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Book excerpt: Get growing with cucamelons

In this excerpt from her new book, Veggie Garden Remix, award-winning Atlantic Canadian gardening writer Niki Jabbour introduces readers to the tiny but versatile cucamelon

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Photo courtesy of Storey Publishing

Our family loves trying different kinds of cucumbers. Each summer, our cucumber beds are planted with at least a dozen species and varieties, but few look like “traditional” cucumbers. As you walk the pathways between the beds, you might notice the slender twisted fruits of ‘Painted Serpent’ hiding beneath a mound of foliage, or the weird kiwishaped fruits of ‘Little Potato’ climbing an A-frame trellis. You’ll also see some of the more popular heirloom cucumbers, like ‘Lemon’, ‘Crystal Apple’, ‘Boothby’s Blonde’, and ‘Poona Kheera’. And you’ll definitely find one that isn’t related but nonetheless tastes like a cucumber—the cucamelon!

All three of my nieces have birthdays within a 2-week span in late summer, and every year, they all ask for the same gift — a big container of cucamelons.

Not all cucumbers live up to their hype (true for any vegetable); we’ve tried many that we’ve found disappointing or simply not to our liking. But that’s part of the fun of having a vegetable garden — experimenting!

Cute, crunchy cucamelons

What’s the most popular crop in our vegetable garden? Easy! It’s cucamelon. The fruits, which look exactly like tiny watermelons, rarely make it into the kitchen; instead, we gobble them up by the handful, straight from the vines. The plant is a distant relative of cucumbers, and these inch-long fruits do have a cucumber-like flavor with a pleasing citrus tang.

Very rarely, you might find cucamelons at the farmers’ market, but they can fetch up to $20 a pound! The price alone makes them worth growing for yourself. They’re an easy crop; the vines are very productive, and they’re rarely troubled by the many insects and diseases that plague cucumbers.

Slow to start, but vigorous

Impatient gardeners will find cucamelons slow to start in the garden, with growth not taking off until the summer weather heats up. That said, they will tolerate a cooler spring better than cucumbers do, and once they’re established, cucamelons are quite a bit more drought tolerant. The vines are delicate looking, with thin stems and small leaves, but don’t be fooled! This is a plant that can hold its own in the garden. People with limited growing space can plant them in large pots on a deck or patio; just be sure to provide something for the vigorous vines to climb.

Sours with age

About a week after you see the first flowers, begin checking for ripe cucamelons. They tend to hide behind the foliage, so look closely. Once they’re about an inch long, start picking. The sourness of the skin intensifies as the fruits age, so pick them young if you want to minimize the citrus bite. We start picking the first fruits in late July or early August, with the last few plucked from the vines in October.

Cucamelons are open-pollinated and produce both male and female flowers on the same plant, so you can save the seed from any ripe fruits that fall to the ground. Warm-climate gardeners will find that a few cucamelons left behind will self-seed quite easily.

There are so many ways to use these fun fruits. As the name suggests, they’re perfect for pickling! We eat them out of hand, pack them in the kids’ lunch boxes, and take them along to picnics and barbecues. You could even pop them into your gin and tonic.

Growing great cucumbers and cucumber melons

Start the seeds indoors six weeks before your last spring frost. Sow the seed in 4-inch (10-cm) pots to give the plants a chance to develop a substantial root system before planting out and to minimize transplant shock. Once the risk of frost has passed, harden off the young plants and move them to the garden.

Gardeners in northern regions with unpredictable late-spring weather may wish to protect young plants with cloches or a mini hoop tunnel. Open the ends of the tunnel during the day to regulate temperature and allow air to circulate. I usually leave the mini tunnel in place for 2 to 3 weeks, depending on how quickly summer arrives, then replace it with a trellis.

Heat, sun, and rich soil are the keys to growing success with these plants, so pick a site with full sun and amend the soil with aged manure or compost.

Seriously consider trellising the plants. We grow ours on sturdy A-frame trellises; this keeps the foliage and fruit off the ground, which minimizes the risk of diseases and makes harvesting a snap. Also, unsupported plants will sprawl in every direction, quickly taking over a garden bed.

If you want to save the seeds of heirloom cucumbers and cucumber-like plants, such as burr cucumber, just let a few fruits ripen fully on the vines, or collect any fallen fruits at the end of summer. Scoop out the seeds, which will be surrounded by a gel-like coating, and place them in a container, along with a small amount of water. Leave the mixture to ferment for 3 days (expect mold to form on the surface). The good seeds will sink to the bottom of the container; when this happens, pour off the mold, pulp, and water. Rinse the seeds left at the bottom of the container with fresh water until clean. Spread them on paper towels or a clean dishcloth and let dry for at least a week. Store the fully dried seeds in envelopes.

Photo: James Ingram

Niki is the award-winning author of Niki Jabbour’s Veggie Garden Remix, The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener, and Groundbreaking Food Gardens. She lives in Halifax. nikijabbour.com

Learn more about Niki Jabbour’s Veggie Garden Remix at Storey Publishing

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