from compost to fruit

Somewhere toward the end of last year — perhaps in October — we buried some pith and seeds in the compost heap, not expecting it to do anything other than decompose and rot like everything else in there (apart from the pumpkin seeds, which really don’t need much encouraging at all in order to sprout and grow).

Weeks passed, and we added more food scraps to the heap, forgetting with every addition what was already in there. But then, in the second half of November, something sprouted near the edge of the heap — something that didn’t seem like a weed (or at least not like the weeds we were familiar with). We left it there, sprouting out of the compost heap, to see what it would become.

In late November, it had gained some height, and was looking like it might one day produce something edible. The leaves looked familiar, but while I had suspicions about what it could be, I couldn’t be sure just from appearance. I hadn’t seen this kind of plant in a while. But curiosity finally got the better of me, and I inspected it more closely.

I rubbed the leaves between my fingers, and smelt them. Once I smelt it, I knew instantly: it was bitter melon! It had to be!

My parents have grown bitter melon before, so that’s why the leaves looked familiar. And it’s also how I knew what it smelt like — vegetal and bitter like the fruit itself (I guess it’s technically a fruit, but I consider it a vegetable, since it’s cooked and eaten like one).

My partner and I were quite excited to have our very own bitter melon plant (I was especially excited). We were worried it might struggle if we moved it out of the compost pile, so we decided to just leave it there. It wasn’t really in the way anyway, and we could still bury more food scraps around it.

So more weeks passed, and we carefully tended to the bitter melon plant, and it grew and grew. For those unfamiliar with this plant, it grows like a vine. When my parents grow it, they train it onto a lattice structure that they put together with random sticks and poles. It creates a nice little canopy from which the bitter melons hang down.

We had no such resources to build a lattice (physical resources as well as time resources), so we bought a simple lattice thing that could be affixed to the fence. Fortunately the compost heap from which the bitter melon was growing was next to the fence, otherwise we’d have to put in vertical supports of some kind. Still, it was some distance from the fence, so I tied some string between its little stake support and the fence lattice, to give it something to climb along. 

I’ve never grown vines before, and wasn’t sure what to expect, but it’s quite an incredible thing to watch a vine grow. The bitter melon plant also grows little tendrils from the main vine/stalk, which help it to grasp and hold on to things so that it can climb. The tendrils are so thin and appear to be so delicate, but they really contain a lot of strength. If we needed to reposition the vine along the lattice, we had to carefully unwind these little tendrils, and carefully wind them around wherever we wanted it to go. But I think we probably could’ve been a bit rougher with it, and they’d be none the worse for it.

I really like eating bitter melon — it’s in my top three favourite vegetables (if you’ll allow me to call it a vegetable) — but I think I would have still been happy even if our plant never grew anything other than vines, leaves and tendrils. The very experience of tending to the plant was quite meditative and awe-inspiring. Sometimes I still can’t believe that it just grew out of the compost like that. What luck!

But I think at one point I was starting to be more invested in the survival and success of this bitter melon plant than I was in the success of any of the plants we planted intentionally. Maybe it was the serendipity of it, and knowing that the other plants could be replanted quite easily.

By late December, the bitter melon had its first flowers, and by January, we had the start of something promising. You can see what used to be a little flower on the end of the bitter melon:

The flowers are really pretty — little, dainty, yellow flowers. I find it hilarious that these flowers produce what is arguably one of the most grotesque-looking fruits/vegetables in existence.

Our first harvest was ready in late January!

We also had two others that we accidentally let become too ripe and/or something was eating them from the inside; but the fourth one was harvested just in time, and we have three more growing now. We’ve certainly learnt to keep a close eye on them!

But even if we don’t get to harvest much more from it, we still got more than we ever expected (which was zero). It’s been hard work (and lots of hard work looking after the other plants), but well worth it — if not for the literal fruits of our labour, then for the satisfaction of growing something from the ground up.

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