with cleats.

Incapacitating yourself in spring is not recommended for gardeners, unless you want to watch your garden turn into a jungle.  Here’s the outcome of my mishap:

– I will have a lot of daisies, calopsis and coneflower in the garden next year since I couldn’t cut the spent flowers. The American Goldfinches love them and will now spread the seeds all over the yard.  I love them too, but I love a cottage garden more than a prairie.

– My garden has turned into a wildlife sanctuary.  I couldn’t chase anything with one leg and crutches.  All the unwelcome guests, rabbits, deer, woodchucks, chipmunks, raccoons, squirrels…, enjoy the garden jungle  and the food that it provides.  The lovely song birds have to fend for themselves among thieves like Grackels, Starlings and House Sparrows.

Depression has been my companion for more than a month since I can only look at the garden but cannot do much of anything aside from watering the vegetables. This once happy punter gardener has turned into a grumpy one.

Then came July 2nd, a month to the day of my ankle surgery, a gutted mole was left on the lawn just a foot away from where I fell.  I guessing that the lack of bird seed, suet, and fresh water for a whole month drove the birds to contract a ‘hit’ on the mole.  I think the Bluejays ‘whacked’ him.   There wouldn’t be anything left if it were a hawk or crow and they needed a ‘stiff’ as an example.  As yucky as it looked, its presence and my imagination brought me right out of my depression.

Thank’s for the hit, kids.  I remain your grateful ‘consigliere.’

Clematis Montana

A Wonderful Surprise

We were looking for a vine to cover our ugly pool fence.  It was my task to search under our agreed guidelines: something that will produce fragrant flowers, not just green. I thought Clematis  Terniflora “Sweet Autumn”  would be really nice.  Since it will flower in late fall to early winter when most of our flowers will start to fade and it will produce abundant small fragrant white flowers.  So I ordered it from a nursery.  It came to us bare-root, just a stick and a few roots nothing else.  I planted it just right by the pool fence and watched it grow, anxiously.  The first year it crept up only  a few feet on the fence, nice looking green leaves with a hint of burgundy.  On the second year, it started to form flower buds in spring… odd.  Something wrong here.  The clematis I bought was supposed to flower in fall.  Or, maybe it flowers twice a year, I didn’t give up hope for “Sweet Autumn.”

Then the first flower opened up.  It was pale pink! As much as I wanted to keep my hopes up, I wasn’t color blind.  It’s definitely not Sweet Autumn. But what is it?  I searched my library and online, looking for any large, single, pink, fragrant clematis. Finally, it’s a Clematis Montana var. Rubens ‘Tetrarose’.

Clematis montana var. rubens 'Tetrarose'

A native of the Himalayas and Central and Western China and can grow close to 30 feet long. But what surprised me most was that it ‘s not supposed to grow in zone 5 (our zone); it grows in zones 7-9.  I mentioned that I have a  Clematis Montana in the garden to one of the vendors at local farmer’s market who sold variety of Clematis and she insisted that I cannot grow it in this zone.  The next time I brought pictures along, she didn’t want to talk to me after that.

It was a really wonderful surprise and now I love it more than my original choice though I ended up getting that later on. When all the Montana flowers opened, the fence was covered with mauve pink and the whole area was scented with wonderful vanilla fragrance.  I love to get my nose close to it. Now we can hardly wait for spring.  It blossoms right after the Daffodil fades, and that’s when the wave of flowering in our garden starts.  

The only thing I would wish for is that it could bloom from spring right through autumn.  At this point I’m satisfied with my luck. I got the ugly fence well covered… too well I think since it’s climbing on not just the fence but every plant that it can reach.  I will have to trim it down this year though.  It starts to get too unruly and annoy its neighbor.  But its beauty got hold of my heart; I added two more Clematis to the garden: a Crystal Fountain and a Belle of Woking.  To quote Forest Gump “life is like a box of chocolates….” well, bare-root plants are like a surprise waiting to happen.

Here, another friend

Fuzzy Weedwacker

I had rabbits as pets when I was a kid.  We kept them in a pen all the time since we didn’t want them to be mauled by our dogs.  One day one of the rabbits dug out from under the pen and committed suicide by jumping in the pond.  I’m joking.  He thought the duckweed that covered the pond’s surface was turf grass, so he jumped in.  We helped him out but he died a few days later.  Once the other two rabbits died, that was the end of rabbits as pets.  Until I planted a garden….

