Duck Boot Garden

Sustainable and Wild Foods advice

July 12, 2015
by jhtalmadge

Elderberry – Sambucus canadensis


An Elderberry plant in a container.


A mature Elderberry bush along a fence.


An Elderberry with unripe green berries.


(Sambucus canadensis)

The first thing I think of when I hear the word Elderberry is the song Elderberry Wine by Elton John. These plants have been mentioned in music and folklore for generations by many cultures from Newfoundland to the West Indies. In folklore, it is believed that evil spirits, witches and lightning can be warded off by planting an elderberry at the entrance to a garden or near a house. These accolades through the centuries are well deserved since these plants have so many uses. Their berries and flowers can be used in both medicinal and culinary applications plus their wood can be crafted into various items.

These large deciduous shrubs or small trees range in size from 6’ to 20’ tall with a spread of 5’ to 6’. They have opposite, pinnately compound leaves of 5 to 11 leaflets, and each finely serrated leaflet is 3 to 5 inches long, with the veins running to the tips of the serrations. In early summer, the elder tree bears finely branched, creamy-white, pleasantly scented, tiny flowers in flat-topped or slightly curved clusters (panicles) that are 3” to 10” in diameter. The glossy 1/8 inch purple-black berries ripen in mid-summer to early fall. The average mature (3 to 5 years old) plant yields 12 to 15 pounds of berries. The woody stems have smooth grey bark with intermittent corky bumps and the branches are filled with white pith that looks like Styrofoam.

The leaves, roots, bark, seeds and green berries are toxic due to containing glycosides that produce cyanide when digested. Only the ripe berries and flowers are edible. Be very careful when foraging for these plants in the wild since they have a couple of poisonous look-a-likes such as Water Hemlock and Hercules’-club. Always check with a local foraging or plant identification expert before eating wild plants.

The common elderberry has been prized for millennia for its many uses. The flowers can be battered and sautéed as fritters or added to pancakes to give them a light delicious flavor. Flowers can also be brewed into a healthful tea. Many people find the raw purple-black berries to be too tart to be appetizing, and since they can cause an upset stomach, they should be eaten sparingly. Once cooked, the berries ­­­­make wonderful treats such as muffins and pies. The berries can also be made into syrups, juices, jellies, jams, dyes, and, of course, wine.

The pithy centers of the stems of the elderberry can be hallowed out to make flutes, whistles, straws and stiles for harvesting maple syrup. The wood must be dried and cured first otherwise it will still be toxic.

The flowers and berries have been used medicinally for a myriad of ailments since the time of the early Native Americans. They are high in antioxidants as well as excellent sources of vitamins A, B, and C.  Syrup made from the berries can be used as a remedy for colds, flus, bronchial infections, asthma, and coughs. Elderberry infusions have a diaphoretic effect and are good for cooling a fever. Elder flower infusions when applied externally can heal rashes, swelling, burns, sunburns, and other skin inflammations such as eczema. Elderberries can be used as immunity boosters for the elderly and the immuno-impaired. There is now credible scientific research that proves the elderberry’s antiviral disease fighting properties. Studies show that elderberry syrup shortens the duration and severity of viral infections. Also, elderberries made into a wine or syrup mixed into a wine can help relieve neuralgia and arthritis. Thus, it is no wonder that the elderberry has been called “the people’s medicine chest.”

Recently, as my family and I were riding in the car, I was pointing out the many elderberry bushes that are in full bloom along the roadside in late June and early July. Elderberries can be found in the wild areas along the roadsides near creeks or low moist areas. So, plant your elderberries in a sunny to partial shade, well-drained moist location no more than 6’ apart. These shrubs have a shallow fibrous root system so they are sensitive to drought and deep cultivation. Elderberries are very cold hardy and live in Zones 3 to 11. They prefer a pH of 5.5 to 6.5 but will tolerate most soils as long as the soil doesn’t get too dry. Since they are only partially self-fertile it is beneficial to grow two or more cultivars to ensure cross-pollination, as this will give you a much better fruit set.

