It’s getting to be that time of year already, where thoughts turn to fall, and wonderful York county readers like yourself start to plot their ideas for fall home decoration. Shocks of dried corn stalks mounted to poles or lamp posts or front porch columns look great, as do pumpkins and colorful Indian corn. An often overlooked fall decorating item often used by us seasonal-minded folk, are gourds.
Gourds, You say? Those big rounded multi-hued, roundish-items that keep rolling off the table? Yep, that’s the same thing. Your decorating choices are not limited by only one plain type of gourd, nor are you limited by the seasonal aspect of these unique shapes produced from those long trailing vines, either. You can literally use them all year long. Bird houses can be produced from the gourds, traditional dippers and containers and all sorts of creative, useful things I haven’t even thought of yet.
Baltimore’s Gertrude Stein may have said a Rose is a Rose is a Rose, but luckily for us we have more then one name for gourds. That’s good, because they vary widely in form and size and structural strength, and we need some type of method to discern different categories for them.
They have fabulous names that are quite good at describing the general appearance of them, like Cannonball, Tobacco Box, Canteen, Basketball, Bushel Basket, Japanese Basket and Acomi Rattle, and these all belong to the Basket type of gourds. These are good for storing things that need a larger, more perfectly rounded sort of gourd.
Bottle types are called Martin House, Powderhorn, Lump-in-Neck and Hardshell Wartie, along with Chinese Bottle and Miniature Bottle. These are all nicely thickened gourds that can withstand lots of hard use and make good birdhouses, in all types of weather.
Pioneer folks in American history would get a drink of water from a bucket assisted by a Dipper gourd, these go by the names of Maranka, Short-handled dipper, mid size as well as long handled dipper, and just simply, Club.
Trough gourds are called Banana, Snake, And Zucca. Why these are categorized as Trough gourds, is easy to imagine, just cut a long furrow down the length of one, empty the contents, and bam, there you go, you have a trough. When ever I have questions about gourds, I refer to my book “The complete Book of Gourd Craft” by Ginger Summit and Jim Widess. It answers pretty much any question I have about growing gourds, and methods of approach in order to create useful objects from them.
History of gourds
Aren’t you lucky to be growing gourds? In the old days, like the REALLY old days, only men were allowed to grow gourds, and not just men, but shamans in particular. While green and growing, the exterior skin of the gourd was incised or pricked with marks that would label and define the future contents of that particular storage container. Those same gourds, when grown and dried properly, were cut open, cleaned out, and used to store medicines. This was VERY important, as gourds keep things in a dried safe environment, protected from rot and moisture and contamination. When hung up correctly, a gourd and its contents can be kept safe and far removed from mice and other rodents. They can last for many, many years. Museums actually do a great job at preserving beautiful gourd containers that are several thousands of years old.
Getting Started Growing
Gourds start growing the same way as many other plants, from seeds. The gourd seed, is a particularly tough seed, requiring the actual nicking of the seed shell itself with a small knife, before it is soaked in water. Soaking it in water softens the very hard durable protective seed, allowing the actual seed a chance to get some moisture down into it, and cause it to germinate. The softened seed shell also allows the new life to push through it, and get a good chance at survival. I usually start these seeds inside during the colder months, as gourds are a long growing crop, and I like to get a head start.
I put the soaked, nicked seeds into a pot of good quality soil, water it occasionally, and say to myself, “mark the calendar”, and I do. I come back in one month and check it. That’s right, it usually takes me one whole month to see any activity with those seeds. And even after a month has come and gone and I’m frustrated enough to want to toss the pot right into the compost pile, I restrain myself. Inevitably, the very next day a brave little gourd seedling with a lot of personality will push through the seed pod, the dirt, and against earth’s gravity itself, and pop its brave little face out to meet the sun. Quite often, the seed shell is still on the head of the seedling, its just not letting go of it yet, since it is so tough. Never remove it, let the plant stretch its own newly formed muscles and it will be able to tear apart it’s old dormant home and sink strong roots down into its new vibrant one, your garden!
Now, the needs of a gourd are simple- Rich dirt, plenty of sun, plenty of water, and above all, a nearby structure to grow onto. Gourds have greedy, powerful vines, with beautiful white flowers, and they will need many places to stretch and grow and grow and then, yes, grow some more. If you need a shady spot for you to enjoy, and them to hang on to, consider building even a small temporary structure, of branches or bamboo poles. You could even build a permanent arbor. The gourd seedlings planted next to this support will grow exceptionally well and provide wonderful shade and keep leaves and fruit up off damp ground, reach for the sun, and grow even better. I surround the newly transplanted gourd vines with cardboard or weedblocker, to minimize weeds from inter-growing and creating a future weeding chore.
Committing to Successful Growth
Gourds are considered very heavy feeders, and you will have to use very nutrient rich soil, and continue to fertilize it as well along its period of tri-seasonal long growth (spring, summer and fall) in your growing space. They LOVE moisture. Planting them in an area where their roots receive a healthy amount of run off from a storm or healthy rain is good. Those gourds will drink it all up. They will sprout beautiful white blossoms, and most, but not all will produce “fruit”, meaning the gourd. Want a really huge gourd? Its best to plan ahead and already have selected a large sized variety, or you can pretty much guarantee you will get a good sized gourd just by removing any other young gourds growing on the vine. I always leave the two healthiest gourds on the vine, so if one dies, I have a standby. Then, fertilize the crap out of that plant with seaweed-based spray fertilizer, which is the best fertilizer ever. Do this before the weather turns terribly hot, and a few days before it rains. You don’t want this stuff to just wash off, and away, even though if it does wash into the soil (and roots) directly around the plant, it still helps fertilize it, but at a far less profound absorption rate then through actual surface. Critters don’t like to eat the actual Gourd plant itself, and are actually pretty impervious to vine borers as well. Vine boring worms traditionally go after zucchini and other vine-based plants, and can be absolutely fatal to your other produce. Its nice to know your gourds will not come with any worries on that front.
