Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Upwardly mobile vegetables

The monsoon vegetables that I had planted are all yielding beautifully now. I had not realised just how many 'upwardly mobile' veggies seem to love this season in Mumbai.

So many gourds and other climbing vines were planted this time that my vegetable patch looked like a mini-construction site with criss-crossed bamboo and coconut-leaf ribs lashed together with banana-stem fibre . Until, that is, the vines started shooting all over the place, climbing up the supports and across the trellis in any way possible. Then it started looking like a jungle!
A very pretty jungle, though, with all those eye-catching flowers. Some of them pretty enough to be grown just for the blooms instead of the vegetables.

This climbing habit does not mean that apartment gardeners have to avoid growing them. The window box-grilles found in most apartments in Mumbai are perfect for them. Pot them up in a sunny window and let them climb all over the grilles. A couple of rods placed across the box-grille make a great trellis for them. And they grow so fast that you'll have a green curtain in no time at all!

A view from over the trellis gives it such a deceptively peaceful air. These bottle gourd flowers hardly give any indication of how big (or heavy) the vegetables can become.

And here's a peek under the trellis. This one is a baby (with fuzz and all) and still growing. They love the monsoons with the constant moisture in the air. But give them too much and you'll see some very disgruntled plants! Luckily my vegetable patch is situated on a slope which means that all the excess water flows off . It carries away quite a bit of the soil too but I'm working to fix that.

Quite a few of my American and European friends who garden were quite surprised that anyone would eat gourds. Most of them grow gourds for crafting and don't know whether to believe me when I tell them that tender gourds are very tasty when cooked. On the other hand, most of my Indian friends are absolutely shocked that I would actually allow perfectly good gourds to dry up just so I could use them for crafting !

The one gourd that I'm not too keen on is the bitter gourd which is a perfect reflection of its name. On the other hand I would definitely grow it for its pretty yellow flowers and interesting foliage. The knobbly vegetable does look quite quirky too, doesn't it?
To make up for its very bitter flavour, Nature seems to have loaded it with medicinal qualities that make sure it'll end up in every kitchen. Did you know that it is a great regulator of blood-sugar levels? Or that it is used to treat cholera in the early stages? Or that there are reports of it being used to treat tumors and certain disorders of the blood?

But here's the rub : if they're loaded with pesticides and other toxic chemicals, all those wonderful medicinal qualities aren't worth a paisa! I personally prefer to grow all my fruits and vegetables as naturally as possible, leaving it to the wonders of neem and natural predators to keep pests under control.

However, one natural predator had me sweating while trying to harvest these bitter gourds. One end of the trellis on which these bitter gourds and bottle gourds were growing, collapsed under all that weight. Which meant that I had to crawl under a 4-foot high trellis for about 7-8 feet before I could reach the vegetables hanging in the middle.

I started off very casually but after I had taken my second step I suddenly remembered that this is cobra territory! Surely I would see one if there were any around?
See them? With all those vines and weeds covering every spare inch of land? Not a chance! And what was worse was that just behind the trellis was where we had piled up all the rocks (vine-smothered now) found while clearing the vegetable patch. Just the kind of place where a whole brood of snakes would love to hang out and raise a whole community of little baby cobras.

Now, I usually get along quite well with snakes. We have a deal. I stick to my space and they stick to theirs and in between when they come to my garden to gulp down some rats, I even cheer for them. But I could just picture myself bumbling and crawling along straight into their nursery and in my nervous mind I had already stepped on at least 3 of them. And, I kept screaming at myself, "just what the **** *** do you think you're doing?!". In my mind, of course, my throat was too dry to let out even one tiny squeak.

But the killer? The absolute irony would be if I was bitten by a cobra (sure death... there are no hospitals or anti-venom for miles around!) while crawling to pluck bitter gourd of all possible things!

This is one snake that I particularly enjoy, though. I love tender snake gourd sautéed ever so lightly. (Can you spot the beans growing in the background? Another of the upwardly mobile vegetables that love the monsoon season). This is a new type of snake gourd that I've grown for the first time. It doesn't grow 2-3 feet long like the usual snake-gourds but remains short and stubby ... more like a slug. Perfect for a dish for small families!
And how do you like its flowers? I think it looks like a particularly frazzled starfish with a very 'upwardly mobile' hair-do!

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