Kids in Asia eat biller melon stir fry with chilies, vegetables, rice, and oil, but many think it is the bitterest vegetable they have ever tried. Bitter melon is a fruit related to cucumbers, and is ready to harvest in late summer. Organic bitter melon grows well where summers are warm and long. Like other melons, it rapidly grows long vines. Kids can plant the melon to grow up a trellis or fence to keep the air circulating the melons and to save space in a raised bed garden. Why eat something so very bitter? When prepared properly with fat and spice, the bitter melon can become addictive. Plus a balance of bitter and sweet is a stimulus to the appetite. Grapefruit is the sour fruit most kids in the West know, but bitter melon is popular across all of Asia for its healing properties. It is considered a miracle antioxidant, helping those with asthma, diabetes, and HIV. The bitterness comes from nutrients called cucurbitacins which are said to cleanse the blood, aid digestion, and kill cancer cells. This melon is exceptionally rich in vitamins and minerals, with phytonutrients that help weight loss, bacterial infections, and skin inflammation and wounds. Rinse the melon, cut in half, scoop out the seeds, and slice. Toss the sliced melon in a bowl with sea salt and let sit at least 2 hours, tossing occasionally to help reduce the bitterness. Rinse the melon and use a towel to squeeze out excess liquid and add to a coconut milk curry. The melon slices can also be blanched in boiling water for a minute or two to reduce the bitterness, drained, and then added to a stir fry.
Owls are garden friends at the Las Flores Community Garden, where two owl nest boxes were built on strong posts along the fence, as in the picture above. Owls are great hunters of rodents and help keep mice, rabbits, and squirrels from eating the growing veggies in the garden. Owls don’t make their own nests; they take over useful structures and abandoned nests. Barn owls, which are the size of cats, are the most likely garden partners. Kids can attract owls to their garden by building a sturdy wooden owl house that is the right size for a pair of barn owls and their young. Kids can build the wooden box 38 by 18 by 12 inches with the entrance 6 inches above the base of the box. The oval entrance hole can be 4 ½ wide by 3 ¾ inches tall and should be facing the north to keep the sun from heating up the box. The house need a drainage hole on the bottom and should be cleaned out once a year. Place the owl house high on a post or on top of a structure. In the midwest, there are almost no barn owls left because they are not at home in large fields planted with neat rows of chemically sprayed GMO corn or soybeans. Owls like meadows, grasslands, and open areas where mice and other small prey animals live. The Las Flores Community Garden sits in an open area with lots of rodents for food and two nesting boxes for the owl families.
Summer squash varieties, crookneck, pattypan, sunburst, and zucchini, are fast growing and prolific, producing fruit in 40 to 50 days. Summer squashes are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants with skin that has phytochemicals that fight diabetes, protect the liver, and suppress coughs. Kids love squash mixed in pasta, rice, stew, or blended into sauces. Kids can also eat fresh, firm zucchini blossoms that are slightly opened to stuff, sauté, and bake. Squash blossoms are said to be clarifying and to serve when you wish to be understood. Native Americans think of squash as one of the three sisters in a garden, with corn and beans, whose roots nourish each other and when harvested make a nutritionally balanced meal. Kids can start the seeds in small pots in late spring and transplant in early summer to a larger pot or raised bed garden filled with rich organic soil. When harvesting in mid summer, kids can use clippers to cut through the stem 1 inch from the fruit when it is 4 to 6 inches long. The small fruit are called courgettes and are best eaten fresh as they do not store well. If left on the plant, they are called marrows and will grow tougher fruit a foot or longer and will store well.
Kids have been eating grapes since prehistoric times. The Egyptians were the first to ferment grapes to make wine and the practice spread throughout Europe with the Romans and to American with the Spanish missionaries. The cultivation of grapes spread to central California in the 1700s, where most commercial grape growing takes place today. Grapes are vigorous climbers and grape vines grown over an arch provide a lovely decorative feature in a small garden. Kids can plant bare-root grape vines in a climate that has a mild winter and a hot summer. Vines can be propagated from a fellow gardener’s cuttings or kids can find bare-root vines at the nursery. Trim the roots back to 6 inches and plant 1 ½ feet from a support structure, such as a pergola, arbor, or trellis and lean the vine at a 45 degree angle toward the structure. Plant the bare-root vines up to the soil line spreading the roots in all directions in rich organic soil which makes all the difference in the quality of the fruit. Pruning should take place during the third winter. Kids can spur prune the vines by cutting all the canes down to spurs with two or three buds each. Harvest the grapes when the individual grape is easy to pull off and the seeds and stems are brown. Kids can use clean pruner shears to cut the grape bunches from the vine. Grapes will not ripen further once they are off the vine.
