The myriad 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.
Gardeners often see them at farmers markets and garden centers and make mental notes to grow their own next year. Well, it’s next year and now’s the time to sow the seeds.
Gourds can go for more than $5 apiece in the market come November, yet they cost only pennies to grow at home if you start them now. But even more, they are easy to grow and great fun for kids, but now is the time to plant.
These plants grow slowly all summer long, much as do their cousins, edible winter squash and pumpkins. Sown from seed right now (or from transplants if you can find them), plants won’t produce ready-to-pick, multi-hued 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. Once picked, try to leave as long a stem on each fruit as possible. Snapping off the stem will leave a wound or vulnerable spot on the gourd that may encourage rotting.
Unlike squashes, gourds grow at a glacial pace. But your patience will be rewarded in a harvest of different 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 over 30 varieties in three groups or types to choose from. And yes, for those of you who choose to become obsessed and carried away with these things, there is an American Gourd Society (americangourdsociety.org) where you can explore gourds to your heart’s content.
Growing decorative gourds for fall is just half the fun, however. Once harvested, they need to be cured, by drying and hardening them further so that they will keep indefinitely.
To cure gourds, put them outside on sunny days. They should be placed on a dry board or cardboard, so that they are not touching moist soil. Don’t leave them out overnight or they will be moistened again by dew and bitten by frost.
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 about 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. Not only will this provide hours of pleasant sightseeing, but your efforts will also be rewarded when the birds begin eating insect pests around the garden.
There are many varieties of gourds, but they all share a similar growth habit. They all have sprawling vines with large leaves and the tendency to take over a garden plot 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 boarders for fall surprises. To save space, 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. Putting them out too early, before June 1, may result in unwanted failures or very slow growth.
Gourd squash seeds germinate very rapidly in warm soil, which is 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 a foot tall with a 3-foot spread.
Unfortunately, from this point onward, 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 from 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, such as Reemay cloth, from mid-June to mid-August while the borer moths (laying eggs) are active but not when flowering as 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 as well, but it may take a toll on the vines. If infestations get bad, pyrethrin sprays are effective but they may also harm bees, which are important to gourd production (and pretty much everything else on the planet) 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 to each other that their vines intertwined, putting the flowers only inches from each other. The result was one crop of pumpgourds and one of gourdpumps.
Plant and forget, give the kids a great summer project, plant and wait for the edible blossoms, or plant and plan. Whatever you do, keep growing.