They are not exactly our pets, but they are part of our garden.  We are friends as long as they stay on the lawn and eat only weeds.  Yes, they love broad-leaf weeds like Dandelion and Plantain…hence the name Fuzzy Weedwacker.

Fuzzy Weedwacker in the flower bed

One of them doesn’t care at all when I walk back and forth close to him while I was working in the yard.  He continues munching the weeds.  Once in a while he violates our treaty by nipping off Hosta, Echinacea and other broad-leaf close by.  This year he has already leveled two clumps of Echinacea, but hasn’t touched any Hosta yet.  I caught him red-handed, more like red-pawed, by one of the Echinacea.  He stopped and made such an innocent face…’nooooo, it wasn’t me.. I was just checking it.’  But, I wasn’t buying.  I chased him out of the flower plot.  He jumped a few steps back to the lawn and continued to chew on Dandelion, disappointed, may be.

He can hang out with us as long as he stays away from the flowers.  I never liked rabbit meat anyway.  Aside from helping us get rid of the weeds, he also guards the garden from other rabbits.  I saw him chase the other rabbit away from the yard last year.  He actually chased that rabbit  across the road to our neighbor’s yard, not just out of our garden.  Then he came back and stood guard under the Japanese maple, his favorite spot.

2:30 p.m Siesta time… After munching under the sun for a while, it was time for afternoon napping.  Sprawled on his side showing off his white underbelly, eyes closed.  He opened his eyes lazily when I got too close, but never got spooked or jumped up.  If I do my normal stuff like carting a wheel barrel or digging somewhere close by, he would just closed his eyes.  Once in a while he would get up and scratch, change position and go right back to sleep.


But when Bill gets the lawn tractor out, he repairs to his bungalow under the Forsythia, cracks open a brew and turns on the TV.  We wouldn’t give him a drop of our cable, so he uses rabbit ears.  He’s generally a good guy, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t litter and acts as an indicator for us.  When all we can see of him is his ears, that’s our cue to get out the mower.

Little Helpers

My little helpers finally showed up

If you want to grow an organic garden, you will have to enlist your little friends around the garden to join in with their large help.  The birds, bees, ladybugs, lacewings, earthworms, toads… to name a few.  As long as you don’t try to kill them with petricide and load your soil with chemicals they will hang around and give you a hand.  Providing something for them to eat will help even more.  They like us that way.  Would you like to hang out in a place where anything you touch may slowly kill you?  How about in a place bereft of good food?  The answer is “no”, providing that you are not self destructive.  The same goes with friends in the yard.

The only pesticide I use comes from soaking Camel cigarette (non-filtered) overnight then mixed with diswashing soap.  I usually pick the bugs or caterpillars off by hand.  Most of the time my little friends are around ready to offer a hand, actually legs, and happily chow down at the same time.

The Ladybugs showed up a couple of weeks ago despite the uneven weather.  They work hard on checking the top and bottom of rose leaves for Aphids. Even while mating, she still keeps working.  Her ability is really admirable.  I didn’t want to bother them.  I need to enlist their babies (larva) as well. If you see something that looks like it just chased Sigourney Weaver around in a movie wearing black with yellow or orange stripes, don’t squash it.  You don’t want to kill your ally.

Lady Beetle Larvae

One problem is that they work wherever they want to work.  I tried to cup some of them in my hands and move them to a rose bush that had more Aphids, but they usually flew off and either landed on a plant near by or on me.  I gave up.  Just wonder how people who buy them for the garden make them stay in the garden.  We have a lot of them in the garden but they only stay where they feel like.  They don’t take to leashes and we couldn’t find an electronic ankle bracelet small enough.

Cooper’s Hawk

Mr. Shorty

That’s the nickname of our residence Cooper’s Hawk.  We considered other nicknames briefly, Howard Hawks; Hudson Hawk, perhaps Danny Aiello’s least proud film; Tony Hawk, but that last one was definitely beneath him.  ‘Shorty’ fit the best for someone about the size of a loaf of bread.  We can’t tell which gender so we have arbitrarily assigned “he” due to his majestic countenance.  He has been with us since the winter 2008.  I’m not sure exactly what drew him to us that winter, the warmth of the patio woodpile or plenty of food for him in the area.  I noticed him one morning when I looked outside our bedroom window.

