Tag Archives: bitter melon

Maximizing Space

Growing Vertically

We devote only a small part of our backyard for vegetable gardening and I’m always looking for a way to add more plants and increase productivity in the existing space.  Though we have put a deer fence up around our backyard, we still have to put a low fence around the vegetable garden.  If we don’t, there would be nothing left.  Deer cannot get in our back yard but rabbits, woodchucks, squirrels and chipmunks are still able to sneak in and enjoy what we grow.  So we are limited to growing vegetables within this little fenced in area, therefore I try to make every inch work to its maximum productivity.

Looking back at the last season, I note what worked and integrate it into the coming season along with whatever adaptation increases efficiency.  The method described below can be used for any plants that grow vertically, not just vegetables.

Aside from incorporating different plants in any one plot, I also grow vertically.  While most gardeners grow beans on a cone shaped ‘teepee’ I believe, I put up a trellis for beans that’s over the path, high enough to walk under, and grow beans on each side.  Last season, I put one up by the vegetable garden entrance.  It worked well and when the beans were fully grown and had developed pods, it looked beautiful and provided easy access for picking the beans too.  The trellis can be moved to any part of the garden easily when needed or I can grow different vegetables on it.

The bean trellis early last July. You can see the netted frame structure behind it.
Toward the end of July, beans have grown to cover the trellis with plenty of pods. It’s easy to walk under when picking beans.
I’m not sure what type of beans these are but their ancestry is Italian. My neighbor brought the seeds back years ago and we have been growing them ever since. They are delicious as young pods as well as dried beans later.

Once the weather was warm enough to remove the plastic from the cold frame, I put up a net in its place, see the first photo, to filter and soften the sunlight.  It reduces the light by about 50%.  Leafy vegetables like lettuce, Mitzuna, and Pac Choi prefer a little shade.   In the middle of summer, when the temperature is high and the sunlight is strong, these leafy vegetable will bolt easily and the lettuce will turn bitter.  With shade over them, they can take their time to grow, their leaves are crisp and sweet and the soil will dry more slowly.  I grow Bitter melon on the side of the frame structure and let them entwine themselves up the frame.  I gradually roll back the filtering net as the melon plant grows allowing it to take over shading the vegetables below.

Bittermelon growing up the frame (see first photo) and completely covering the top of the structure, providing shade for the leafy vegetables below.
The melon fruit hangs down making them easy to pick
Early in the season when the structure still cover with a filtering net. Vegetable that do well in semi-shade here are-Left front to back- Wasabi Arugula, Chinese broccoli, two types of lettuce. Right front to back- Mizuna, three types of Mustard greens
Later on when the melon plants cover the structure, I put in more lettuce like ‘Spotted Trout’ and ‘Truchas’

One down side of having the vegetables grow up the frame is that I have to cut them all down when the temperature threatens to drop close to freezing.  I need to put the plastic back on and turn it back into a cold frame again.  Most gardeners leave the plastic on but open the ends of the structure to let the air flow through in summer.  I could have done the same but I would lose growing space on the top of the structure.  I would also have to put a smaller frame over one of the 3’X18′ plots and cover it with a sunlight filtering net to grow these vegetable in the heat of summer.  I prefer to kill two birds with one stone: shade the vegetables and have extra growing space.

Flowers For Bees

Let Herbs Flower

Since I started keeping honey bees, the decision on what plants to add to our garden factors in the honey bees as one of the reasons.  I used to think of fragrant, native, butterfly and bird friendly as reasons to choose a plant.  Flowers that butterflies love is not necessarily good for bees.  The butterfly has a very long proboscis, much longer than bee mandibles, so it can easily access flowers for nectar that the bee can’t reach.  If I can find flowers that are good for both of them, it’s perfect.

The first group of plants that work well for both butterflies and bees are herbs.   I have to let them flower, not just keep eating them and make sure to cut off most of the spent flowers.  I let the mint set seed many years ago and it has been a mistake I’ve been paying for ever since.  I have a forest of mint that I can’t get rid of.  Though it smells nice and I can and do use it in many ways, it grows faster than I can consume or give away.

I made the same mistake last year with Anise Hyssop, but they’re easy to transplant.  I dug the seedlings up and replanted them in a group at the edge of the property and they turned out pretty nice when they flowered.  The American Goldfinches love snacking on its seeds so they help to reduce a burgeoning plant population.

A small variety of the herbs I grow is below and aside from being great in many food dishes, in salad and tea, they are also magnets for bees and butterflies.

Spiky lavender blue flowers look lovely when growing in a group.
Spiky lavender blue flowers look lovely when growing in a group.

Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) is a good source of nectar for bees.  The flowers and leaves can be used in salad and tea.  I love the smell of crushed leaves, very soothing.

Star shaped blue flower, sometime pink, is a beautiful addition for a vegetable garden.
Star shaped blue flower, sometime pink, is a beautiful addition for a vegetable garden.

