How to grow Bitter Gourd (Karela)

COMPLETE GUIDE FROM SEEDS TO HARVEST


The season:
Bitter gourd is a warm season crop. Best season to grow bitter gourd is Mid Feb-April and again in June- July in Northern Indian plains.

From where to source the seeds: You can source the seeds from Edible Routes farm shop in Vasant Kunj, Delhi or you can source the seeds from different online source or PUSA institute or  from your nearby local nursery shop.

Selecting your planting location: Bitter gourd plant is a creeper. The vines likes to climb up and spread around. They need a lot of sun. So find the sunniest spot in your garden. It should get minimum 5-6 hrs of direct sunlight.

 Selecting the container: It is a creeper so it needs good root space to become a healthy strong vining plant. A minimum depth of  12’’-14’’ pot would be good enough. A rectangular 12’’-14’’ container with 1.5-2 feet length and 1 feet width will also work. See below pic for reference.

Preparing the potting medium: A potting mix is a combination of natural materials that attempts to recreate some of the soil conditions that exist naturally in the ground. Main objective is to overcome problems of compaction and lack of nutrients. An ideal potting mix should be light, airy, long-lasting, and moisture-retentive and contain diverse nutrients.

Equal amount of soil and equal amount of coco peat (coconut husk) along with compost will give you a good potting mix. In percentage you can have 30% of Soil, 30% of coco peat and 40% of compost to make a good potting mix.

Mix all 3 ingredients well and your potting mix is ready. Always moisten the potting mix by spraying water with water spray before sowing seeds or planting seedlings.

Steps to sow seeds to germinate well: Bitter gourd seed have tough shell, so better to soak the seeds overnight before sowing. One more thing I see people do and get success too is slightly crack the seed open or take a pair of pliers and slowly crack open the thinner end of the seed. But be careful to see that the inner side (endosperm inside) of the hard shell is not destroyed. Bitter gourd seed will germinate in 10-15 days.

The seed sowing depth and the spacing: Once your container or growing space is ready, make a ½ inch hole to sow the seeds. See the pic below to understand the depth of the hole, whatever the seed is just make a hole double the size of the seed and sow. Plant to plant distance should be  1-1.5 feet apart.

Thinning(removing extra plants): Always put 2 seeds per hole and if both germinates then, remove one and keep the healthy looking only. Always remove the extra seedling once it reaches 3’’-4’’ with true leaves. Don’t wait too long to remove the extra as it might damage the other one’s root too while pulling it out. You can directly sow seeds or can raise in seedling tray and then transplant when the seedling reaches to 3’’-4’’ inches tall with actual leaves (true leaves). See the pic below for reference for thinning stage and transplanting stage.

Building a trellis:

A good weekend garden project!

The bitter gourd plant likes to climb up, so with simple coconut rope you can make a net by tying the ropes horizontally and vertically or you can use some pruned tree branches from your locality to just set it around your plant and let the vines climb on the branch. Another way is to make a bamboo trellis by nailing split bamboo in cross pattern. See the above pics for reference. If you are not a hands on person ( but it would be a good garden project to do), you can always buy a nylon crop support net to tie on to hooks on both side if you have planted your bitter gourd along a wall or tie in bamboo poles.

The care and maintenance: Bitter gourd is a hardy plant which doesn’t require much care and attention. Just give the plant a trellis to climb on and it’s happy! After flowering starts, feed the plant with a liquid fertilizer like seaweed for good fruiting. Apply foliar spray with sea weed at every 15 days interval for a good result and apply just 1-2 handful of compost every month around the plant, see the below pic for reference

The pest management: Bitter gourd plants are rarely infested by any pest. For aphids and common garden pest use chilly garlic spray.  8-10  green chillies finely sliced, 10 cloves garlic crushed , mix in 1 litre of water. Stir it every day and keep it covered. After 3-4 days, strain the liquid and dilute in water in 1:5 ratio and spray on garden plants or you can use neem oil too.

There is reason for pest and a season for pest. Pest always comes in transition period mostly, so spray all these home remedies proactively in your garden plants to manage insect population. As your garden enters from winter to summer and your are planting bitter gourds, other gourds, spray neem oil, chilli garlic spray immediately after a month of planting in the garden even if u can’t see any pest but always in dilution with water otherwise too strong concoction may burn the plants.

Over watering and compaction of the soil, too much moisture, over wintering plants, unseasonal rain etc are few reasons for pest to come.

So checking your garden everyday for at least 15-20 mins will help you see these signs and symptoms early to manage it on time. More you visit your garden, daily attention you give to your plants, more it will help you identify issues to rectify timely. In natural farming or natural way of growing veggies, we have to prevent pest and disease rather than try to cure it.

Bitter gourd fruits might be eaten up by insects sometimes like fruit flies.  For managing fruit flies, install pheromone trap in your garden once the plant starts flowering enough. You can easily buy this trap online from amazon.in with all the details of how to use it.

A “pheromone trap” is a good and safe way to reduce the number of fruit flies. This method uses a pheromone or to attract the male fruit flies into a trap where they are killed. Even though only the male flies are killed, this makes it more difficult for the females to find a mate to make more maggots.

