Do My Cucamelons Look Big In This?

This will be my fifth year growing cucamelons and the first year I’ve successfully overwintered them. Heralded as an exciting addition to cocktails by James Wong in 2012, I’ve spoken to many people who have grown cucamelons only to be disappointed with either the taste or harvest of these diminutive fruits. I am prepared to accept that for some (misguided!) individuals the fresh, citrusy sweetness of a ripe cucamelon isn’t an instant hit. Perhaps they aren’t big fans of cucumbers, limes or watermelons either, as the cucamelon combines snatches of all these favours within its own zingy freshness. What I won’t accept, is that cucamelons are dry, chewy, bland or sour. All these complaints suggest one thing – that the offending fruit has been harvested too late.

Cucamelons need careful watching – miss the couple of days in which the fruits attain their optimum flavour and texture, and you’ll always believe they aren’t worth the hype. In the bustle of modern life this window can easily be missed and cucamelons don’t help with their trailing habit, as the tiny fruits are often hidden behind the leaves of other plants, only to be discovered several days later well on their way to winning the ‘grow a giant cucamelon competition’ at the expense of their taste. The ideal size is about equal to a grape and the colour should be green with dark stripes. If the fruits grow any bigger and turn a paler green then the skins become tough and the juice rather insipid. I generally advise first-time cucamelon growers to try tasting a fruit when it is pea-sized. Then, when fruits are harvested a few days later, if they don’t taste as sweet and delicious as the first tiny fruit, they should be harvested earlier next time.

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I found this one hiding at the back…

The other issue with cucamelons can be their tendency to have years when fruiting is reduced. I’ve had some bumper years where the vines fruit continuously throughout the summer and some where fruiting has been rather disappointing. I grow four pots in the greenhouse trained on wires around the top edge, although there are always side-shoots escaping to make friends with the tomatoes, chillies, lemongrass and other greenhouse residents. I’ve also tried them outside with some success (they grow well up supports but tend to fruit a little less than in the greenhouse). This year I fed and watered the greenhouse crops more and also made sure the door was left open to encourage pollinators in as flowers aren’t self-fertile and the crop was good. I suspect hand pollination might also increase yields, but I’ve not felt the need to attempt this yet.

I’ve also tried over-wintering cucamelons several times without success. A few years ago I attended a talk by James Wong at the Edible Garden Show where he mentioned that they could be over-wintered. Cucamelons produce long, tuberous roots which can supposedly be stored, like dahlia tubers, in a cool dry place over-winter. When I asked him at the end of the talk, James said he hadn’t tried it but this was the recommended way to store them. So the next winter I tried, but the tubers rotted in storage. The following year I left them in pots of compost in the greenhouse along with my dahlias. This was also unsuccessful (although the dahlias were fine.) I even found a tuber one spring in the vegetable bed which looked dormant but healthy. I potted it up, but it spent the whole summer in the pot without ever awakening.

This winter I thought I’d give it one last try before giving up on over-wintering altogether. Keeping the plants on the dry side in their pots in a cool spot indoors seems to have done the trick. I cut the vines back to about 10cm before bringing them in. One died back completely and the other has retained its vine but not grown further. Now both are showing some new growth and I do believe I’ve cracked it! Hopefully the over-wintered plants will crop earlier and more heavily than my seed sown plants – I’ll let you know how it goes.

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It’s alive!!

Raw cucamelons add a tangy note of sharpness to salads without being sour. I think this is by far the best way to appreciate their flavour. My kids love them and they are a superb fruit for small fingers to harvest. One year we also pickled our cucamelons. They were good on sandwiches and burgers, but lost the sweet/sharp combination which is their defining feature. I haven’t tried them in cocktails, but they’re good in Pimms with strawberries and mint. Go on, you know it makes sense  🙂

So if you want to experience the delight of a fresh, juicy cucamelon it’s important to ensure good pollination. Then, once you have your harvested crop in your hand, ask yourself this question: ‘Do my cucamelons look big in this?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, then you’ve left it too late…

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One or two of my crop here are on the large size. The smaller ones are an ideal size.

