Ridge Gourds on Cattle Panel Trellising

Ridge gourds are a popular vegetable in many Asian countries. Also known as ridged luffas and chinese vining okra, ridge gourds are easy to use in recipes that call for summer squash or okra. Though classified as a gourd, they are extremely different from the hard-shell gourds. They also don’t have the sliminess of okra, but their shape is reminiscent of a very long okra pod. Sliced and sautéed, they can be used as a simple vegetable dish or as an elegant garnish.

They produced an abundant harvest on our farm in 2014, bearing tasty young fruits until frost. We saw no evidence of disease or pest damage. If you’ve struggled to find bug resistant summer squash, ridged luffas could be just what you are looking for. Growing luffas is a lot like growing cucumberssquash, and other crops in the cucurbit family.

Ridge gourds have their best eating quality when harvested at 1 1/2 in. diameter or less. For maximum production of tender young edible fruits, harvest every two days or so, as  you would summer squash or okra.

Larger, slightly older fruits have tougher ridges, but they can still be appetizing if the outermost points of the ridges are peeled away with a vegetable peeler. If they are left to mature a little more yet, the texture becomes more fibrous and less desirable, and then they become too fibrous to eat, though the flavor is still fine. (Their cousins the smooth luffas are bitter at this stage.) If left to mature fully, Ridge Gourds start to acquire a brownish gray color. At this point they are ready to harvest for retting and use as homegrown bath sponges or dishcloths – though if this is your primary reason for growing luffas, the smooth type would probably be a better choice. We allowed our Ridge Gourds mature fully to produce seed.

harvesting for seed
taking seeds out

Had we grown them primarily for the tender young edible fruits, I expect we would have had a much larger harvest yet.

Ridge gourds can be allowed to sprawl, but trellising them has several advantages: the fruits grow straighter, they are easier to find and harvest, they are cleaner at the time of harvest, and the trellised plants can create a pleasantly shaded space in your garden.

We used cattle panels to trellis our seed crop of ridge gourds. It probably would have been best to erect the trellis at the same time we planted the two rows of seeds in the second week of May, but at that time we were still quite busy mailing out seeds and sweet potato slips. By the time we erected the trellis in the third week of July, some of the vines had already grown to over 10 feet long, and the first fruits were beginning to form.

We moved the vines aside and put in two T-posts, each a few inches from one of the rows where we had planted and about 3 feet from the ends of the rows. Then we bent a single 16-foot by 4-foot cattle panel, made of thick welded wire, in an arc and set it between the T-posts. The first arch of the trellis was complete.

For a small home garden, one arch would have been enough, but for our seed crop, our rows were about 60 feet long. We made 8 more arches. Then we flung the vines onto the arches. I was prepared to wrap the plants’ tendrils carefully around the cattle panel wire, but they stayed up on their own.

One person with experience could easily set up a cattle panel trellis alone, but for those of us who made this particular trellis, it was our first time, so it was much easier with two of us. Before long, the space under the trellis felt like an enchanted enclave.

An organic no-till garden in South Carolina

Rodger Winn and his wife Karen grow seeds for Southern Exposure, as well as vegetables for themselves and for a local market, in their 1.25-acre garden in Little Mountain, South Carolina.  On our recent trip to the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Greenville, SC, we stopped in to see their place.  The area had just had an unusually early frost and snowfall, so the summer crops were dead, but the fall garden was green and gorgeous.

Rodger showed us several seed crops, including Charleston Hot pepper and Charleston Gold rice.  (We haven’t gotten the rice seed from him yet; it’ll go up on our website after we do.) We also found his bean trellising quite interesting.  It uses thin fiberglass poles kept in place with wire from an old fence. The space under the poles is not very high, but it’s high enough for a person to crouch and pick beans in the shade.

But the most interesting part of seeing the Winn farm was Rodger’s description of how he uses clover and straw to smother out weeds so that he needs neither a tractor nor herbicides.  In fall, around the time of his first frost, he broadcasts Crimson Clover over his main garden area.

In spring, as he is getting ready to set out seedlings, he has 500 square bales of hay delivered, and spends one day covering the entire area with an 8-inch-thick layer of loose hay mulch.  He transplants most of his crops, including beans, melons, squash, and others that most gardeners and farmers would direct-sow.  However, he does direct sow some crops, including carrots, turnips, parsnips, and some greens, by raking back the hay to make a 6-inch-wide row, sprinkling compost, then sowing the seed and lightly raking over it. When the seed is up he pulls mulch up around the plants to limit weed growth.

Last year the Winns’ beans finished in August, drowned by a very wet summer, so he planted collards in the same row as the beans without pulling up the drip irrigation or the poles, as seen below to the left. That  January, he pulled up 40 of the best remaining collard plants and replanted them at the top of the garden, where they bloomed in late April of this year and produced seed, as seen below to the right.

