The myriad of shapes, colors and configurations of gourds make them festive fall ornaments, and they’re a colorful element to bring indoors when the garden is beginning to fade. They can go for more than $5 apiece in the market come November, yet they cost only pennies to grow at home if you start now.
Even more important, they are easy to grow, and doing so is great fun for aspiring little Hampton gardeners.
Gourds grow slowly all summer long, much as their cousins, edible winter squash and pumpkins, do. Sown from seed right now (or from transplants if you can find them), plants won’t produce ready-to-pick, multihued gourds until September or October. They should be picked after their stems turn dry and woody and the skin becomes hard, like plastic, but before our first frost. (When picking, try to leave as long a stem on each fruit as possible. Snapping off the stem will leave a wound that may encourage rotting.)
Unlike squash, gourds grow at a glacial pace, but your patience will be rewarded with a harvest of various sizes, shapes, colors and markings. Some are as small as a golf ball, others the size of a grapefruit. Some are knobby, others smooth. And the color variations include piebald gold and white, reds, green with stripes and even polka-dotted and textured. In all, there are more than 30 varieties in three groups, or types, to choose from. And yes, for those of you who become obsessed, the American Gourd Society (americangourdsociety.org) can offer support.
Growing gourds for the fall is half the story. Once harvested, they need to be cured. This is done by placing the gourds outside on sunny days. They should be placed on a dry board or cardboard, so they are not touching moist soil, but they shouldn’t be left out overnight. Ideally, they should be turned each time they are put out in the sun. They should be sun-dried like this for about a week, weather permitting. Large ones will take longer. Generally, the faster they can be sun-cured, the better they will keep. Once cured, gourds can be cleaned off with a damp sponge and oiled lightly with spray oil or shellacked.
Birdhouse gourds need the sun-curing treatment for 10 days to two weeks. They’ll be fully cured when the rattling sound of seeds can be heard when the gourds are shaken. If you are clever with a jigsaw or small pruning saw, cut a 2-inch hole in the bowl of the gourd to make an entrance for small birds. In the spring, hang the birdhouse gourd by its long neck from a tree and a chickadee or wren will make a home in it, rewarding you for your efforts by eating insect pests around the garden as a new crop of gourds reaches maturity.
There are many varieties of gourds, ranging in size and shape from the small, green-and-tan striped oval kind to the large birdhouse gourds with their swan-like necks and fat bowls. Others look like weird creations of science. They all share a similar growth habit: sprawling vines with large leaves and the tendency to take over a garden, if permitted.
Like all squash, gourds thrive in good garden soil enriched with organic matter, plenty of mulch for maximum soil retention and monthly feedings of an organic fertilizer that encourages steady growth throughout their lengthy season. Full sun and regular watering keep the plants healthy and able to withstand pests that are likely to visit in the summer.
Because of their natural exuberance, growing locations should be chosen with care. A corner of the garden or a distant spot is ideal and if you want to have some fun, plant a few in your beds and borders for fall surprises. To save space in more formal plantings, you can grow the vines vertically, up a trellis or fence. If you decide to wait until next year to do your planting, remember that these are heat loving plants and putting them out too early may result in unwanted failures or very slow growth.
Gourd seeds germinate very rapidly in warm soil (also a helpful thing to know when children are doing the growing). Within six weeks of sowing it’s not uncommon for the plants to be 1 foot tall with a 3-foot spread. Unfortunately, from this point on, like all squash, gourds are susceptible to the squash borers and squash bugs. Borers drill holes in stems and eat plants from the inside. The best defense against the squash borer caterpillars is diatomaceous earth or dry wood ashes placed around the base of the plants. You can also drape the plants with garden fabric from mid-June to mid-August while the borer moths (laying eggs) are active, but not when bees are needed for pollination.
Trellising squash vines (remember, gourds are really ornamental squashes) seems to reduce pest populations. Spraying foliage with insecticidal soap every few days from early July through early September will help to curb the destructive squash bug, but may take a toll on the vines. If infestations get bad, pyrethrin sprays or rotenone powder are effective, but they may also harm bees, which are important to gourd production because they pollinate plants and enable the formation of fruits.
Another thing to consider is that gourds are often planted away from other squash crops, including pumpkins, to avoid cross-pollination. I say this because I remember one vegetable garden where these two squashes were planted so close that their vines intertwined, putting their flowers only inches apart. The result was one crop of pumpgourds and one of gourdpumps.
Gourd squash were not developed or bred for flavor, but rather for their appearance. However, the young squash are edible, although one should not count on much taste. Once the hard shell develops, the interior flesh loses its charm.
The blossoms, like those on all squash, are edible.
So, give the kids a great summer project and keep growing.
Andrew Messinger has been a professional horticulturist for more than 30 years. He divides his time between homes and gardens in Southampton, Westchester and the Catskills. E-mail him at: Andrew@hamptongardener.com. The Hampton Gardener is a registered trademark.