Waiting for lunch to come by

There he was hanging out quietly on the woodpile on the patio outside our kitchen.  I guess he knew that he doesn’t look like a turkey so it’s safe to be close to our kitchen.  I first photographed him, then took a video of him plucking a Downey Woodpecker.  Mr. Shorty trusted me enough to let me open the bedroom window, stick the camera out and take his portrait.  He even let me go out the patio door and take his photo with just a three foot wide glass table between us.  It was an amazing experience.  Perhaps slightly perturbed, he put up with me until I threw some ground turkey at him.  Well, I did it with good intention since I saw him miss a few catches… He seemed hungry.  ‘Here, some fresh ground turkey.’  Insulted, he flew off.  Bill said he probably got insulted that the turkey I offered wasn’t as fresh as our organic songbirds.  But, he was back the next day.

This past winter he pretty much lived with us.  As much as we like him and are in awe of his nobility and dignified look, we love our song birds more.  We wish that he would be more discriminating against Starlings, House Sparrow, Cow Bird and Grackles, but Downey Woodpeckers seem to be his favorite…. in a horrifying way.  Bill started to chase him off the patio.  I like playing ‘good cop.’  He flew off annoyed and circled around the house to the Rhododendron in the front.  When he was chased from the front, he would fly to the tree in the back yard.  If we annoyed him enough, he would fly off to the forest nearby.

We discovered leftovers under the rhododendron and realized we’d found his current favored picnic area.  So we took a cue from the Park Service and fenced it off with a slightly smaller gage than we thought he could fit through.  He has adapted, but it did shorten his roosting areas.

Perhaps he has a conscience or just felt sorry for us because lately we’ve found the remains of Blackbirds and Mourning Dove.  We have a surfeit of both so perhaps I should post a thank you note to him since the doves love to sit on my seedlings and don’t do much else and the Blackbirds are among the more annoying pests that rob the feeders and chase out the song birds.  Of course, if he ever develops a taste for squirrel, ..we have plenty of them too.  But that’s another bird feeder tale.

Building competition

Choosey little builders

The building competition  has been going on for the past few weeks.  Today was much more so, especially the House Wren and the Tree Swallow.  A bird house by the vegetable garden is taken over by a loud little singer House Wren since any Swallow that tried to take it were chased away by the old pair.  The House Sparrow tried to take over after the Swallows left but I did my best to make sure that they had no chance.  The House Wren came around a couple of days ago.  Well, his voice came first.  A tiny brownish guy with a very loud chirp. He decided to take the house, who knows may be as a decoy.  Last year, one of the Wrens built three houses but really nested in only one of them.  I didn’t know that Wrens could be so choosey.  He removed some grass that the Swallow put in the house.  For the first couple of times he was nice enough to take it back to the brush pile near by, but later he just dropped it after he pulled it out.  Then he picked some small twigs and started to build his home.

He would fly out and land on his roof each time after putting a new twig in and chirp a recitative.  I have no idea what he was announcing, but I think  more like “It’s my house, don’t even think about it.” or “Here, ladies.. a great comfy house.. you can see sun rise from the bedroom..”

The other choosey ones…Tree Swallows.  For her comfort, he lines the nest with white feathers. Have you ever seen a flying metallic, dark blue bird with a pure white feather between his beak? It was an interesting sight to see.  The only thing that topped it was a Robin flying with a latex glove dangling from his beak.  Once the swallow was done with the feather, he came around with a piece a grass around two feet long.  He gave up after a few tries…he couldn’t get it in the house!  Then he’s back with a shorter one. With a Wisteria next to the house, they won’t need air freshener after the kids poop.

I will let you know whose kids sing first.

What happened to spring??

You can call us … crazy

I had just come home from work at around 9:00 p.m.  The weather advisory freaked me out…. frost warning! Shouldn’t I be freaked?  It was 60 or 70 degree during the day a few days ago and night time temperatures have been in the upper 40’s.  I had put some of the seedlings in the ground, the ones that are hardy enough to deal with 40 degrees at night.  Some of them are even happy with a little cold like the little Sugarsnap peas.  They were fine until tonight.

The wind has been howling all day and seem to pick up even more at night.  The cold front is moving in from Canada and the temperature may drop to below 30 degrees.  We were out with our jackets on and we still felt the chill.  The poor seedlings need jackets!

Yes, at 9 p.m, we were out there with heavy duty garbage bags to cover rows of peppers, celery and sugar snap peas and weigh them down with firewood logs and stones.  The Moonflowers that were just about to reach the trellis went in hiding under tall plastic soup containers that I have been collecting.  Hopefully, they will not freeze to death.