If you’d like to try growing these tiny taste bombs this year they are easy to raise from seed and are now available as plug plants. When I started growing cucamelons, seed wasn’t that readily available, but now it can be sourced from the following suppliers and many more…

Suttons Seeds (where I bought my first seeds, available as seeds or plug plants), Pennard Plants (also offers a great range of other unusual fruit/veg seeds and edible perennials), Chiltern Seeds (with a wide range of heritage and heirloom vegetables too) and Jungle Seeds (who also sell other interesting cucurbits such as gherkin cucumber and horned melon).

Sow seeds indoors from the end of February until April and they will be ready to plant out in the greenhouse or the garden/allotment at the end of May. If you are planting them outside, consider slug protection as one small munch at the base of the vine can undo weeks of careful growing.

Maybe you disagree completely with my cucamelon favouritism? Have you experienced different problems from the ones I’ve discussed or do you find the taste too sour even in small fruits? Or perhaps cucamelons crop well for you and you’ve got alternative ways of using them in recipes? If so, I’d love to hear from you, so please do leave me a comment…

If you’d like to read about other more unusual crops, you could try:

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Overwintering Tea, Coffee and Other Tender Edible Perennials

I bought a tea plant (Camellia sinensis) and a coffee plant (Coffea arabica) earlier this year. I’m hoping, in time, to be able to produce infinitesimally small amounts of low quality hot beverages with which to underwhelm my friends and family. In the meantime, the coffee needs to come in for the winter and I’ll probably bring the camellia in too, although in time it should become large enough to overwinter successfully outside in its pot. Planting it in the ground here isn’t feasible as our soil is alkaline (pH 7.5) and camellias need acid soil. But potted in ericaceous compost, it should exist quite happily and produce leaves for green tea and salads for many years to come.

The list of plants needing winter attention is growing as my plant collection becomes more extensive and unusual, so this year I’m not convinced it’s all going to fit. Time to clear greenhouse benches and indoor windowsills, squeeze plants onto trays and cross my fingers as chillies, tea, coffee, lemongrass, lemon verbena, Vietnamese coriander, yacon, cucamelons and inca berries all come in for the winter…

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Scrubbing away a year’s grime

Fungus Gnats

My overwintering regime comes from a mixture of experience, good advice from fellow growers and intuition (aka. guesswork). Once the pots are in I’ll be treating them with nematodes as I had real problems with fungus gnats in the house last year (the annoying little black flies which buzz around the compost and can multiply disturbingly in just a few days) and using nematodes completely cleared them up. I’ve been sent a free trial pack of nematodes from the Green Gardener which can be stored in the fridge in their sealed packet for a few weeks until needed and then simply watered in the specified concentrations onto moist compost. I’ll be using them in the next few days and will report back on how successful they are this year. Here’s to a fly-free winter and lots of happy hibernating plants ready to burst into life early next spring  🙂

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My nematodes – currently residing in the fridge

Chillies

My 39 chilli plants will not, alas, all fit in the house, so the challenge has been to decide which are keepers and which will be feeding Compo (the compost heap). I’ve saved lots of seed that I will be able to sow next January and I’ve been sent an amazing array of exciting varieties by a reader of my blog who grows an extensive range and has been very generous in our seed swap. There is now no hope for me – I’m a confirmed chilli addict. Thirteen varieties this year and I suspect it will only get worse in 2017…

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The crazy chilli collection 2016!

As well as saving seeds, the kitchen has turned into a pickling factory with shallots, red onions and chillies disappearing into jars, to reappear in a few weeks to jazz up pizzas, sandwiches and salads.

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Pickled chillies to heat up cold winter suppers

Cucamelons and Yacon

I’ve tried to overwinter cucamelon (Melothria scabra) tubers a couple of times and never been successful. They’ve been left them in pots in the unheated greenhouse and brought in as dried tubers, but each winter rot has set in. This time I’m going to attempt to keep them in their pots, dry on a windowsill alongside the yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) and see what happens…

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I’m hoping for an early harvest next year – if I can only manage to overwinter the tubers…

 

Lemongrass

The lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) overwintered well last year and then I lost nearly all my plants by putting them out in the unheated greenhouse too early. Second year plants definitely grow more strongly (providing they’re kept warm), whereas first year plants don’t really have long enough to develop and multiply. So I’m intending to learn from my mistake and keep them indoors next spring until the frosts have well and truly finished.