Ammonium nitrate is used for fertilizing elderberries in a commercial setting, but for homeowners it is safer to use 10-10-10 NPK and compost. In early spring, apply ½ pound of 10-10-10 fertilizer for each year of the plant’s age. Shrubs that are 8 years or older, give them no more than 4 pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer per year.

Pruning is necessary because these shrubs are so fast growing and can become rangy. The most important reason to prune is to increase berry production. Two-year-old canes with lateral branches are the most productive and canes become less fruitful after about their third year. So, it is helpful to prune out older trunks, dead or weak canes during dormancy.

Elderberries are rarely hindered by pests and diseases. However, birds can be a problem, so use bird netting and scare devices such as plastic owls close to harvest time. Some diseases such as tomato ring spot, mildew, and stem cankers can affect these plants, but can be prevented by good sanitation of old affected leaves and weed control. Unfortunately, there are no insecticides listed for elderberries.

When harvesting the ripe berries, you can simply comb your fingers through the berry clusters to knock the berries off into a container; however, there is an easier method that will save the time of plucking out the stems and branches later. The trick is to cut off full clusters of berries and freeze them. Once frozen, you can give the clusters a good shake and only the berries will fall off. Be careful to pick out any green berries since they are toxic. Other than the aforementioned preparations such as pies, jams, jellies, and wines, your harvest can be preserved by drying the berries which mellows their flavor. The syrup or the whole berries can also be frozen to preserve your harvest.

There a number of recommended varieties such as ‘Adam’s #1’, ‘Adam’s #2’, ‘John’s’, ‘York’, ‘Nova’, ‘Scotia’, ‘Sutherland Gold’ (a yellow-leafed ornamental) and ‘Black Lace’ ( a black-leafed ornamental by Proven Winners).

References and External Links:

  • The Berry Companion L. Bowling, Timber Press, 2000
  • Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants Brill, Harper, 1994
  • The New Herb Bible by E. Mindell, PhD, Fireside, 2000
  • “Eat The Weeds and Other Things, Too.” Green Deane, LLC.


July 12, 2015
by jhtalmadge

Bitter Melon – a delicacy of Southeast Asia and the Philippines


A Bitter Melon vine along a fence.


A ripening Bitter Melon fruit.


A nearly ripe Bitter Melon.

Bitter Melon

Momordica charantia

The fruit of the bitter melon, with all its warts and ridges, looks like the mutant cross between a cucumber and an alligator. This member of the squash family, Cucurbitaceae, goes by a number of different names such as bitter gourd, balsam pear, African cucumber, goya and karela. The strange looking fruit of this herbaceous annual vine has been a staple food for thousands of years in Asia, India and Africa. Now, it is beginning to be seen more and more in western gardens. Bitter melon is thought to be indigenous to southern China and eastern India where it was first domesticated.

It is a rampant growing vine with 5- or 6-lobed leaves and vanilla-scented yellow flowers that when pollinated form very bitter warty, oblong fruit. Bitter melon vines can grow up to 13- to 16-feet long if properly supported.

The young fruit are prized in Asian and Indian cooking despite their bitter flavor. The immature melons are picked at 4 to 6 inches and used in many different recipes. They can be stuffed with shrimp or pork and steamed, sliced in soups and stir-fries, or pickled to name a few. Because of their unusual bitter flavor, it is best to pair them with other strong flavored foods such as Chinese black beans, chili peppers, garlic, or coconut milk to counteract the bitter taste.

In order to reduce the bitterness of the fruit, some home cooks peel them with a carrot peeler or scrape the warty skin off with a knife, then make a length-wise cut in the fruit to remove the seeds and pulp. Sea salt is then rubbed inside and outside. Let the fruit weep for 2 hours then squeeze out the juice, this will decrease most of the bitterness. An alternative method is to par-boil them, but this changes their consistency. The flesh should be a watery, crunchy texture much like cucumbers or peppers.