We walked around the yard with a flashlight to make sure that we didn’t forget anyone.  We took the solar fountains in as well, just in case.  It’s better to be safe than sorry since they will freeze only once and not work again after that.

This is love.  Love makes you crazy.  Love makes you care.  And, sometimes it seems it seems a little obsessive.  But, I don’t mind being called “crazy” because I couldn’t let these little guys freeze to death out there.

Well, there is a way to reason this.  I will have to wait a few more weeks before I can eat them, if I let them die.  How’s that?  It’s a good enough reason to brave the cold at 9 p.m. with a flashlight to cover them up.  Oh, I will have to free them for sunlight tomorrow morning before I go to work too.


To Swallow, ..or Not:

They came to our garden for the first time last year, late in the spring.  We got so excited when we saw them checking out the bird-houses we had put up in hope of attracting Bluebirds.  Didn’t expect them to take up residence since they always stayed so high up in the sky. Settling in wasn’t so peaceful either.  The pest, as all the gardeners and birders know, the House Sparrows, tried to steal the house.  Actually the Sparrows were trying to take every single house in the garden.  We, especially I, were never going to let it happen. I kept checking every house like a nut case, after seeing the Sparrow going in and out.  I became a home-wrecker,  demolished every single House Sparrows’ nests that ever built in the birdhouses. We did trap one sparrow, insistent on declaring sovereignty over one birdhouse, by clapping a gloved hand over the opening until the “Havahart” trap could be pushed up to the opening.  He swooped out and into the cage.  We released him 20 miles north.  In the end, the swallows turned out to be feisty enough to defend their own property.  We watched as one day, a swallow grabbed a heckling sparrow in mid-air and slammed him into the ground.  Unhurt but rattled, the sparrow left them alone after that.

They are back early this year, early April when the air is still cold.  Straight back to the same old house they nested in last year.  They didn’t take long to check the other houses on the premises.  Apparently the same house has good memories.  The kids 1st pre-masticated bug.  The kids 1st singing lesson.  The 1st lawn party, ..wait, wrong memory.  There are, by our casual count, at least two pairs of swallows in the neighborhood this year.  We presume the 2nd pair might be last years kids, but they are arguing over property so we can’t be sure.

We did put up a 2nd bird-house about 15 feet away from the currently occupied one.  That was the official ‘bird book’ distance.  But the primary swallows make sure they buzz anyone that tries to inspect the real estate.  We’ll have to move that house further away.

Meanwhile, we await the return of the hummingbirds and hope that the wrens nest again this year in the backyard.  The Cardinal family that nested in one of the rose bushes had a maternal fatality that ended the kids future before they had fledged.  Hopefully they’ll try again this year, close enough for us to watch.

Spooky Encounter

Don’t worry it’s not poisonous

Yes, right!  But, I was programmed to jump every time I see a snake, poisonous or not.  Growing up in the tropics you learn pretty fast not to mess with cold-blooded slithering creatures because they can kill you in minutes.  I learned to identify Cobra, Krait and the lesser poisonous ones as well as the non-poisonous Pythons since I was a kid.  Once we found a Python coiled up in the kitchen at my parents home, that gave me pause for a second before I chased him out.  Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t a pet.  He came in looking either for warmth or food.  We had enough of these guys in the neighborhood that we didn’t need to welcome him in our home.  Why didn’t I smack him and make him into a small purse?  We believe that Pythons are sacred, plus they eat rodents.  They are good, practical protection.

Anyway, it’s not like I am afraid of non-poisonous snakes but it spooks me when I unexpectedly  encounter one.  I was programmed to jump first.  Poisonous or not, they, would coil to strike at you first if they were surprised.

After I realized that we have a little guy, a Garter snake as our full time resident in the yard, I have been very careful to scan the area where I walk.  Bill laughed.  He had a snide comment “Aw, he’s not gonna kill you.  He’s as spooked as you are. The worst he can do is pee on you and that stinks.”  Right!  Thank you. And that should re-program me just like that.

I say one because I usually see one at a time, but I’m not sure exactly how many of them are in our garden since I have seen it in the vegetable garden, outside the vegetable garden, in the wood pile, on the other side of the pool deck, in the flower plot.  I couldn’t tell the difference from one to another.  Most of the time we just jumped back from each other.

I have to accept that he or she  is a good looking fellow.  Look at all those scales, copper eyes and red and black tongue moving in and out to sniff you.  Well, from what I heard, once you have a snake in your garden the eco system is complete.  That’s a nice thought.  I feel sorry for the little frogs and toads who serenade us every night, though.

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