Introducing: The Bitter Melon

Joan McDonald

Hello gardening friends!


There are many fellow gardeners that enjoy growing “front yard to table.” While walking in the Wagener Terrace neighborhood last week, I sighted an interesting fruit growing along a front yard fence. It had beautiful green foliage that climbed the fence much like a cucumber. Upon closer examination, though, I realized the interesting fruit was definitely not a cucumber. This exotic beauty turned out to be a bitter melon. It is not a typical choice for the home garden, but after meeting Ian and Kimberly Gleason, maybe it should be?


Kimberly and Ian Gleason 


Ian and Kimberly Gleason enjoy urban gardening front yard to table with their one-and-a-half-year-old son Anderson. Ian and Kimberly have been building their garden around their charming Wagener Terrace cottage for the past five years. I asked them if they would be interested in sharing their story with the bitter melon. They were incredibly gracious and said they would be happy to. 


Upon arrival, I was met by Ian, who was just finishing the layout for his front yard cool season crop garden. He said Kimberly would be returning home momentarily from Charleston Area Therapeutic Riding, where she is one of 10 certified instructors that serve those with in the community with disabilities. They are in the 21st year, assisting a client base that includes children, adults, and veterans.   


Ian began their bitter melon story by showing me where they had originally planted the seeds many years ago. A good friend and colleague of Ian's by the name of Namgyal kindly shared the seeds with him, along with culinary tips. The bitter melon is frequently found on the table in Asia, Africa, India, and the Caribbean. Ian informed me that the vines we see today volunteered themselves and are vigorous growers that produce a high yield in a small space and require very little care. The couple said they have found that the bitter melon likes to grow laterally. They used the side of Henrietta’s chicken coup as a support for their original vines. Henrietta (a Rhode Island Red chicken) and her five feathered friends help keep their garden well amended. Ian and Kimberly had such success in their first season of growing the fruit that they distributed approximately 100 pounds of bitter melon. I was amazed to hear that: 100 pounds of bitter melon!


What can you do with that much bitter melon? Well… this is really neat—Kimberly and Ian were able to share with many people in their community. They distributed some to The Charleston Tibetan Society Dharma Center, which is located close to their home. They also take turns with their neighbors hosting suppers on their block. It seems the bitter melon is a fruit that keeps giving.


As a front-yard-to-table gardener myself, I am always interested to hear about fellow gardeners' favorite techniques, influences, and recipes. Ian and I sat down for a quick Q&A on the Gleason’s tips and garden practices. Here is the dirt:


JM: How did you learn to garden and what are some of your techniques for gardening?

IG: We enjoy gardening; it fits in our philosophy of life. We have a close friend by the name of Michael Dietrich who has been instrumental in influencing our practices. We use leaves as our mulch—they naturally break down and amend the garden beds. We also lean toward minimal tilling, as not to disturb the natural structure of the soil. We use drip irrigation and prefer to start our seeds indoor and then transplant them to garden. 


The Gleason's seedlings


JM: What do you use to fertilize?

IG: We have used chicken manure and fish emulsion. We recently had a soil test done through Clemson Extension and are awaiting the results. Everything is growing great, but I wanted to be sure to check. We have a lot of plans for our garden and would like to learn more about crop rotation and green manure.


JM: What is the most unusual crop you have grown?

IG: Definitely the bitter melon.


JM: What is the most pest-free fruit or vegetable that you have grown?

IG: I would have to say, again, the bitter melon. I think it is less palatable to most pests. We have had the same success with the cool season green escarole, too.


JM: What are you planning to have in your cool season vegetable garden?

IG: Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and beets.


Cool season garden prep


JM: Do you have a favorite recipe that you would like to share from your table?

IG: We usually don’t use recipes. With the bitter melon, we start the stir-fry using a little garlic, onion, turmeric, and coriander, and add okra, baby corn, and maybe some tomatoes. The longer you cook the bitter melon, the less bitter it becomes, but we actually enjoy the bitter flavor. Sometimes we just eat it in a salad. You may want to fact check* me on this, but I believe the bitter melon’s bitterness actually has some medicinal properties.


*Fact Check: Ian was spot on when he mentioned that the bitter melon has medicinal properties. According to Science Daily, the bitter melon encourages the body to generate insulin, which, in turn, helps with Type 2 Diabetes as well as serving to aid the body with the digestion process. It has also been used in Chinese medicine for hundreds of years.


Bitter Melon Growing Tips:

·      Full sun, soil temp range 60-65 degrees

·      Soil PH range 5.5-6.7

·      Well draining soil

·      Thrives in hot, humid environment (like Charleston)

·      Trellising will reduce diseases

·      Direct seed or transplant

·      The longer the fruit is on the vine, the more bitter it becomes

·      As with most cucurbits, honeybees are needed for pollination


More information about the bitter melon can be found at The National Bitter Melon Council.


Ian and Kimberly sent me home with my very own bitter melon. I am saving seeds and look forward to planting in the spring. If you have any gardening questions or tips that you want to share with fellow gardeners, feel free to post!


Bitter melon seeds