Long-term investments

When you plant seeds, you know that you are making a deposit that will not show a yield immediately. Plant radishes and you will see a return in a few weeks, plant purple sprouting broccoli and it will be months before you get anything back (although it is always most welcome to see those tasty shoots start to appear in the depths of winter). Plant winter squashes and you are making a real long-term investment over the year.

It has been such a mild autumn, that we only got round to harvesting the final four of our shark’s fin melons today now that we’ve had a couple of frosts and the leaves have died back. We braved the rain to collect these fruits. The tough stems have been put onto one of the raised beds to rot down and return nutrients to the soil, whilst the fruits with their hard skins can be stored in a cool place indoors to be used as required.

One of them had a little rotten patch on the base, so that has been cut up and stewed in a little sunflower oil and its own juice. Once cool, I will freeze it in portions to be added to soups, stews and curries as required. It turns out to be a good addition to a winter vegetable soup, with onion, carrot, parsnip, leek, potato and kale. The less mature fruits do not need to have the seeds removed, which saves a lot of messing around, but I’m not sure about the biggest specimens. The largest one from today’s haul weighed over 4.5kg, which amounts to a lot of eating and well worth the effort to grow this unusual crop.

The seeds came from Garden Organic’s heritage seed library and I’m planning to save some seeds to plant again next year. This species does not hybridise with courgettes or other winter squash, so should breed true, but only time will tell.

It wasn’t really a high-risk investment even though I wasn’t sure what the return would be, and certainly it’s worth another shot next year… especially if it means you can be harvesting such good things in the middle of December.


Since I still haven’t worked my way through all the apples I brought back from Herefordshire (despite continuing to bottle them), on Monday night I decided to make apple and pie-melon chutney. You will notice that I have now decided to use the Australian name for my Curcurbita ficifolia. This is because (1) I never have any intention of making Sharks fin melon soup and (2) the name ‘pie-melon’ is just so much nicer*. In addition, since narf gave me some great links (see her comment with this post), I’ve decided I’d like to carry on the long Australian tradition.

My pie melon... is it ripe?

My pie melon… is it ripe?

Actually, there seems to be some debate about the actual species that constitutes ‘pie melon’: in some places these are Curcurbita ficifolia, like mine, but elsewhere the name refers to Citrullus lanatus var. citroides (a sort of ancestral water melon with red seeds and also known as citron melon). In both cases, the fruit is pretty bland and I think can be used for similar purposes, hence the confusion. It appears that Citrullus lanatus may have softer more glutinous flesh, whilst Curcurbita ficifolia has tougher flesh with fibres. Both seem to store well and there is some suggestion that they ripen in storage, so I will definitely be keeping some of mine to see how they change over the months. Having said that, all of mine are still growing in the garden apart from the one harvested last week.

Anyway… having discovered that I might be able to use my Curcurbita ficifolia glut for preserve-making, I decided to explore the possibilities. We don’t eat very much jam, so there seems little point in making large quantities that will simply sit in a cupboard for ages. However, we did enjoy some apple chutney that we were given last year (delicious with Glamorgan sausages) and so, I thought that this might be something worth attempting. I consulted various recipe books and settled on using the general one from River Cottage. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall calls this glutney because you can use it to make a chutney from whatever you have an abundance of…. and for me at the moment that is apple and pie-melon. The choice of recipe was also was partly based on the fact that I’m not a big fan of vinegar-based preserves (I really don’t like pickles) and this recipe seemed to use an acceptable amount of vinegar. I chose cider vinegar because of the apples, but also because it is, to my taste, quite mild.

In the end, I used the following recipe (the River Cottage recipe I started from just gave an indication of relative amounts of sugar/veg/vinegar etc so this is my interpretation and choice of specific ingredients):

1kg pie melon
1.5kg apples
500g onions
500g dates
500g soft brown sugar
600ml cider vinegar
A spice bag containing: 50g fresh root ginger roughly chopped and bruised; green peppercorns; white peppercorns; whole coriander seeds

Basically, I chopped all the fruit and veg and the dates, then put everything in a preserving pan, brought it gently to the boil and simmered it (uncovered, stirring occasionally) for three hours, before potting it up in hot sterilised jars.

In order to avoid the house filling with vinegar fumes (as happened the only other time I tried to make chutney… mango, sometime in the last century) I had the extractor hood on over the cooker all the time.

The resulting chutney looks like bottled rhubarb! I had a little taste and it seemed ok, but it needs to mature for a couple of months before it’s ready to eat… I will report back.

Lots of jars of chutney... I wonder what it will taste like!

Lots of jars of chutney… I wonder what it will taste like!


* It does, however, mean that my previous post should be re-titled ‘Pie attack’… which I’m not convinced has the same ring!

Shark attack!

Well, actually me attacking a shark’s fin melon. And, my word, they do take some attacking!