Borage (Borago officinalis) has lovely star shaped flowers in blue, white and pink.  I have both blue and pink in the garden, still searching for white.

Calendula comes in many shade of yellow and orange
Calendula comes in many shade of yellow and orange

As much as birds like to eat the Calendula (Calendula officinalis) seeds, there are still plenty left for self- seeding.  The petals can be used in tea and salad or as a substitute for saffron as well.

Pure white, spiky flowers attract so many types of bees and wasps
Pure white, spiky flowers attract so many types of bees and wasps

I don’t think I have to write much about what we can do with the mint.  I wish it wasn’t so invasive.  But I no longer feel guilty when pulling it out and putting it in a garbage bag.

What can be more perfect for Italian bees than Oregano?
What can be more perfect for Italian bees than Oregano?
I'm not sure whether to classify this under vegetable or herb since its properties fall under both.
I’m not sure whether to classify this under vegetable or herb since its properties fall under both.

The bright Canary yellow of a Bitter Melon flower (Momordica charantia) has a sweet fragrance that is very strong on a cool morning.  Bees, Hover flies and small butterflies love it.

Bitter Melon

Bitterness Can Be Really Good

This year is a great year for Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia).  They cover three quarters of the vegetable garden fence.  The thickness of the leaves and the bright yellow flowers spotted among them look very pleasant.  The sweet scent of the flowers is a plus, especially in the morning when it seems to be strongest.  Cutting leaves and fruits for friends and neighbors has been a pleasure as well.  One good thing about cutting the leaves more often is that the plants will sprout more side shoots which is great for stir-fry or blanching and topping with coconut milk.  More new shoots also mean more flowers and fruits, if I let the shoots grow.

Bright fragrant yellow flowers

The only down side for the Bitter Melon this year are the Stink bugs.  We have more Stink Bugs this year than any past year.   A lot of the young melons turn yellow prematurely because the bugs feed on them.   There is no other pest in this area that is destructive for Bitter Melon, as far as I know.  The deer haven’t touched them.  The chipmunks have chewed one or two of them at the base but mostly left them alone.  I guess the bitterness in every part of the plants provides a good defense.

In the tropics, it grows as a short lived vegetable that provides fruit for a year or two.  It’s grown as an annual in the Northern hemisphere.  I’ve been growing it every summer because I love the distinctive bitter taste and the fragrant flowers.  It grows pretty much the same way as beans do.  I usually start the seedlings inside near the end of March and plant them when the weather is warm enough, but the seeds can be planted directly in the soil.  Soaking the seeds for a couple of hours before planting helps soften the hard shell, making it easier for them to germinate.

It is one vegetable that has great medicinal benefits.  For those who are diabetic, it helps to regulate blood sugar since it promotes insulin production in the body.  Eat the fruit, cooked of course.  Drink the tea made from its leaves or fruit.  Or, if you’re tough, have a shot of fresh juice extracted from the fruit and leaves with a juicer.  Those who have no problem with blood sugar levels and consume too much of this melon may have a problem with their sugar level dropping too low.  I’m living proof.  I love eating it but have to remind myself to stop if I don’t want to faint.

Don’t eat the ripe one either.  It’s a beautiful bright yellow with bright red seeds and has a vicious laxative propensity.

It’s an ‘acquired taste’ as my neighbor put it.  She loves it now and grew it this year for the first time.  If not for the fruit, the fragrance alone makes it worth growing.  Well, according to the book ‘Flowers and Herbs of Early America‘ by Lawrence D. Griffith, the plant came to Europe from the tropics in the 1500’s and later to the US in the early years of the Republic.  Nothing new.

Here are some recipes.

Cover the whole fence with spotted of flowers
Female flower

Mix and Match

For a Better Effect and Benefit

It doesn’t matter how much space we have for our vegetable garden, it’s never enough.  We just expanded our fenced in vegetable garden from 16′ x 16′ to 16′ x 22′ this year but I’m still looking for space to put many more seedlings that have sprouted up.  I’ve already hand-crafted 3 trellises for the beans to climb on.  They extend over the garden walkway to save space.  The Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia) is allowed to climb on the fence since neither deer nor rabbits will eat them.  Strong scented herbs like Mint, Oregano, Thyme and Sage surround the fence outside to fend off the deer and rodents and draw in beneficial insects at the same time.  Since we don’t use pesticides we have to enlist nature and our winged friends to help out.

Still, the extra space just disappears so quickly.  The culprit?  Tomatoes…plenty of sprouted tomato seeds from our compost pile.  I have a soft heart when it comes to pulling healthy plants out of the ground only to throw them back in the compost pile.  I’ve put a few of them up for adoption.

I also added Calendula (Calendula officinalis), Nasturtium, Alyssum and Borage (Borago officinalis) inside the fence this year.  These flowers help draw in good insects and create a much livelier look for the vegetable garden.  If the vegetable yield is the same as last year but has more bad bugs than good ones, the flowers will stay outside the fence next year.  We already have birds patrolling and they have been working out pretty well.  This year, we are experimenting with having good insects patrol.  We’ll see how that works out.

