What looks like a mini watermelon, tastes like a cucumber, and is classified as a berry? Cucamelons! These adorable little veggies aren’t as popular as their cucumber and melon cousins, but more people are growing cucamelons because they’re simply delicious.
Whether you’re looking for some new dwarf species to cultivate, or you just want to expand your garden’s biodiversity, read on. We’ll tell you all you need to know about growing cucamelons this year.
What are Cucamelons Anyway?
Also known as Mexican sour gherkins, Melothria scabra fruits are members of the Cucurbitaceae family. That means they’re related to cucumbers, melons, squashes, pumpkins, and other gourd cousins.
Cucamelons are indigenous to Central America, though it has relatives throughout North and South America. If you’re foraging for them in the wild, make sure that you gather the right ones.
They have some lookalike cousins out there that are quite poisonous if eaten, such as M. charantia and M. pendula. In contrast, M. scabra fruits are completely safe. If you’re growing them from seeds or from seedlings purchased from a nursery, then you’ll be sure to get the right ones.
These fruits grow on vines similar to cucumbers or melons, but their fruits are tiny. In fact, they only grow to the size of grapes! This makes them ideal for growing on patios and balconies.
They’re adored by kids who like other tiny fruits and vegetables. If your little one loves cherry tomatoes and baby carrots, they’d likely enjoy cucamelons too.
Planting and Support
Whether you’re sowing from seed or planting seedlings from a nursery, make sure to give your plants enough space. These vines can grow upwards of 12 feet long, and can spread out a fair bit too.
Plant seeds 1/2-inch deep, two feet apart. If planting seedlings instead, offer them the same amount of space between plants. Then water them in well and let the sun work its magic.
Since these vines can grow so large, it’s important that you offer them a support structure to climb over. Aim for a sturdy metal or wooden trellis, or create one out of cattle fencing. Then lash the seedlings to your trellis as soon as they reach 6-inches tall.
Keep training and securing them over the trellis as they grow, and their fruits will dangle down through the latticing.
This support structure offers additional benefits. By elevating the plants off the ground, there’s less chance of pathogens like powdery mildew thriving on them. Additionally, they’re less likely to be preyed upon by slugs and other ground creeping pests.
Sun and Soil Requirements
Cucamelons are indigenous to South and Central America, and thus need a lot of sunshine in order to thrive. They’re perennial in USDA Growing Zones 7 and up, but grown as annuals in Zones 2 through 11.
Like other members of the gourd family, they’re heavy eaters. As a result, they need well-draining, compost-rich soil with plenty of nutrients. Make sure to amend your soil with well-rotted compost before planting
Place your cucamelons in the sunniest spot you have available for them. They need at least six hours of direct sunlight or else they’ll falter.
Note that like other fruiting plants like tomatoes, squashes, and pumpkins, they can be prone to blossom end rot (BER). This occurs when there’s insufficient calcium in the soil prior to the plant’s flowering period.
The way to avoid this is to test your soil before planting. If it’s low in calcium, amend the soil with gypsum or lime. Then make sure to water appropriately. Insufficient or too much water makes it difficult to take up nutrients such as calcium, and this is what leads to BER.
Watering and Feeding
These plants need a fair bit of moisture, but they don’t like to be waterlogged. Make sure they have at least an inch of water per week, including rainfall.
On that note, make sure to always water these plants at the soil level. This is because watering from above makes them more vulnerable to fungal issues. Aim for a drip line at ground level, or water the soil around their stems with your hose or watering can.
If you absolutely have to water from above with a sprinkler or similar, do so early in the morning. This will allow the hot midday sun to evaporate excess water before fungus can set in.
Potential Pests and Diseases to Watch For
When growing cucamelons, look for the same pesky issues that can plague other members of the Cucurbitaceae family.
Slugs and Snails
These are the bane of many cucumber and melon gardens, and these plants aren’t exempt from that. This is why it’s so important to trellis your plants when growing cucamelons. Raising the vines and leaves off the ground will cut down on slug and snail predation dramatically.
If you have ducks or Guinea fowl, let them run around your garden. They’ll eat these insects right off the vine for you. Pellets and hand-picking also help.
Don’t bother with copper bands or crushed oyster shells on the soil’s surface. These methods don’t work, according to studies.
These insidious jerks show up just about everywhere, don’t they? You can keep down the aphid population by releasing ladybugs into your yard. Alternatively, sprinkle diatomaceous earth (DE) onto the plants themselves. That should cut them down significantly as well.
A final option is to blast them off with a hose. The latter may damage your plants, however, so use that option as a last resort.
Although this is rife in hot, humid conditions, you can take some preventative measures. When trellising your growing cucamelons, make sure to snip off excess foliage. This will allow for greater airflow and sun exposure. As a result, fungal spores will have less of a chance to adhere to the leaves and thrive.
Check your vines daily to see if there’s any indication that mildew is present. If there is, remove affected plant matter immediately and burn it. Then spray the plants with diluted apple cider vinegar or neem oil. This might catch the contagion before it spreads.
That said, if it’s persistent, you’ll have to tear out your plants and burn them. Then turn the soil over so the sun can kill off the mold spores, and don’t plant any gourds or melons there for at least three years.
Mosaic virus can affect any member of the Cucurbitaceae family. As such, make sure to check any cucumbers, squashes, pumpkins, or melons that you may be growing on a regular basis.
There’s no cure for mosaic virus, so your best bet is to keep your garden as clean as possible. Rotate your crops on a regular basis, and clear away any detritus from the soil’s surface. Eliminate aphids if and when they appear, and remove dead or dying leaves so they don’t rot beneath the plants.
If mosaic virus symptoms start appearing (namely the discolored leaves that show a “mosaic”-like pattern), then tear up the plants and burn them immediately. This will keep the virus from spreading anywhere else in your garden.
Then keep that area plant free for a couple of years. Dig out the soil, sterilize it, and dispose of it safely. Then bring new, clean, healthy soil in before planting a completely different crop there.
Best Companion Plants
Cucumelons make ideal companions in “three sisters” gardens along with corn and either peas or beans. You can also grow them alongside tomatoes, dill, and various lettuces.
If you’re growing your mini cukes over a tunnel trellis, consider growing your leafy greens in the mottled shade beneath. This will maximize space to double your yield in that area.
Harvesting and Preservation
Harvest your cucamelon fruits when they’re no longer than 1″ in size. If you let them get any larger than that, they can become seedy and bitter.
You can use these fruits in any way that you’d use regular cucumbers. They have a lovely, mild flavor with just a hint of lime, and are lovely in fresh salads, salsas, and even green juices.
Try transforming them into salsa verde with tomatillos if you’re into making your own preserves. Or pickle them whole with some garlic, dill, and Pickle Crisp for crunchy snacks all winter long. Alternatively, if you plan on only eating them fresh, they’ll stay good for up to a week if refrigerated.
There’s really no downside to growing cucamelons. They’re adorable additions to any garden, and are particularly well-suited to small spaces. Consider cultivating them as a privacy screen between apartment units or growing them over gazebos for outdoor shade.
Then just graze on these beauties as you wander outside. In fact, you could even plan your balcony garden for “pick your own crudité” parties. Grow cucamelons, cherry or currant tomatoes, and various herbs, and you’re good to go!