Bitter melons are a good source of beta-carotene, iron, potassium, calcium, phosphorous, vitamins C, B1, B2, and B3. With their antiviral and antibacterial properties, they are used in many medicinal preparations such as juices, teas, extracts, and bathes. The fruit is consumed to treat malaria since they contain quinine. Historically, they are used to treat type 2 diabetes since they enable the uptake of glucose and are even recommended by the National Diabetes Association. The roots are sometimes used to heal hemorrhoids. The leaves are used in poultices for skin irritations like acne, burns, scabies, ringworm, and measles. Bitter melon has been proven by western scientists to inhibit tumor growth and HIV-1 infections. They are also thought to be a remedy for rheumatism, gout, and gastrointestinal problems.

These plants prefer a well-drained soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.7. Like most melons, they need even soil moisture in a sunny location or planted in light shade with the vines extending out into full sun. Bitter melons thrive when given at least 6 hours of sun in a hot and humid climate.

Plant the vines at least 4 feet apart so they will have space to grow. Give the young plants plenty support by planting them along a fence or next to an arbor or trellis. Trellising reduces disease problems by increasing air circulation and makes the fruit easier to harvest. Bitter melon vines are prone to rot if in contact with the moist ground, so mulch beneath them with 2 to 3 inches of wheat straw. Use a slow release fertilizer such as 14-14-14 at the time of planting or a mixture of bone meal and composted manure. About midway through the growing season, fertilize with a liquid fertilizer and then again at about 60 days after planting. This fertilization program along with lots of water will keep the vines growing vigorously.

In warmer areas, you can direct sow bitter melon seeds into hills 3-4 feet apart after the soil temperature has reached 64-degrees F. Plant 8 to 10 seeds per hill and cover them with 1 inch of soil. Keep well-watered. Then once the seeds are germinated with 2 to 3 leaves, thin each hill to 4 plants each.

For better germination in cooler climates, pre-sprout seed by soaking in water for 24 hours. Then wrap the seed in a warm, damp paper towel, put them in a plastic bag and keep at 80- to 84-degrees F. Once partially germinated, plant them in deep plug trays or 4 inch pots. Plant-out the young plants in a prepared bed of well-drained soil once they are rooted to the bottom of the plugs or pots.

An alternative method of propagation is by rooted cuttings. Take 10- to 12-inch cuttings from an established vine. Place the cuttings in water for 10 to 15 days until rooted. Then plant in pots as an intermediary step before planting them in the field.

Pollination can be accomplished by hand if there are not enough honeybees or other pollinators in your area. Since bitter melon vines bare both male and female flowers, take a male flower, rollback the petals and dab pollen on each of the female flower’s stigma. The female flowers can be identified by a swelling like a tiny melon behind the bloom. Commercial growers bring in hives of honeybees each spring to pollinate their crop of bitter melons.

The first fruit usually appear about 2 months after sowing. Pick the fruit when they are 4- to 6-inches long, otherwise the older fruit tend to be fibrous and more intensely flavored. To encourage new fruit growth and prevent over-ripening, try to pick fruit every 2 to 3 days. After harvesting, the fruit will keep in a cool dark place for 3 to 4 days. Stored in a paper or plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper drawer they will last up to 4 weeks. The fruit can also be sliced and dried in a food dehydrator then used for months.

Although bitter melons are relatively hardy, they can be plagued by many of the same maladies as other members of the Cucurbit family. They are susceptible to various rots and fungal diseases such as powdery mildew and downy mildew. These vines are also prone to watermelon mosaic virus. Insects such as fruit flies, spotted cucumber beetles, striped cucumber beetles, and spider mites can be a problem too. Ask your county extension agent or local garden center expert for cultural practices or contact sprays to solve any problems you might encounter.

Traditional varieties of bitter melon are named after their physical attributes like ‘Indian Long Green’, ‘Green Skin’ and ‘Large Top’. Some of the new hybrids such as ‘Indian Long White’ are better suited to growing in more temperate climates. While other new hybrids, such as ‘Mara Long’, are improvements on older varieties.

