Growing, Enjoying Ornamental Gourds
Dried, carved or used in centerpieces, gourds from the garden bring color, cheer to the Thanksgiving season.
With apologies to turkeys everywhere… what says Thanksgiving more than a beautiful centerpiece of ornamental gourds? Gourds have become such a symbol of the late fall season that one of our favorite literary magazines has done a tongue-in-cheek essay about such displays (sorry, no link; too much profanity and, well, this is a family blog). Growing gourds is easy, especially where there’s a longer growing season and, with the rise of interest in collecting and supplying heirloom seeds, their types and availability have mushroomed over the last few years.
Ornamental gourds are of two types. The soft shell gourds (Curcubita pepo) are the type most commonly used for fall centerpieces and other decorations. The hard-shell type, those that we dry and make bowls, birdhouses, even musical instruments from (Lagenaria siceraria) are usually larger and need a longer growing time.
Gourds, like squash, are part of the Cucurbit family. They require the same kind of growing conditions — full sun (except in the warmest of climates), soil rich in organic material, ample water — as squash and can require anywhere from 75 to 110 days to reach maturity. The vines will often trail 12 feet and more — up to 20 feet — so give them plenty of room.
To avoid mildew and other diseases, it’s important to rotate the site where you grow gourds. The four years recommended between plantings by most growers isn’t possible for many small gardens. But you can moves gourds out of the garden and into beds against your house (where they’ll get plenty of heat and light) or grow them from trellises. Growing them against a fence — with your neighbor’s permission, of course — also gives them a place to climb. Trellis or other vertical grown gourds tend to have better, more attractive shapes than those grown on the ground. Here’s detailed information on growing gourds; and an interesting page on growing birdhouse gourds.
Curing gourds for crafting into bowls, ladles, and the like requires time and patience. Wait until your gourds are fully mature. You’ll know it’s time when the stems start to wither. This may come after a frost when the rest of the plant has started to die back. Carefully harvest the gourds — don’t twist — with an inch or two of stem remaining. The stem will be the piping that allows moisture to escape the inside of the gourd. If the gourd has any bruises or other damage, discard it. Rot, as we all know, spreads.
Clean your gourds with a mild soapy water solution and a gentle brushing. A dip in a solution of one part bleach and ten parts water will kill fungus and mold.
Put your gourds in a dry location with plenty of air circulation. Closets, basements, and the like often don’t have enough air circulation. The space doesn’t need to be heated. Drying may take several months. Inspect and turn your gourds frequently. Even if the rind is hard, your gourd may still be moist inside. Wait until you hear the seeds inside rattle before you begin working on your gourd. Scraping a green gourd, a technique recommended by some, will not help it dry more quickly and will probably lead to spoilage.
Once dry, it’s time to remove the skins of hard-skinned varieties. Soaking in warm (not too hot) water for ten minutes or so should loosen it enough so that it can be removed with a gentle scrubbing. After it’s dried, it’s ready to be worked. A light sanding is the first step. Then? Let your imagination run wild. Here are specific directions (PDF). Here’s how to hollow out your gourd (and more!). Or make a birdhouse. Instruments? We love the sound of the Afro-Cuban shekere.
Those smaller gourds you’ll use in a Thanksgiving center piece. No need to dry them. They’re beautiful and useable just the way they are. If you have photos of decorations made with gourds we’d like to see them.