Disease management: In organic way of growing veggies, we have to be proactive, rather than reactive.

  • Weekly spray of agricultural neem oil after one month of planting the garden will help manage any pest and diseases. Trellising help the soil get good aeration as the plant climb on trellis and not falling on the ground and it will save the plant leaves from attracting fungal diseases.
  • There are three kinds of diseases viral, bacterial and fungal disease in plants but luckily in our home gardens, we have diverse crop and not an acre of bitter gourd monocopping so, we need not to worry about much of these scary sounding diseases. Mostly bitter gourd doesn’t easily attract any of these diseases and any other dangerous garden pest. Relatively it’s an easy growing plant without pest and disease issues.
  • As most of the diseases are caused by some insect carrier like white flies, aphids, it’s better to grow some trap crop like marigold or put some yellow sticky trap to capture the whiteflies, aphids and many tiny, flying insects. Yellow sticky trap is the most effective way to prevent these diseases as all flies etc gets sticks in the lure and thus lowering the risk of disease spreading.
  • Fungal diseases like Powdery mildew can be prevented(early satge) by spraying milk or buttremilk diluted in water typically 1: 10 ratio(1 part milk, 10 part water). Though exactly how it works, has not been established but according to research, the protein in milk and buttermilk produces oxygen radicals, when expose to sunlight. And fungus coming in contact of these got damaged and killed.
  • Home gardeners, small scale farmers can always opt for these home remedies for prevention of fungal disease. If it’s beyond saving, always better to remove the plants and throw it away far from the garden and you can spray buttermilk in the soil too after removing the infected plant, let the soil soak in sunlight for few days before new planting. Regular spray of neem oil on weekly interval will also help stopping the fungal disease from spreading.
  • Spreading wood ash in and around the roots and on leaves will also deter many pest.
  • Always buy disease resistant variety or you can soak seeds in sea weed powder (mix in water), cow urine(diluted in water) for seed treatment before sowing (if available)
  • Another most important thing to avoid diseases is to rotate crops in your garden. Always maintain a garden dairy and note what has been sowed where, so that you can rotate crop next season.
  • Avoid overhead irrigation when you see some kind of leaf spot, yellowish leaves spot, curling of leaves etc which are symptoms of bacterial wilt or fungal disease. Give less water and only surface watering should be done.
  • Do mix planting to minimize insect population, to deter pest. Planting of basil, Indian tulsi, mint, aromatic herbs like ajwain leaves (Indian borage) peppermint etc will confuse pest with the fragrance and flowers of these herbs will attract beneficial insect and predatory insect to manage pest in your garden naturally! Bio diversity is very important in managing pest and diseases in garden. So design the planting in your garden with aromatic herbs, flowers along with seasonal vegetables. Your bitter gourd will love to have all these as companions! See below pic for reference -signs of fungal diseases.

Watering: Two times watering is needed in summer for bitter gourd. Once in the morning and once in the evening.

Too much of everything is bad. So does too much watering. Don’t think that plants only need water. Plants need oxygen and water both. So don’t make the soil compact by too much watering.

The soil should be moist and not soggy. Poke a finger in the soil to check moisture, if the soil sticks in your finger and you easily can rub it off then moisture level is perfect. If the soil sticks too much then reduce watering.

One more method to check if proper watering is happening or not is pick up some soil and make a small ball out of it and throw it down from your waist height, if the ball breaks easily then you are watering the right amount.

If you can’t make a ball, soil is not sticking at all then less watering is happening and if the soil ball is not breaking after throwing down then too much watering is happening and as a result the soil acted like a clay ball.

See below pic for reference.

Always water with a watering can or a watering hose. Never water with too much water pressure. Plants like it when it feels like rain shower! Small scale garden, home garden has this advantage that you can always do hand watering with a watering can.

Pollination for fruit development: Bitter gourd is a cross pollinated crop. Bitter gourd has male and female flowers develop separately. Usually bees and butterflies do the pollination. So it’s better to plant some flowering plants to attract honey bees and butterflies to your garden. Lack of pollination will result as no fruit. In urban gardening on rooftop/balcony etc we need to plant flowering plants and basil etc which attracts bees.

If very less bee activities you might need to do hand pollination. Simply break off the male flower, and hold it over the female flower and “tap” the pollen from the male flower into the female flower. Hand pollination needs to be done in early morning hours (8-9 am) when female flowers open up.

Harvesting: Bitter gourd usually takes 65-70 days to give harvest on ideal condition. The fruit should be around 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) long and firm to the touch when they are harvested. Use a scissor to cut the hanging fruit from the vine, don’t pull the fruit, you might damaging or break the whole vine.

Timely harvest will ensure more fruiting as the plant will focus its energy into producing more fruits and not engaging in seeding the existing fruit. So keep picking up your harvest on time. Check your vines every other day to see if you have fruit ready to be cut down soon. One plant can give you 5-7 bitter gourds to pick every week. Always plant extra to get good harvest. For a family of four, 4-5 bitter gourd plants are more than enough to get your bitter gourd supply from your home garden. Happy growing folks!

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