Bitter melon (Momordica charantia) is a popular ingredient in ampalaya and Asian, Chinese, and Indian cuisine. Understanding how to grow bitter melon from seed enables growers to add something exotic to the home garden. This unique melon is often filled with shrimp or pork and served steamed, pickled, or curried with meat or in soups.
As their name suggests, bitter melons have a bitter flavor and are an acquired taste, like grapefruit, lemons, or extremely dark chocolate. Similar to the cantaloupe and muskmelon family, squash, watermelon, and cucumbers, the bitter melon is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family.
Bitter melons may be grown similarly to cucumbers and cantaloupes. Still, they are subtropical plants and require a minimum of three months in warm weather to mature and ripen.
Everything to Know about How to Grow Bitter Melon from Seed
Growing bitter melon from seeds is a unique project, suitable for any level of grower with the correct climate and a long enough growing season. Bitter melon fruit adds interest and an uncommon flavor profile to your garden crops.
Bitter melon grows on a vine. It has lobed leaves and grows similarly to any other cucurbit like squash, cucumbers, and watermelon, producing bitter melon vines up to 16 feet if left unpruned. The mature fruits are rectangular and smooth or warty, varying from 2-10 inches, typically about eight inches long.
As the fruit ripens, its color changes from green to yellow and orange when overripe. The flesh has a cucumber-like watery, crisp texture. Each plant will provide ten to 12 fruits, with the possibility of a few more.
Bitter melons are a warm-season crop thriving in the heat and humidity of tropical and subtropical climates. Temperatures between 75 and 80°F are ideal for growing bitter melons, so late spring or early summer is the best time to plant bitter melons.
Start growing bitter melon from seeds outside no sooner than two to three weeks after the last frost has passed. Knowing how to grow bitter melon from seed offers gardeners the opportunity to try their hand at cultivating this unusual fruit.
Growing Bitter Melon from Seeds
Learning how to plant bitter melon seeds is the first step in growing your own fruit. Bitter melons thrive in hot, humid environments. Plant in a warm, full sun location with at least six hours of sunlight per day.
Grow bitter melons in compost-rich, well-drained loam with a pH of 5.5 to 6.7. Before planting, prepare the growing beds by adding aged compost. Bitter melons grow in less-than-ideal sandy or silty soil, though sufficient drainage is required.
Sow two seeds in half-inch deep holes, like when you start watermelon seeds indoors or other melons. Plant cucumber or bitter melon seeds 10 to 12 inches apart. Seeds germinate in around eight to ten days, though germination is slowed by low and high temperatures and dry or damp soil.
Trellising helps save space. Plants trained on a trellis may be spaced up to ten feet apart. If you plan to let your bitter melon plants sprawl on the ground, mulch with straw or plastic to keep the fruits from rotting in moist soil.
Bitter Melon Varieties to Grow at Home
Known as the balsam pear, the bitter gourd, or the goya, the bitter melon is often used for cooking dishes originating in India, where it’s natively called the karela. These fruits have their own flavor profile, like the different cucumbers types and varieties. Choosing a cultivar suitable for your garden with a taste you appreciate makes growing bitter melons more rewarding.
In general, bitter melons with triangular teeth and ridges are endemic to India and have thin skin with pointy ends. Chinese bitter melons are oblong with blunted ends and a warty, slightly undulating surface. Growing a bitter melon cultivar adds something different to your home garden and makes for an exciting ingredient in the kitchen.
How to Grow Bitter Melon – Care
Moist soil is paramount in bitter melon planting beds, and fruit development and growth require regular watering. Aged compost is perfect for feeding melon plants: side-dress your bitter melon plants with aged compost to enhance nutrients and assist the soil in retaining moisture. During the growing season, water your plants with manure tea every three weeks to give them a boost.
Combine the manure and water and use to water crops. Bitter melon grows well with beans, peas, corn, pumpkins, and squash as companion plants and should not be planted with potatoes or herbs.
Trellising Bitter Melon Plants
Trellising reduces diseases and makes harvesting bitter melon fruit easier. Next to each plant, erect a trellis six feet high and at least the same width, if not wider. You can grow cantaloupe and bitter melon in a pot, too. Prune or pinch all lateral branches up to the 10th node when the vine reaches the top of its trellis.
This pruning encourages the growth of the upper limbs, resulting in a bigger yield of fruit. Prune lateral branches to two to three feet in length, and remove the growing tip when they reach the trellis’s top so the bitter melon produces more blooms and earlier fruit.
Fruit grown on a trellis is larger and healthier than fruit growing on the ground and has less chance of rotting.
Bitter Melon Pollination
Most bitter melon vines begin to blossom around five to six weeks after planting. Male flowers bloom first, followed by female flowers in about a week. Both flowers are yellow-colored, and female flowers have a melon-like bulge (the ovary) near the base of the bloom.
The blooms are visited by bees and other pollinators, transporting pollen from the male to female flowers. Male flowers usually only last one day, opening in the morning and falling off the vine in the evening.
If there are blooms, but no fruit appears, and you don’t see any bees in the garden, you can safely assume pollination hasn’t occurred. Hand pollination is possible for bitter melons, as it is for cucumbers and squash.
Pick male flowers and rub the center of the male blossoms against the core of the female flowers to transfer pollen. Female flowers have an expanded area between the blossom and the vine stem, appearing like a tiny fruit, whereas male flowers don’t, making it easy to tell them apart.
Harvesting Bitter Melons
When the bitter melon fruits are four to six inches long, they are ready for harvest, usually around 12 to 16 weeks after planting or eight to ten days after flower drop. The fruits are pear-shaped and have light green skin with yellow streaks.
Overripe fruits turn entirely yellow, grow overly large, and turn unpleasantly bitter if left on the vine for too long. Fruits from the same vine might have varying levels of bitterness, and both immature and overripe melons are very bitter.
When mature, the bitter melon’s thin covering of flesh turns orange to brilliant crimson. A hollow internal cavity is surrounded by a spongy, white pulp studded with seeds. Like a cucumber, the fruit is watery and crisp.
The alkaloid momordicin causes bitterness. The deeper the color of the bitter melon fruit, the more bitter and robust the flavor. When the melons begin to ripen, harvest them every two to three days. The more fruits you pick, the more you will grow.
Beware of Bitter Melon Pests
Cucumber beetles like to attack bitter melon and spread bacterial wilt, which causes vines to wilt and fall. Apply a pyrethrum-based insecticide to adult beetles if you notice them. To avoid injuring honey bees, use all pesticides after dusk.
Bitter melons are also targeted by fruit flies, which spread fruit rot. When the fruits are only an inch or two long, cover them with paper bags held in place with rubber bands or wrap them in newspaper to prevent flies from getting to them.
Bitter melon is sensitive to various diseases that affect squash and cucumbers, including powdery mildew, downy mildew, rust, rots, and watermelon mosaic virus. Trellising, which improves air circulation around vines, aids in preventing fungal illnesses.
To reduce the incidences of pests and disease in your garden, be vigilant about weeds as they may host pest insects, trellis if possible, and plant disease-resistant cultivars.
Bitter melon contains double the beta carotene of broccoli, twice the potassium found in bananas, and double the calcium of spinach. It has a lot of fiber, phosphorus, vitamin C, and B vitamins, making it extremely healthy food, so it’s prudent to know how to grow bitter melon from seed.
After growing bitter melon from seeds and completing your harvest, store your bitter melons in a plastic bag or paper bag in the refrigerator and use them within three to five days of harvesting while they are freshest. Keep bitter melon away from other fruits to avoid hastening their ripening process and leading to spoiling.
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