The Incredible Edible Vine

I am about to describe an amazing edible plant that has been providing us with lots of nutritious and tasty food, while requiring very little input. A blog reader graciously sent me seeds, so we tried them. It is a fantastic winner, growing vigorously even in the intense Florida heat and bugs. With the goal of eventually raising all our own food, high producing plants that are pest, heat, cold, and drought resistant are of great value to us.

The end of April we placed three of these unusual seeds in the raised mound under a leg of our windmill. They eagerly poked up, although one perished in an accident. The two remaining seedlings quickly developed beautiful deep green velvety leaves. Before we knew it the trailing vines had to be trained to the second leg of the windmill so they wouldn’t expand out of their alloted territory.

In June the first little fruits were found, and within a few weeks our family of eight was enjoying three to four meals weekly eating them and their greens. The vine soon reached the top of the 21 foot (6.4 meter) windmill tower. Last week Silver Oak climbed the ladder carefully to avoid trampling them, and cut off the ends threatening to interfere with the windmill blades. It is now trailing halfway down the opposite side of the windmill tower, making it at least 30 feet (9 meters) long, and still growing like mad.

The windmill makes a great trellis. As you can see the vine has now thinned out below but has much new growth up and over the top of the tower.

What is this mysterious plant? Jack’s beanstalk? Not quite. It is an edible gourd native to Italy which has many names. We know it as Cucuzzi. It is my absolute favorite plant this summer, partly because it makes me feel successful in growing our own food with little labor. It is also beautiful and produces delicious food enjoyed by the whole family and guests.

The leaves feel like soft velvet, and the gourds are similar to zucchini when young.

The delicate white flowers open at dusk and close when the sun comes up

Tied up with pantyhose

As the vines spread out, I used pantyhose stockings to tie them up to the legs of the windmill. Pantyhose is strong enough to support the vines and will flex with growth. I’ve become too much of a country gal and haven’t worn pantyhose for years, but a friend gave us some which we are putting to good use (thanks Ivylover!).

These long slender gourds can grow to be three feet (one meter) long, but by then they are reportedly too tough to eat. We keep out a sharp eye for young ones because they easily grow two to four inches each day and quickly get too large if we are not alert. We’ve read they are only edible up to 12” (30.5 cm) long, but we’ve found that at 18” (45.5 cm) long they are still quite tender and delicious, so we are letting them grow longer. We prepare them just like we would any summer squash like zucchini, with the skin.  Their flavor is quite mild so they can be used in a variety of ways.

We started harvesting the gourds quite small, and gradually increased their size without compromising quality.

You can almost watch them grow! By June 24 this one was around 27 inches (.7 meters).

This plant also provides endless greens. Several months ago I learned that the leaves of squash, pumpkins, and these gourds are very edible! This has opened a whole new world for us. In other countries people know they are edible and sell them in the markets. The vines produce more fruit when thinned out anyway, so twice a week I harvest many long shoots growing where I don’t want them. Since I can no longer reach the gourd vines high on the tower, I’ve been cutting more pumpkin greens growing on the back side of the windmill.

This pile of greens was harvested for the evening meal.

When Silver Oak climbed the tower to trim the upper vines he found a few gourds we'd missed.

The stems are edible but require lengthy cooking to not be stringy. So we use only the leaves, tiny developing buds, and about the last three inches (8 cm) of the tender tips for cooked greens. The rest are given to the goats who don’t like the fuzzy leaves anyway.

Gourd and pumpkin leaves, developing buds, and tips of vines used for cooked greens.

The gourd greens need only be simmered about 15 minutes to make delicious cooked greens easily substituted for spinach. I prefer it over spinach because it’s not as limp or slimy unless overcooked. We like it in pasta dishes, casseroles, mixed with other veggies over rice or potatoes, and as a side dish alone or mixed with the cooked gourds themselves. The fuzz disappears during cooking.

Here the greens and gourds are used as a side dish as well as one of the veggies in corn fritters.

Here is a very simple recipe for our family of eight:

  • 6-quart (5.5L) pot packed full of gourd greens (or squash or pumpkin greens)
  • One 18” (45.5 cm) or two 12” (30.5 cm) gourds or other summer squash
  • Water to cover bottom of pot (more if not using waterless cookware)
  • 1 Tbls olive oil
  • Salt to taste
  • Garlic to taste
  • 1 or 2 onions chopped (optional)

A pot full of greens ready to be cooked.