References & External Links:

  • Oriental Vegetables- The Complete Guide for the Gardening Cook, J. Larkcom, Kodasha, 2008
  • Vegetables,Herbs & Fruits – An Illustrated Encyclopedia, M. Biggs, J. McVicar & B. Flowerdew, Firefly Book, 2013
  • “Growing Bitter Melons – Bonnie Plants.” Bonnie Plants. < -bitter- melon/>.
  • “Better Living through Bitter Melon.” <>.


June 27, 2015
by jhtalmadge

It’s blueberry picking time again.

IMG_20150620_104915757   IMG_0038


Blueberries are gorgeous with their bell-shaped white flowers, dusty-blue fruit and reddish fall foliage. They are probably the easiest of all fruit to start growing. Blueberries are well-adapted North American natives and have virtually no disease or pest problems as long as they are planted in a suitable location. The only pests commonly encountered are birds. So, bird netting is a must near harvest time. Just be vigilant and watch for snakes getting tangled in the netting.

Blueberries will produce berries the first year from one-gallon or three-gallon size plants. Some experts recommend pulling the berries off for the first three or four years to increase the plant’s vigor.  But, I disagree with that procedure. Why not eat berries as soon as possible?

Plant blueberries from containers in the late spring or in the early fall. Pick a sunny or partial shade location that has a light well-drained soil with a pH of 4.0 to 5.5. Get a soil test done through your local garden center or county extension agent. You may need to adjust the pH with a soil acidifier such as Aluminum sulfate, peat moss or rotted sawdust. If you are doing a multiple planting space the plants 4’ to 6’ apart. Use a closer spacing of 3’ apart if you are making an edible hedge. Plant the container plants to the same depth as the soil line was in the nursery container. Keep the young plants continuously moist before planting and for the first few days after planting. Try to keep the top foot of soil moist by watering weekly after the initial few days. Add a 6” layer of mulch such as ground pine bark, composted leaves or pine straw around the new plants to maintain soil moisture and prevent weeds. Fertilize with an acid-loving plant fertilizer with a low nitrogen analysis such as an azalea fertilizer when the plants are blooming.

After planting, pruning should not be necessary the first 2 to 3 years. After 3 years, start pruning out some of the older canes yearly to renew the plant’s energy and increase fruit production. It is best to prune blueberries in late winter or early spring at the end of dormancy. Also, staking or cages are not necessary for these sturdy shrubs.

Blueberries will produce a crop with just one self-pollinating cultivar but it is best to have at least two cultivars for cross-pollination. This will ensure that you will have twice as many berries per plant versus just planting one cultivar. Also, by planting multiple varieties you can extend your harvest season from June to mid-September. Try planting an early season variety, a midseason variety and a late season variety to extend your harvest time.

When harvesting blueberries, you should look for the dark blue berries that have turned from green and reddish purple to dark blue in each cluster. The area around the stem (pedicel) is the last to ripen. So, check that each berry is ripe all the way around.

Whole clusters of berries should not be pulled off but instead individual ripe berries should be gingerly rolled off between your thumb and index finger. This will decrease the amount of unripe berries being accidentally harvested. Take care to check underneath each leaf and branch for hiding ripe berries. If you have more than 4 or 5 plants to pick, purchase a harvesting basket with a strap you can wear around your waist or neck to simplify picking.

The Rabbiteye varieties (Vaccinium ashei) such as ‘Tifblue’ and ‘Climax’ produce best in Zones 7 and 8. Southern Highbush hybrids (V. corymbosum hybrids) such as ‘Cape Fear’ and ‘Ozarkblue’ perform best in southern California and Florida. The Northern Highbush types (V. corymbosum) such as ‘Blueray’ and ‘Elliott’ grow best in the Northeast, Great Lakes region and the Northwest. The Half-high hybrids (V. corymbosum crossed with V. angustifolium) such as ‘Northland’ and ‘St. Cloud’ do well in regions where it is very cold like Minnesota. Lowbush varieties (V. angustifolium) such as ‘Tophat’ and ‘Burgundy’ grow best in the Northeastern region of the United States.