How to Grow Bitter Melons in Your Backyard
Bitter melon, also known as bitter gourd or karela, is a unique vegetable that is popular in Asian cuisines. While bitter melon can be challenging to find in local grocery stores, growing bitter melons in your own backyard is rewarding and not too difficult.
As an avid gardener, I have successfully grown bitter melons in my backyard for years. In this guide, I will share everything you need to know to grow a bountiful bitter melon crop this summer.
Selecting a Bitter Melon Variety
The first step is deciding which bitter melon variety you want to grow. There are a few different options:
Chinese bitter melons – This is the most common variety. The fruits are long and light green with a bumpy texture. Very bitter taste.
Indian bitter melons – The fruits are oval-shaped and have a dark green skin. Extremely bitter.
White bitter melons – As the name suggests, these have a pale green/white skin. More mild bitterness.
Japanese bitter melons – Rounder shape and medium green color. Moderately bitter taste.
For beginners, I recommend the Chinese bitter melon since it is the most hardy. The Indian bitter melons also grow well but pack the most bitter punch.
When to Plant Bitter Melons
Bitter melons require warm conditions to thrive. Wait until after the last spring frost to plant them in your garden.
Ideally, plant bitter melon seeds:
- In zones 8-10: April – May
- In zones 6-7: Late May
- In zones 5 and cooler: June
If planting seeds indoors, start them 4 weeks before your last expected frost date. Harden off the seedlings for 7-10 days before transplanting outside.
Selecting a Garden Site
Bitter melons flourish in the backyard garden when given the right growing conditions:
- Full sun – At least 6-8 hours of direct sun per day is ideal.
- Well-drained soil – Loose, compost-amended soil prevents waterlogging.
- Shelter from wind – Protect young plants with a garden fence or trellis.
Avoid planting bitter melons in low areas prone to frost pockets. This can damage your crop.
Prepare your garden beds by mixing in 2-3 inches of aged compost or manure and 1 cup of complete organic fertilizer. This gives bitter melons the nutrients they need.
How to Plant Bitter Melon Seeds
You have a few options for planting:
- Direct sowing – Plant seeds 1 inch deep and 6 inches apart after last frost. Thin seedlings to 2 feet apart.
- Seedlings – Gently transplant seedlings 2 feet apart after hardening off.
- Hills – Space hills 3 feet apart with 2-3 plants per hill.
Whatever method you use, sow fresh seeds every 2-3 weeks for a staggered harvest.
Once sprouted, apply a thin layer of mulch like straw around plants to retain moisture. Install trellises or fences for the vines to climb.
Watering and Feeding Bitter Melons
Bitter melons are drought-tolerant but produce better yields with regular watering. Maintain consistent soil moisture 1-2 inches deep. Use drip irrigation or hand watering and avoid wetting the leaves.
Feed plants monthly with a balanced liquid fertilizer or compost tea. This fuels growth and fruit production.
Pollinating Bitter Melons
Like other cucurbits, bitter melons have separate male and female blossoms on the same plant. For successful fruit set, the flowers must be pollinated by bees or by hand:
- Attract pollinators by planting flowers nearby.
- Hand pollination involves transferring pollen between flowers using a brush.
Try hand pollinating early morning when the flowers open. You should notice fruit forming a week later.
How to Harvest Bitter Melons
Bitter melons typically mature 60-70 days after planting. Monitor fruits closely as they grow:
- Harvest Asian varieties when 3-6 inches long.
- Allow African horned melons to fully ripen to orange.
Use pruners or garden shears to carefully cut melons from the vine. Harvest regularly to encourage the plant to continue producing.
Bitter melons stop ripening after picking. They’re best consumed immediately but can store refrigerated for 1-2 weeks.
Common Pests and Diseases
Bitter melons are fairly pest and disease resistant when conditions are optimal. But watch for these potential issues:
- Powdery mildew – Prevent by improving air circulation.
- Downy mildew – Space plants to improve airflow.
- Cucumber beetles – Handpick pests and use row covers.
- Squash bugs – Remove eggs manually and set out boards as traps.
Rapidly remove any diseased foliage to prevent spreading. Control pests organically with neem oil or insecticidal soap sprays.
Storing and Preparing Bitter Melons
Store freshly harvested bitter melons in the vegetable crisper of your refrigerator. They will keep for 1-2 weeks before use.
To offset bitterness, slice melons and sprinkle with salt, then rinse. This helps remove excess bitters.
Some favorite ways to enjoy bitter melons:
- Sauteed with onions and spices
- Added to curries
- Stuffed with ground meats
- Juiced with lemon, ginger and honey
With the proper growing conditions, you can successfully grow bitter melons in your own backyard. Just be sure to plant at the right time, provide sunny and sheltered spots, and keep plants consistently watered. Monitor for pests and diseases. Harvest melons young and enjoy their unique bitter flavor.