Tamil Nadu has just celebrated the harvest festival of Pongal — a time when we enjoy the bountiful produce of crops such as rice, lentils and sugarcane. Pongal marks the end of the month of Margazhi, our winter, and welcomes the month of Thai, the start of spring when the sun starts its journey in the northern hemisphere and the days become longer.
As one growing season ends, another starts. Chennai has one more growing season till the scorching heat of summer begins, the heat that is nature’s signal that it’s time to let the soil rest. So what can we grow from January to April?
Cool weather crops like cabbages, cauliflowers, carrots, spinach will continue to grow until February. Tomatoes do well in this season too. But this is the time to sow things that are light to cook, eat and satisfy your thirst in the summer. It’s time to start planting gourds, greens and melons.
Gourds such as bottle, snake, ridge, bitter, ash, pumpkin, and cucumber, and melons such as watermelon and musk melon can be started now too. These need well-drained soil and space to trail or climb, and are great plants for fences and sunny balconies with grills. And if you let them trail on your terrace floor, they also help cool the house. Here’s a quick growing guide.
It’s all about soil and seeds. Gourds do incredibly well in permaculture soil. We’ve grown 3.5 foot long bottle gourds in the Cancer Institute’s permaculture-raised beds. You can also use regular potting mix. Ensure the soil is loose, well-drained and well-mulched.
Gourds and melons are sown directly. If you plan to start them in a different location, start them in containers that can be planted along with the sapling and will compost. Gourds don’t do well with transplanting. There are many DIY, recycled or store-bought seed trays that you can start the seed in. When the seeds sprout and the true leaves emerge, plant the contents directly into the ground. At the Cancer Institute, we’ve started gourds in bamboo baskets and they’ve done very well. Ensure there is enough space for the vine to run or climb.
For bottle, snake, bitter and ridge gourds, try to ensure a pandal or trellis of some sort. This can be a fence, a simple trellis using poles and rope, or even a broken ladder. It’s easier to spot the fruit in a pandal, but a fence or balcony railing will do just as well. We’ve used ladders and even the sides of a broken baby cot to support gourds.
Usually gourds have a series of male flowers before the female flowers begin to bloom. Female flowers carry the ovum and there is a fruit at the base of the flower. While bees will ensure the act of pollination, gourds can also be hand-pollinated successfully. Take a cotton ear bud or paintbrush. Gently dip it into the male flower and then into the female flower.
Gourds need well-drained but moist soil. They can withstand some amount of drought but cannot handle over-watering, when flowers and fruits will wither and die. Mulching will help conserve water. Organic mulch will feed the plant while reducing the need to water.
While the plant can tolerate heat, the fruit cannot, so place something beneath it — a pile of grass or some sacking to prevent contact with the hot terrace floor or ground.
Gourds attract flying insects as well as rodents. You can place the young fruit in a basket (large enough to hold the fully grown fruit) or alternately cover the fruit with a mesh. A light neem oil spray can help to some extent, but remember any pest control also gets rid of friendly pests and predators.
When to harvest
Gourds are covered with light fuzz until they are ready to harvest. It’s a fine line between a tender gourd and an overripe one, so pick the gourd when the fuzz has gone; it feels tender to the touch but weighs heavy in the hand.
Gourds can gift many seeds to the seed saver. To save seeds, let your fruit ripen on the vine.
The colour guide: pumpkins should be entirely orange, bitter gourd should be bright yellow, ridge gourd should be left to dry on the vine, and snake gourd left until it turns almost golden red.
Pick the fruit when it is almost ready to burst. Extract the seeds and sun-dry them till they are toasted. Store in a seed bag, with some ash, in a cool dry place until the next growing season.
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