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These little guys never really developed into mature plants

Lemon Verbena

I’ve had the same lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) plant for 5 years. It dies back in winter in the unheated greenhouse and reappears in spring, usually just after I’ve given up hope – I should know better by now. This year I repotted it and put it outside during the summer. It rewarded me by producing more leaves than we could use. It is such a lovely plant. Unlike lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), which has a similarly enticing scent, I find lemon verbena transfers its sherberty aroma more successfully to hot and cold drinks, cakes and spicy curries.

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The lemongrass stirring from its winter slumbers

This year I’ve dried the remaining leaves for tea over winter and I’m going to have another go at propagating from cuttings next year (something at which I have an embarrassingly bad track record).

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Makes the best tea mixed with Moroccan mint

Vietnamese Coriander

A new herb for us this year, I’ve been impressed with the easy of use and clean taste of our Vietnamese coriander (Persicaria odorata). I love the more traditional coriander (Coriandrum sativum), but the necessity of repeated sowings to cater for the speed at which it bolts is an extra job in a busy summer schedule. If the Vietnamese coriander overwinters successfully, it will allow a continuous supply of tasty leaves for cooking throughout the summer and autumn months and will have earned its place in the herb container garden.

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Vietnamese coriander – so far, so good

Inca Berries

A couple of weeks ago I was lamenting the three worst crops of 2016 – inca berries (Physalis peruviana) being one. I had an extremely helpful comment about the perennial nature of the plant and therefore the possibility of overwintering it. I have tried growing physalis for 4 years now, with very minimal harvests, so had already discounted new plants in 2017. However, I’m going to try bringing a couple of plants indoors to see if they produce higher yields in their second year. If not, they’re history – at least until I move on to warmer climes.

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My inca berry harvest

I’d love to know if anyone else is growing tea or coffee, and what the verdict is. And does anyone else contemplate paying their friends and relatives to overwinter plants on their windowsills due to a mismatch between plant collection ambitions and house size? Or is that just me?! Do leave me a comment below to let me know what other overwintering activities are going on this autumn…

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Assembled plants for overwintering – maybe we should move out?

 

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Allotment 96B: The Unusual, the Innovative and the Just Plain Weird…

Five months into allotment life and we’re hooked and starting to plan for next year. I’ve really enjoyed having more space to experiment, especially with some more unusual crops, and now it’s time to take stock. Here’s my conclusions so far on which have impressed and definitely made it into the seed list for next year and which are all show and no substance…

Fat Baby Achocha

My fat baby achocha (Cyclanthera pedata or possibly Cyclanthera brachyastacha – see Real Seeds website for further information) has been slow to start this year. Having grown other achocha before, I expected the allotment to be covered with rampaging vines, but until a couple of weeks ago there wasn’t that much growth and only a few fruit. Some other UK growers seemed to having similar experiences, so I guess the weather might have been to blame. However, my fat babies have been making up for lost time recently and I don’t think I’m going to need to buy green peppers for the foreseeable future.

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A snuggle of fat babies (or any other appropriate collective noun)

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This is where my fat babies live, next to my black-eyed susans

If you haven’t grown achocha, I would classify them in the ‘unusual’ category. They haven’t revolutionised the way I grow or cook, but they are easier to grow in bulk than standard peppers and can be used in much the same way. They work well when small as a raw addition to salads and are great in stir fried or on pizza when they get bigger.

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Mushroom and achocha pizza for tea

 

Trombocino

This climbing courgette (Cucurbita pepo) is a sweet tasting variety of butternut squash which can be eaten fresh or ripened and stored as a winter squash. This little baby trombocino is destined for courgette and chilli cornbread, but the daddy trombocino is still lurking in the undergrowth ready for harvest and measuring for the end of September for the Sutton’s Cup. I’m sure it won’t be the winning specimen, but it’ll be fun finding out.

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Ta da da da da da daaaaaa….

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Big Daddy trombocino

I like trombocinos for their versatility, ornamental value and productivity. I’d definitely grow them again and they fall into my ‘unusual’ category.