Trellis for Italian beans along the walkway
Calendula mixed in with basil and tomatoes
Nasturtium, Squash, Scarlet Emperor bean, Borage and Strawberry squeeze in together.
Bitter melon entwines itself along the fence
Self-sown Cherry tomato, Swiss chard and Scallion
Trellis for Asian Long bean with Alyssum at the base

Cooking Bitter Melon

Many Roads To Delicious

Bitter Melon is not an easy vegetable to eat if you don’t love bitter taste.  But it’s still consumed widely in many countries.  Some folks have figured out how to reduce the bitterness.  One trick I know is to soak it in salt water if you’re just going to blanch it and use it as a condiment with a dipping sauce.  I promise I’ll share the recipes with you when I get them.  Here, after asking, nudging and nagging, I finally got them.  But there’s one problem; there is no portion measurement. These are people who learned to cook from their grandmothers and mothers when the measurement units are a dash here, a handful there.  So, you are on your own.  Besides, you know your palate anyway.

It doesn’t matter which country they came from, stir-fry with eggs is the most common and easiest way to deal with Bitter Melon.  Here’s how it’s done:

Stir-fried Bitter Melon:

  • Bitter Melon. Halved, scoop the seeds out, then slice very thin.  How many melons?  Well, see above, you know how much you want to eat or how many people you are feeding.
  • Fresh Garlic. Smash to remove the peel, then finely chop.
  • Eggs. Here’s the trick: if you like stir-fried Bitter Melon with egg, use less eggs.  If you like omelette with Bitter Melon, use more eggs.
  • Cooking oil.  I prefer olive oil.  It’s better for your health.  But any type of cooking oil will do, even the heart clogging lard.
  • Light soy sauce.  Any salty sauce with no flavor enhancement will do, don’t add salt though.

If you already know how to stir fry, skip this part.  For those who don’t, continue reading.  Heat the oil then put chopped garlic in and cook until it turns light brown.  Add sliced melon, stir a few times then add the soy sauce.  If you are not sure of proportions, add a little bit at a time and taste it.  Once the melon is cooked, you’ll know when it gets that softer look, add eggs.  Continue cooking until it’s the consistency you like.  I like the eggs a little brown, my brother likes it lightly cooked. That’s it.

Halved and thin sliced

*Ensaladang Ampalaya (Bitter Melon Salad):

*(for you linguists, it’s Tagalog)

After begging Maria a few times, finally she gave me the recipe for Filipino style bitter melon salad .  She also brought me her homemade Ensaladang to try.  I wasn’t sure if it was her only intension or if she also wanted to make sure that I knew what the end product was supposed to look like since I have always complained that I don’t like cookbooks bereft of photographs. Here is the salad:

  • Bitter Melon. Halved, scoop the seeds out, then slice thin.
  • Salt. Sprinkle a little bit on the sliced melon.  Mix and mash to remove excess liquid.  I prefer to use my hand; it’s easier to squeeze the juice out than using a spoon.
  • Onion. White or red onion coarse chopped or thin sliced, which ever way you prefer.  Add it in with the bitter melon after removing the excess juice.
  • Tomato. (Optional) Cut to small cubes then add.
  • Vinegar. (Apple Cider vinegar preferable) Add in to taste.

Let the mixture sits for a few minutes to absorb the vinegar.  Then dig in.  I made this dish right after I got the recipe and love it.  I got a little bit adventurous and added fresh crushed black pepper… wow!  But, that’s only from the spice addict point of view.

Bitter Melon Soup:

Bitter melon soup is always good with rice.  It helps wash down the other food and clean your palate.  As far as I know you can make Bitter melon soup two ways, either stuff the melon with meat and clear noodles or just cook pieces of melon with the meat.  What you need are:

  • Bitter melon. The Chinese type.  If you like to stuff it, you just cut the melon in two inch sections, length wise, then scoop the seed out.  So it would look like a little green pipe.  If you don’t want to waste time stuffing it, you just half it, scoop the seed out and cut it into small section, around an inch long.
  • Ground meat of your choice. It’s better with turkey, chicken or pork.
  • Clear noodle. The one that’s made from mung bean, little green beans that you make bean sprouts with.  Soak it until it softens, then cut to very short sections.
  • Mushroom of your choice. I prefer Shitake or Crimini; they smell better when cooked.  Just a little bit. Chop them up.
  • Light soy sauce
  • Garlic powder
  • Black or white pepper powder.

Mix ground meat, noodle, mushroom, soy sauce, garlic powder and pepper powder together and let it marinate for a while (half hour will do).  Then stuff the mixture into the hollow melon, for those who prefer stuffed.  Make the mixture into small balls, for the ones that do not want to stuff the melon.  Then cook it.  You may need to add a little bit of soy sauce in the soup if it is not salty enough. Done.