For the Winns, going no-till is a great way to save time in the garden, as they don’t have to hoe or thin most of their crops, or ever bring a tractor into the garden.  They also don’t have to remove trellising and drip irrigation as often as farmers who till.  The method also builds great soil.  In 1998, the farm had hard red clay soil.  Now, while the subsoil is still hard red clay, the topsoil is a rich, dark loam created by sixteen years of nitrogen-fixing clover cover crops, ten years of thick, carbon-rich hay mulch, and three years holding nutrients in the soil by not tilling.

We’re excited to try out a system like Rodger’s on our own farm, but with many other projects on our plates, we’ll probably start it on a small section of our land, with hopes of expanding it to cover larger sections of our gardens in the future.

You can read more about Rodger and his love of heirloom seeds in Bill Best’s book Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste.

Extend your pepper season and preserve peppers

Last night at about 11:30 Ken alerted me that the forecasted low for our area was 36 degrees, meaning that we could easily get a light frost.  At midnight the two of us headed out to our gardens with a flashlight to cover our pepper trials, two of our pepper seed crops, and our purple hyacinth bean seed crop with tarps and garden blankets that had been left next to the crops since the last time we had a risk of frost.

Pepper plants in our trial pepper patch. One of the tarps we used to cover the patch is behind the plants.

I also turned on a sprinkler to water our Keystone Resistant Giant pepper seed crop and our Riesentraube tomato seed crop overnight. Contrary to most people’s intuition, a sprinkler can protect plants from a few degrees of frost if it is turned on before the temperature gets below 32 degrees and not turned off until after it gets above 32 again.

A few pepper plants, as well as what remains of our basil, squash, gourds, and beans, were left unprotected, as were most of our remaining tomatoes.  This morning at 8:00 I took a quick walk to see what was dead and what was alive.  I was sad to find abundant evidence of frost in the garden, including that the leaves of our Joe’s Round pepper plants were stiff with ice where they hadn’t been covered.  Our basil was also stiff, and it’s even a little more tender than most frost-tender crops. However, when I checked them again around noon, I found most of those leaves quite alive!  I’m guessing this means that dew on leaves of even very frost-tender plants can freeze without necessarily harming the leaves themselves.  We’ll probably get another good seed harvest from each of our pepper seed crops, and then, around the time of our first killing frost, a big harvest of green peppers for eating. Green peppers don’t have mature enough seed to expect a good germination rate.

Peppers can be slow to come into production, but once they do, they bear prolifically. The fruits keep well on the plants, and in your root cellar or fridge. They are also easy to preserve… more on that below.  So, abundant fall pepper harvest are generally well worth the effort of covering the plants on the first few frosty nights.

Our habaneros were planted late and were slow to start producing, but now they are bearing especially prolifically.

Other frost-tender crops also benefit from covering, including eggplants, tomatillosbeans, cucumbers, and both summer and winter squash.  If you have a cucumber patch that’s still going strong in the days before your first frost, cover for harvest season extension.  However, many crops are harder to cover due to their height.  Also, cold weather and short days slow many of them down a lot.

Preserving peppers is easy, and you have lots of options:

– They freeze well. Unlike most vegetables, they don’t even if need to be blanched (flash-cooked) first. Just cut them into strips or squares, bag them in freezer bags from your local grocery store, and pop them in the freezer.

– We’ve made a delicious roasted red pepper spread. It can also be frozen, and takes up less freezer space than unblended peppers. Just roast peppers and garlic in the oven at about 350 degrees until soft, then thoroughly blend with olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, and black pepper.

– Some of my friends absolutely love pickled hot peppers.  Lacto-fermented jalapeños have come out especially well for us.  You can also use them as seasoning in other ferments like kim chee.

Sliced red bell peppers with whole green hot peppers and coriander, almost ready for lacto-fermentation

– Dehydration is also a great option, especially if freezer space is scarce. If you have an electric food dehydrator, put at about 135 degrees. If you live in a dry climate, you can dry peppers outside, or string small, thin-skinned ones – like Aji Dulce (mild), Cayenne (hot), or Habanero (very hot) together and hang them in your kitchen or pantry to dry. On our farm, we dry peppers and other vegetables in our convection oven, set to the lowest possible temperature (about 160 degrees, actually lower than the lowest listed temperature on the dial). Dehydrated veggetables are best stored in airtight containers such as mason jars with two-piece lids.

– Homemade hot sauce is a great option.  Canning recipes abound.  Or, if you’d prefer to store your hot sauce in the refrigerator, you can forgo the recipe entirely and experiment with the ingredients you happen to have on hand.

– Hot pepper jam is a favorite of many, and sweet pepper jam is a great option, too.  One of the best jams I’ve made was tomatillos with a touch of Jalapeño peppers, at the rate of about one deseeded pepper per pint.  If I hadn’t already known the hot peppers were in it, I wouldn’t have guessed.

Those tarps and garden blankets will likely come in handy again later in the fall and in the winter, for covering greens on very cold nights.  For more on what fall and winter crops survive down to what temperatures, see our Fall and Winter Gardening Quick Reference.

Saving the Past for the Future