We use no chemicals near our plants, so we simply rinse the leaves, tear them into roughly 3×3” (8×8 cm) pieces, and stuff them into the pot. Like spinach, they greatly reduce in size during cooking, hence the “stuffing.” Add water, olive oil, salt and garlic to the pot to simmer for 15 minutes. Cut the gourds (and onions) into bite-sized pieces and add the last five minutes of cooking. When the gourd pieces are just barely tender it is done.

For fun we’re allowing the first gourd to mature to see how big it will grow. It is now 33½” (85 cm) long and 14” (35.5 cm) in diameter circumference (oops, I really goofed on that one) suspended from the tower by pantyhose. Any creative ideas how to use it after it’s fully dried? We will be sure to extract the seeds to share.  This plant not only provides lots of food, but practical materials as well.

The first gourd hangs majestically like a giant green pendant.

I forgot to mention that sometimes the leaves can make your arms itchy when handling them.  I’ve learned to wash any skin that comes in contact with them with soap and water after harvesting them, and it has always taken care of the itch right away.

Have you discovered any unusual plants that are high producers or have other remarkable qualities? I’d love to hear from you.

Blessings,

Grow Your Own Animal Feed, Part II

Grow Your Own Animal Feed, Part II

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Grow Your Own Animal Feed, Part III

Farmer Boy and Little Bird play in their “house”…an edible gourd growing up our windmill. It has grown so rapidly it now reaches to the top of the 21′ tower and is providing us lots of delicious food.

This is the first time in central Florida I’ve experienced so much vibrant edible plant growth and color in my own yard in the intense heat of summer (and I’ve lived here 40 years…wow, that makes me feel kinda old!). I hope to share more soon about what we have done differently to make this possible, even before our greenhouse (shadehouse) is built. We moved here 20 months ago and the first year rarely saw butterflies or many songbirds. That has totally changed, and gradually our sugarsand scrubland is being transformed. We feel very blessed by the Lord and rejoice in His provision. I will soon share more about our summer gardening ventures.

I’ve enjoyed your feedback about growing various kinds of animal fodder and forage. While we are glad to share what we’ve learned and what is working so far, we greatly appreciate your input. Homegrown or local feed was historically the only option, but for us who grew up buying bagged feed from a store, it is a learning curve.

In Part One we discussed reasons for growing our own livestock feed and various fodder and forage possibilities. In Part Two I shared some fodder crops we’ve been blessed to start at little or no cost. Next we’ll explore alternatives to GMO alfalfa for dairy animals, commercial chicken feeds, and rabbit feed.

It’s been so much fun to watch the herb garden grow with its delicious tastes and fragrances. This swallowtail must agree.

Dairy animals: To replace alfalfa, tragically nearly completely contaminated with GMOs in this country, we want alternatives to support milk production in our dairy goats and Jersey cow. This may require an adjustment in thinking. With the modern emphasis on quantity, the nutritional quality of milk has greatly suffered. With our own dairy animals we avoid hormone-laden, pasturized and homogenized milk with all its health issues. But what about feeding them grain and milking frequently for high production? Until a few years ago I had no idea there were health issues for both grain-fed livestock and humans consuming milk or meat from grain-fed animals. Consider Jo Robinson’s thought-provoking article.

Our family has come to prefer high-fat (omega-3), nutrient-dense milk and healthy long-living livestock over high milk production using GMO feeds and unnatural grains. If that rules out alfalfa, soy, corn and other grains, we must find alternatives. It’s ok if our goats or cow don’t give the maximum amount of milk possible, especially if that means they will be healthier in the process. Now to figure out how to make that happen.

Take note that cows are grazers and goats are foragers. I won’t pretend to have this nearly all figured out, but in Part Two of this series I mentioned various grazing, forage and fodder options. What plants are specifically good for dairy producers? Black raspberry grows wild here and we’ve already started lemongrass and mulberry, all of which promote milk production. What about other milk-stimulating herbs like dill, fenugreek, nettle, marshmallow root, or blessed thistle? We’re still learning what grows easily here. Fias Co Farm has a great list of what may or may not be edible for goats.  Another list by Kathy Voth suggests edible weeds and plants for cows.

Our nubian milk doe Jody with her triplets last December

Our roosters fertilize the eggs and protect the flock.

Chickens: Next let’s consider our chickens’ egg production. Choosing a natural diet of bugs and forage may mean fewer eggs than a diet of laying mash or pellets, but we prefer the healthier option. Chickens have different digestive systems than cows and goats (ruminants) so grains are naturally a part of their diet. We feed ours oats to avoid GMOs, but need a sustainable option we can grow in our subtropical climate.

