As we hurtle towards the end of the main growing season not only do, we have the joyous prospect of gluts of veg but also a deluge of seed catalogues arriving on our doorsteps. With work slowing in the veg garden now is the time to pour through those tempting glossy pages and begin to pick which provide more than their fair share on the edible front are the cucurbits.
Best known among their brethren are the likes of squash, cucumber, melon, gourd and courgette but there are a few oddities among the family that are well worth growing too. The bulk of the 900 plus cucurbits species originate in the Americas where they have been in domestic cultivation for over 8,000 years.
Less known are the European, Asian and African family members. We even have one naturalized in the UK! But sadly, it’s the inedible better known as White Bryony. However, the African and Asian species are valuable crops which can, with the right care, provide dividends right here in Blighty. I’ve grown both the plants I’m recommending in Central London and North Norfolk. And in both places, I got them to crop.
First up is Luffa aegyptiaca. Sounds familiar, right? Well, despite a common misconception luffa is not the remnants of an aquatic creature from the deep, but in fact a dried ‘cucumber’! That’s right, those cylindrical scratching posts hanging in our showers are simply the dried innards of a Cucurbitaceae fruit.
The plant responsible for these likely originates between Asia and the Middle East and has been used to scrub backs since pre-Roman times. It’s easy to grow, can be eaten when young and will save you a fortune on next year’s stocking fillers.
Africa’s native edible plants are limited compared to many parts of the world, but the continent has provided two much loved species: coffee and watermelon. While you’ll never successfully crop coffee without a greenhouse in the UK, it is possible to grow watermelons.
They are of course a hugely popular summer snack, though I’ve not eaten one since 1992 following an unfortunate food poising incident at a Mormon line dancing disco in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. But that’s a tale for another time.
When I first attempted growing watermelon in London the inevitable glass-half-empty types told me it would never work. So, I was thrilled when it did. I confess that the first fruit only made it to pineapple size before a bored squirrel severed its lifeline (stem) in the night. The next two fruits were a little larger and a suitable wow-factor for a summer party.
How To Grow Luffa Aegyptiaca
Luffa is about as easy to grow as courgettes, it’s the frying and preserving which can be trickier. Start the seeds under glass in early April with a view to planting outdoors in late May. The last time I grew them I constructed a 3, high frame with heavy steel mesh on it and the three plants I grew consumed every inch of it. Plant the luffas into a well manure soil and keep the watering up during establishment. The fruits can be eaten young when gherkin size, but I confess I’ve only ever grown them to make back scrubbers. By late August or early September, they’ll be ready to harvest, but the longer you can leave them on the plant and their skin shrivels they are naturally drying, so let them do this as long as possible before you harvest. Once you’ve picked them, strip off the flesh and wash them through to remove pulp and seeds. With this material removed the luffas can simply be left in the sun to dry, ready for their new lives in your friends’ and families’ bathrooms!
How To Grow Watermelon
Watermelons need heat, lots of it, and blazing sunshine so choose an open site that’s a read heat trap or even better a polytunnel, cold frame or glasshouse. They need starting earlier than other cucurbits such as courgettes so aim to sow them mid-March into 9 cm pots of seed compost, three to four weeks later they are ready to be transferred to an under cover growing spot which ideally needs to remain at least 10 degree. Prepare the ground with a deep dig in of well-rotted manure and garden compost watermelons are hungry plants! They’ll not go crazy for a while but as soon as the late spring heat kicks in, so will they. Keep the nutrients going with weekly organic liquid feed and ensure they are well watered. Once the fruits reach grapefruit size-reduce watering. This helps increase the sweetness of the watermelon. And watch out for those squirrels.