Mexican sour gherkins are among those fruits that often never make it beyond the garden – because you can’t help but eat them all on the spot!
That could be one reason why I never see these miniature melons at the market. But they’re actually a lot simpler and easier to grow than any other melon you might consider, and their vines are quite beautiful as well.
Melothria scabra, also variously known as the mouse melon, cucamelon, or sandiita (little watermelon) in its native Central America, is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, which also includes watermelons and cucumbers.
But unlike those sometimes massive, bloated and unruly fruits, sour gherkins never plump up beyond the size of a grape, and accordingly, their vines are very stringy and quite a bit more delicate than other cucurbits. They’re also significantly more resistant to pests and drought.
The gherkin’s teeny yellow flowers resemble their more common relatives, only shrunken down to nearly microscopic size.
Each individual vine can grow ten feet or longer in a season – trellising is a must – and can yield an incredible amount of fruit. Their climbing habit also makes them a great option for gardeners working with smaller spaces.
The mouse melon’s exterior resembles its cousin the watermelon, with its two-tone green striped pattern.
The texture and flavor are most similar to a cucumber, but the longer you leave the gherkin on the vine, the more it will develop its sour, citrusy notes, which can almost make it taste like it’s already been pickled right there on the vine.
In fact, I’m told that gherkins are most commonly grown for pickling, but I’ve never made it that far with ‘em. They’re just too delicious raw, and I eat them by the handful like I would with berries.
How to grow sour gherkins:
1. Start seeds indoors in spring.
Gherkin seeds are best started indoors around the same time you would generally sow cucumber seeds in the ground – here in Kentucky (Zone 6) this tends to be in early to mid April. I suppose you could sow gherkins directly, too, but the seeds are so tiny and vines are so delicate at first that I wouldn’t recommend it.
As soon as your seeds germinate and the vines sprout up, give them a tiny post like a pencil or a small piece of bamboo to climb while they’re still potted up. This will help keep them from becoming a tangled mess.
2. Transplant outdoors after four to six weeks.
I don’t have a hard and fast rule about when to transplant these little guys. They can be a bit slow to get going, so I just wait until they look fairly robust and resilient enough to survive the outdoors – roughly four to six weeks.
Plant the vines one foot apart, and give them a much bigger and stronger trellis than you think they’ll need. On the farm where I work we let them sprawl across hog panels, which is a great way to do it if you have access to those. Otherwise some simple mesh trellis netting on a substantial supporting frame ought to do the trick.
Keep in mind that each individual vine can grow to ten feet in length, and once they really take off, the new vine growth will appear to be exponential. You will probably have to invest some time in training the vines to climb your trellis – again, they can become a tangled mess if left unchecked. Don’t underestimate how much these little plants can climb!
3. Harvest as soon as melons plump up.
Gherkins can be slow to progress at first, but at the height of their productive period you might have trouble keeping up with the daily harvests.
As the fruits develop (usually out of sight behind leaves), they will generally grow long and cylindrical up to nearly an inch before they begin to sort of plump up and widen out. As soon as they fatten up, it’s time to get picking.
The date to maturity is given as 75 days, which roughly translates to late June or early July for us here in Kentucky.
As with cucumbers, you want to be diligent about harvesting frequently and thoroughly to encourage the plants to continue producing. Plus, the longer you leave the melons on the vine, the more sour they become, and for some – myself included – they just become unpalatable after a certain point.
Your gherkin vines will produce a pretty large crop over the span of about a month or so in mid-summer, then drop off pretty drastically. They can potentially keep producing up until the first frost takes them out, but you may be better served by pulling them out in advance to make room for fall plantings.
...You are planning a fall garden, right?