I finally decided to harvest one of these earlier in the week. A friend had suggested leaving them to grow until the foliage was killed by frosts, but since the temperature reached 20°C last Saturday (yes in mid-October in Wales, which really is in the Northern hemisphere) the prospect of frost seems a long way off.

This one decided to engulf the fruit cage

This one decided to engulf the fruit cage

I have been researching this species since it has been such a success in my garden. It is variously known as Shark’s Fin Melon, Siam pumpkin, Fig-leaved gourd, Chilacayote and Pie Melon (in Australia and New Zealand) and its scientific name is Curcurbita ficifolia. According to Wikipedia, it has black seeds, but mine doesn’t and the seeds I planted weren’t black, so I’m not sure whether there are different varieties, or whether this is a different species (although all other features match) or whether Wikipedia is just plain wrong (surely not!). Apparently the very tough skin – and, believe  me, it really is tough – means that it stores well, which is good because I have six of the things…. possibly about 20kg in total.

A good weight

A good weight

The one I harvested this week weighed nearly three kilos and I’m sure it wasn’t going to grow much more because the skin was so hard. When I finally broke my way into it, I was greeted by a distinct smell of melon, creamy white flesh and large pale seeds. The reading that I had done suggested it would be fibrous, and it is a bit when it’s raw, but it actually breaks down into strands (a bit like thick fish bones) when it’s cooked.

When I finally got inside it looked like this

When I finally got inside it looked like this

When you search for recipes, there are dozens for ‘sharks fin melon soup’, but I don’t ‘t really fancy that and so I have decided to experiment. The melon smell did make me wonder how useful this was going to be as a vegetable, but I bit the bullet and put some chunks into a chicken casserole, along with parsnip, carrot, swede, onion and potato. In fact, I really didn’t notice any taste from the melon – the strands retained a slightly crunchy texture and that was about it. Certainly as a way of bulking up a stew, it seems fine. In the coming days I will be experimenting with it roasted and steamed, plus I intend to have a go at apple and shark’s fin melon chutney (as you can make anything you have a glut of into chutney, according to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall).

I will report back, but I don’t have high hopes in the flavour department! However, it produced lots of biomass (good for composting) and apparently the flowers and foliage are edible as well as the fruits. You can seed save because it, supposedly, doesn’t hybridise with any of the other curcurbits and I’m guessing that livestock would enjoy it too, although I haven’t yet offered any to the hens. You never know, it may be a crop I come to love!

Stealth vegetables… and not so stealthy ones too

I’ve already bemoaned the sneaky courgettes that hide under leaves so that you only discover them after they have become monsters, but they are not the only devious vegetables in the garden. You would think that Boston squash, being bright yellow, would be easy to spot, but they aren’t always:

And green vegetables are even more of a challenge. We had completely overlooked this shark’s fin melon despite the fact that it’s hanging over our garden bench:

Some of our squashes are being more helpful, but they are the exception:

Out in the open

Out in the open

And I don’t even want to talk about the deceptive runner beans!

Experiments in gardening

As regular readers know, I have quite a small garden, so I have to be choosy about the crops that I grow. For a long time I focused on things that were expensive to buy in the shops, difficult to transport or were simply not readily available. Over recent years, however, I have realised that there are lots of good reasons to grow some of the more common things, especially if they form a staple for us (see my post, for example, about whether it’s worth growing potatoes here).

This year, however, I’m going to be able to expand a bit… not because we’re moving house but because my sister is! Now, I know that I shouldn’t have designs on her garden, but she is buying a house much closer to me and with a decent-sized garden that already has a vegetable patch and greenhouse. So, when I ordered my seeds the other day, I knew that I could experiment a bit more; not only this, but that any excess plants can go to my friend Perkin who has loads of space for growing and who will be just a few miles from my sister!

Making good use of vertical space

Planning to grow lots of mangetout again this year

So what have I chosen that’s a bit out of the ordinary? Well, a couple of things from the Heritage Seed Library: Shark fin Melon (a rather rampant sort of squash from which you can eat the fruits, shoots and leaves) and Callaloo (a leafy green, much used in Jamaica). The latter I’ve been intending to try for a while, but the former was just a whim… apparently it covers a lot of ground, so I’m thinking of growing it over my shed as well as giving plants to sister and Perkin. I have  few other heritage seeds coming from the lovely Kate in Australia… I chose genuine Australian varieties of lettuce, pumpkin and pepper, which will be interesting to experiment with. And then my big seed order was from The Real Seed Catalogue. This included some tried and tested varieties that I have written about in the past, plus a few new things for me and my sister to have a go with: Rainbow Quinoa (for the seeds), Groundcherry, Tall Giant Sugar Pea (this has HUGE pods, apparently), Really Red Dear Tongue Lettuce and a previously untried pepper called Nova.

I don’t know what will work and what won’t, but I’m certainly looking forward to trying out both old and new varieties here and with my sister… are you trying anything different this year?

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