Oca

Oca or New Zealand yam (Oxalis tuberosa) originates from the Andes. I first grew it several years ago because, unlike potatoes, the foliage isn’t poisonous and is not susceptible to blight. Now the children are a little older it’s not so important to avoid poisonous plants, but the oca has thrived and become a family favourite.

Who could resist planting these little aliens?

Here’s my top 5 reasons why I’d place oca in the ‘innovative’ category…

  1. It is harvested around November when there is little else of interest in the vegetable garden. My kids and I love winter forays into the frosty garden (oca is best harvested after a hard frost has killed the foliage), returning with piles of red and yellow jewels – enough to brighten everyone’s day.
  2. They are very easy to grow, require no specialist knowledge and can be used in a range of ways – mashed, roasted or even raw in salads.
  3. You can save large tubers in paper bags in a dark place over winter and bring into the light to chit in early spring, which means unless you want to try new varieties, this is a very cheap crop to grow.
  4. The foliage is edible – with a lemony tang rather like sorrel. As with rhubarb, spinach and sorrel, oca leaves and tubers contain oxalic acid and therefore should only be eaten in small amounts and avoided by people who suffer from arthritis, gout and certain other ailments (for further information see the Plants For a Future Database). Tubers can be left in the light for a week or two after harvest to reduce the oxalic acid context and sweeten the taste.
  5. They are at the forefront of a movement to democratise the plant breeding process by the Guild of Oca Breeders – a group of gardeners, farmers and horticulturalists who are working to create an ‘open source and genetically diverse, day neutral oca’. This should help to improve yields, making the crop more successful in northern latitudes. I’m enjoying being part of this experiment, trying different varieties, studying growth habits and dissecting the beautiful yellow flowers to learn about how they are structured.

Planting and labelling duties

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Hoping we get another harvest like this in November…

 

Fuchsiaberry

My husband loves fuchsias and we’ve amassed a small collection of hardy fuchsias in pots and in the front garden. I can’t resist anything which purports to be edible, so I’ve tried the berries of our fuchsias with increasing reluctance as I encountered increasingly watery, insipid fruits with a most unpleasant astringency in the mouth afterwards. So when I read about the new Fuchsiaberry fuchsia from Thompson and Morgan, bred to be a heavy cropper and to have ‘large sweet fruits packed with vitamin C and nutrients’, I was intrigued.

Beautiful flowers and large berries

I planted the 5 plugs in pots, grew them on and then planted them in the allotment earlier in the season. They have grown moderately well, although a couple are suffering from the hot conditions and they have some dieback. The remaining 3 plants have plenty of attractive flowers and this week the fruits started to appear. They are a rich burgundy and promise juicy pickings, so I was disappointed when the taste was reminiscent of my hardy fuchsia berries, but with perhaps a slightly less astringent after effect. Maybe it’s something about the growing conditions or when I harvested them (they were plump and juicy), but I can’t see the Fuchsiaberry fulfilling its promise to ‘change allotments and flower borders in the UK’ if everyone else’s berries taste like mine do. I’m afraid, in my allotment at least, this experiment has been relegated to the ‘just plain weird’ category!

Some other unusual favourites

That’s it for the more unusual in the allotment this year, but I’m still experimenting in the garden with cucamelons, lemon grass, tree chillies, honeyberries, inca berries, Chilean guava, coffee and tea. Now I have the allotment space, my plans for next year include earth chestnuts, yacon, ulluco (two more South American tubers), perennial kale – possibly sea kale and/or Daubenton’s kale and my tomatillos will be reappearing after failing to germinate twice this year. I’ll still be growing beetroot, sprouts, tomatoes, potatoes, raspberries, carrots and many more ordinary staples, but I wouldn’t be without the wacky, weird and wonderful for all the tubers in the Andes.

Have unusual crops done well in your allotments this year? I’d love to hear about what you’re growing and how it’s going (especially if anyone’s had good experiences with Fuchsiaberry and can convince me to give it another go!) Thanks.

If you’d like to know how my unusual and more regular crops are getting on throughout the year, do follow my blog:

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Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.