We have plenty of room for our chickens to roam, so we are increasing the size of our flock for more eggs, since it costs less to feed 30 without laying mash than 10 with. We still need to find an alternative grain that we can grow at home (any ideas?). We made a black soldier fly composter which produces great high-protein grubs for our chickens. As we perfect it I hope to share more.

 Most garden herbs and many weeds are nutrient-dense and excellent for chickens. We give them our fruit and veggie rinds instead of composting them, as well as scraps from a produce market. The chickens’ digestive systems quickly “compost” it and we simply add their aged nitrogen-rich droppings to the garden.

The black soldier fly composter we made

One super food for chickens (and humans) is pumpkins. Last fall after Thanksgiving we got leftover pumpkins and winter squash from a produce market in town, and broke them open as needed for the chickens. Talk about orange-yolked eggs tasting far superior to organic “free-range” eggs from the store! We raised a batch of meat chickens on those free pumpkins and a little soaked oats, avoiding store-bought chick start. They grew slower, but the end result was GMO-free healthy chicken in the freezer we feel great about. Now we have pumpkins growing at various places on our property. You can’t grow too many pumpkins! If you’re in the south try an heirloom variety called seminole pumpkins. They are prolific and pest resistant even in our hot summers and will keep up to a year in storage.

What are your thoughts on increasing egg production using feed grown at home?

At left you can see a few half-grown chickens feasting on pumpkins last fall.

Rabbits: I love the free nutrient-dense rabbit food Evensong raises for her rabbitry. She finds good rabbit weeds that thrive well in our climate with little effort, and grows them in pots and grow beds. These weeds include spanish needle, dollarweed, lambs quarters, redroot pigweed (amaranth), wood sorrel, clover, wild violets, false dandelion (Florida variety of dandelion), various grasses, young smilax, Florida betony, thistle, wild grape, and others we have yet to identify.

Well-fed rabbits generally won’t eat something harmful for them, so Evensong finds weeds that grow easily on our property and gives them a little to see if they like it. Her rabbits also like moringa, pigeon pea leaves, hibiscus leaves, mulberry leaves, mints, and many other herbs in the herb garden, as well as black sunflower seeds. She places her rabbits out in portable pet fences during the day to forage on grass in the yard. One day she hopes they will be completely free of purchased rabbit feeds. What “rabbit weeds” do you have in your area?

Evensong’s bunnies enjoy sprouted oats

One key to successfully providing home-grown alternatives for our livestock: variety is better. Many plants contain traces of toxins or have medicinal properties beneficial in small amounts, but harmful in excess. The 10% rule is good: no more than 10% daily of any kind of plant. Evensong gathers a variety for her rabbits every day, and we hope soon to have enough things growing to do the same for our goats and cow in addition to what grows in their paddocks.

I already mentioned one free source of food we utilize: thrown-out produce from a local produce market. Many times it is simply past its prime and not saleable for human consumption. Once or twice weekly Silver Oak brings home a large bin filled with pineapple and watermelon rinds, partially wilted lettuce, soft bananas, or other goodies the animals go crazy over. Even the dogs come begging for an over-ripe avocado or juicy grapes. When Silver Oak backs the pick-up to the gate the whole barnyard comes alive with anticipation for the upcoming feast.

The bountiful barnyard banquet!

Some day maybe we’ll have a precise formula for feeding our livestock sustainably, keeping them happy, healthy, productive, and parasite-free. More realistically, we will probably continue adapting to availability as seasons change and needs arise. We are still learning what works best in our climate for our particular animals’ needs. Again, I would love hearing your thoughts and ideas.

Blessings,

Grow Your Own Animal Feed, Part I

Grow Your Own Animal Feed, Part I

Linked w/Creative HomeAcre Hop, Barn Hop, Natural Living Mama, Chicken Chick, Eco-Kids, Growing Home, Backyard Farming Connection, Homestead Abundance, Down Home Blog Hop, Rock n Share, Frugally Sustainable, Seasonal Celebration, Country Garden Showcase, Country Homemaker Hop, Homemaking, Wildcrafting Wednesday, Wicked Good Wednesday, Natural Living, Tasty Traditions, HomeAcre Hop, Green Thumb Thursday, Live Renewed, Simple Lives Thur., Old Fashioned Friday, Little House in the Suburbs, Farm Fun Friday, From the Farm Blog Fest, Farmgirl Friday, Simply Natural Saturday, Great Blog Chain, and Eat Make Grow.