Kids can grow chili peppers year around in warm climates in a small to medium pot with good drainage, organic potting soil, and a regular supply of water and sun. Peppers need a sunny sheltered spot and do well in a patio or on a windowsill. Sow seeds in trays or individual pots in spring and transplant them into a medium size pot in late spring. Kids can also plant them in grow bags or in raised bed veggie gardens in early summer. The chilies are green when unripe and turn yellow, red, and orange when ripe. Chilies, Capsicum genus, are members of the nightshade family, which also includes tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes and have various levels of heat from sweet to very hot. There are hundreds of varieties of chilies, from the very hot Habanera chili to the mild Anaheim chili. The seeds and white membranes of the chili contain 80 percent of the hot capsaicin. Chilies are widely used in Southwestern cooking. In the heat of summer, chilies turn yellow, red, and brown. Kids can harvest them when they are dark green and wear plastic gloves to remove all the seeds and white membranes of the chili to retain the flavor but cut the heat and make a terrific salsa.
An heirloom or heritage variety of plant must be open pollinated, where the pollen from one plant is spread to another by insects or by the wind. Seeds saved from heritage plants will breed true to its parent plant, and all heritage seeds are free from genetic modification. After World War II, industrial agriculture became widespread, using F1 hybrid seeds, which do not breed true to the parent and are often sterile. Traditionally all farmers and gardeners saved their own seeds, now three corporations own 75% of all seeds grown on the planet. Before 1950, most plants were bred to fulfill the needs of the home gardener, with local climate, flavor, and variety being most important. F1 hybrid plants are bred for uniformity, the ability to withstand transportation, and crops that ripen at the same time. The United States has lost 90% of its food plant biodiversity over the last hundred years with a 50% loss of food varieties worldwide. Open pollinated seeds, unlike hybrid seeds, can adapt to changing environmental conditions growing in the field or garden and interact with the varying site needs. Seed Savers Exchange, The Heritage Seed Library, local seed swaps, and seed banks around the world are a vital part of restoring heirloom plants. A cabbage that thrives in Maine is a different variety from a Southern Californian cabbage variety. Home gardeners can grow organic open pollinated varieties that are particular for their climate and then save and swap seeds with their neighbors to conserve biodiversity and limit corporate control of food seeds.
The ultimate patio farm is the Garden Tower Project, where kids can grow 50 plants in four square feet. Easy to assemble, my dog and I put it together and had it planted in a couple of hours. Plants grow faster in the Garden Tower because they are protected in their own special microclimate with a constant access to nutrient dense water. It is made from 100% recyclable food grade plastic and turns 360⁰ on a base with a rotatable lower planting ring. The Garden Tower contains a vertical vermicomposting system that has red wriggler worms living in a long tube running down the center. Kids can regularly feed the worms with organic kitchen scraps to keep the tube full. The worms turn this organic matter into worm castings, the most excellent organic fertilizer and soil amendment. The compost at the bottom of the tube turns to rich black organic matter and can be removed easily from a drawer on the bottom of the tower. As water is poured on the top to feed the plants, some of the water seeps down the compost tube absorbing nutrients from the castings and compost, feeding the plant roots and collecting at the bottom drain hole. Kids can pour the water from the drawer into a watering can to pour back on top of the tower tube adding more nutrients to the plants. The worms also aerate the soil and keep it fresh and active with microorganisms. The Garden Tower design creates a self contained system, requiring no weeding, easily accessible, and an attractive addition to the patio. This composting vertical Garden Tower is an education in ecology for school gardening programs, where kids find fun, worms, and delicious food!