Winter melons are known by many names depending on where in the world you happen to be. Benincasa hispida is called the wax gourd, ash pumpkin, pethakaddu, dong gua, and more. After harvest, it's the kind of mild fresh produce that takes on whatever flavor you infuse it with, so it's popular in Asian soups and curries. You can grow winter melons in your backyard in most parts of the U.S. These fruits impress with their size and keep well beyond winter.
You can begin your winter melon journey by sowing seeds indoors when it's cold out and transplanting them when the soil is warm enough, around 65 to 70F. Soak your seeds in water for 24 hours to speed up germination.
Alternatively, you can sow seeds directly in the ground during the latter part of spring when there's no danger of frost and your growing season is long enough to comprise at least 100 days. Germination takes about three weeks.
The soil in your chosen spot should be loamy and fertile, prepped with organic matter or compost. It also needs to have a neutral pH and be well-draining—winter melons require a lot of water while growing but less when established. It takes about four months for the plants to mature.
Place your seeds approximately one inch deep before covering them with soil.
You need a bright section in your garden to make winter melons happy. These plants prefer full sun and warm, mild weather—think temperatures in the mid-80s. Still, you'll want to protect your wax gourds from the harsh afternoon sun in summer.
Your winter melons will benefit from one to two inches of water per week—the soil should be evenly moist. If you can set up a drip irrigation system, all the better. Keep the fruit dry while watering to prevent fungal diseases. Organic mulch can help control weeds and conserve water and is a good idea when your soil hits temperatures of 75F. You can also use plastic mulch.
To enhance the flavor upon harvest, start cutting down on the water as the fruits ripen.
How can you give your wax gourds a little boost? A 10-10-10 all-purpose fertilizer should feed winter melons nicely, or use an organic fertilizer tea every three weeks during the growing season. Side-dress the mounds of soil with aged manure if the leaves on your vines are on the small side or growing too slowly.
Winter melons are native to warm regions in Asia and thrive in areas like South Florida, where the climate is similar. This annual plant should be grown in USDA hardiness zones eight and over, but well-versed gardeners may know how to grow them even in zones five to seven.
Excess branches and leaves consume precious resources, so pruning is worthwhile. Trim off old, yellowing leaves and branches showing signs of disease. Cut back your winter melons by about a third, but be careful not to overdo it. Overzealous pruning can compromise your vine's growth and the amount of fruit you can harvest.
Late summer, fall, and early winter are your harvest seasons. The fruit is ready when it looks ashy and the stem turns brown. Ripe wax gourds are big and heavy and come off the stem without effort. You can store whole winter melons in a dry, dark, and cool spot for as long as five months.
Don't eat winter melon raw—it's more like a veggie than a fruit.
You can propagate wax gourd plants using the abundant seeds. Use seedling trays, grow bags, or pots filled with compost and potting mix. Place the seeds an inch deep, cover them with the potting medium, and water gently. You should see seedlings within ten days.
You can transplant the seedlings to an accommodating forever home when they are eight inches long or have at least four leaves.
Winter melons are relatively disease-resistant, but they can develop powdery mildew, downy mildew, cucumber mosaic virus, alternaria blight, and other conditions. Applying a fungicide may improve the situation. Anthracnose is a seed-born disease that results in light brown circular spots and infected fruit, so be sure to get your seeds from a trustworthy source.
Wax gourds are cucurbits. They struggle with bacterial wilt, which cucumber beetles are often to blame for. Aphids, squash bugs, caterpillars, and two-spotted spider mites also pose an issue. You can keep these pests under control by lightly sprinkling diatomaceous earth and removing infected parts of the plant to prevent deterioration and disease spread. A diluted neem oil spray may also do the trick.
Winter melons are vining plants, so they need space on the ground or the support of a fence or overhead trellis. They'll put out their tendrils, and eventually, the fruit will hang appealingly off the structure. The trellis will have to be sturdy because the fruits are hefty.
Other fruits eaten as vegetables include tomatoes, avocadoes, aubergines, olives, sweetcorn, and capsicums. The winter melon is in good company! Honeydews, casabas, and Crenshaws are similar to wax gourds because they're harvested later than the likes of muskmelons and cantaloupes, also known as summer melons.
Fuzzy melons are often confused for wax gourds, but they're smaller.
This cooling fruit has lots to offer the health-conscious. But as always, moderation is key. Overdoing wax gourd consumption can lead to digestive issues such as constipation and bloating and can exacerbate colds and coughs. Don't eat winter melon without cooking it, and be sure to remove the skin and seeds.
We've already mentioned the casaba, which is zucchini-like, and the Crenshaw, which is edible when it's raw, like a cantaloupe. The Persian and Charental are other winter melons that can be eaten raw and could accompany honeydews on a fruit platter.
These melons are, depending on your perspective, late to the party, or right on time. Winter melons are also related to luffahs, your favorite bathtime accessory.