Tricks of the Trade
Gourds, technically related to squash and pumpkins, means that planting them by a road is a good practice, as both plants like “having their roots tickled” by the vibratory effects of soil, shaken by road traffic. I bet you didn’t know that, did you? It never hurts to learn something new and unexpected every day, and so there you go, mission accomplished. It also means you can grow these plants in highly sloped yards and hills next to high traffic roadside areas that are a pain (and dangerous) to mow. This is not only good gardening practice, it may well save someone’s life. Stop pushing and struggling with a mower in those type of areas, and grow some gourds, instead! It’s a win-win situation, not to mention it will save you gas money and wear and tear on your mower, and unnecessary effort on your own part. This is a great thing to know how to plan for ahead of time, so you can avoid mowing challenging and physically strenuous areas when its 100 degrees outside, and you are feeling cranky and overheated. There you go, I just cut some time off of your chore list. Good garden planning does that.
As these plants grow, perhaps draped on a fence and allowed to sprawl everywhere, it does becomes necessary to tie up the actual gourd itself with old nylons or cloth, to help support it. The weight of the growing gourd will quite probably test even the strongest vines, and its all coming down. And I guarantee you this can occur after a sudden, heavy rainstorm. We seem to be getting more of those as the years go by. I spray as often as every two weeks when I am obsessively trying to produce a superior crop of gourds. Then I weed, and ignore it. That crazy huge plant knows exactly what to do when left to its own devices. Actually, its going to grow like mad, and swallow every other plant in your garden space, for many, MANY feet, and can cover your lawn, and trees, if you don’t keep a watchful eye over it.
When I find gourds growing directly on the ground, I turn it a minimal amount, as much as the gentle vine will allow, so that it develops beautifully. This means it has equal access to sunlight and air and moisture. I turn them when I want to avoid lumps or flattened surfaces. You can also get creative and grow it in between flat boards and create a traditional canteen, or a box shape, or a pyramid, even. Some people even tie them into knots. Mind you, they must be very young and pliable in order to accomplish this successfully. Then let them go and grow, for months. When the growing year is done and the vines have all dried up, and you have a nice nip in the air, you may start inspecting your crop. Be very careful not to trod upon other gourds that you never suspected of existing. You will find them underneath those wonderful big leaves that are shriveling up in the cooler, dry weather.
Fall, Frost and Finishing Growth
When your gourd growing season is completely done, around November, do what I do. Ignore it again. The vine will be all shriveled up, the gourd itself will be full of moisture and heavy as sin, and prone to being scratched and scraped. Make absolutely sure you do NOT take off the stem. I keep about a foot worth of old vines attached to it, and trim it off with a good set of clippers. When you collect them, you can put them on a wooden pallet like I do. Its important that they do NOT touch each other, as this next step in the process can be a bit disgusting.
The gourds are so heavy because they are full of moisture. They will now undergo a lengthy period of “drying out”. When closely examining the skin of a freshly grown gourd, you will see it is made up of a lot of pores, not unlike our own skin. This is when it is alive, and growing. After trimming it off a completely dried vine, things will change. I put mine on a wooden pallet, out in the yard. Nothing fancy. Do not put them where ice or heavy snow from a building overhang will fall upon them and crush them over the winter. Let the late fall sunlight embrace them. As they endure heavy rains and leaf debris, snow and ice storms and all sorts of cruel weather conditions, the gourds, ever so slowly, release their interior moisture through those same pores. As they dry, the moisture passes outside the gourd itself, and forms a sort of grotesque slimy crust on the outside skin, where it then festers and bubbles and changes color. Each different type of gourd produces a different result. This is a natural process, and needs to happen in order for the gourd to prevent rot, and to become structurally hard. Eventually, the holes shrink and tighten. Everything, and I do mean everything that was inside these gourds will magically vomit itself out of the pores and find a way to encrust itself to the outside of the gourd. It promises to be colorful, and stench filled, and in all ways, best left alone. I do NOT recommend drying these inside your basement as many people have tried to do. These well meaning people concerned about their gourds need to leave them outside and leave them alone. Trust me, avoid the headache and the smell and the cleanup that will follow. You do NOT want these in your house while they undergo “the change”. Parts of the gourds will strengthen, and other parts will be weakened, and so do not handle them at all during this stage, as they can be compromised by movement and can split and become ruined. That would mean the literal loss of a years worth of growth.
When these gourds are completely dry, a good six months later (for real, this part itself takes half a year) in the mid-spring, that’s when I clean away the wind blown leaves, and hose them all off. I take a good stiff brush to them and wash and scrape their shells clean. Do this outside. It’s filthy. The pattern of the mold has provided a particular patina of color and character to each one, completely unreproducable by any other method. It’s a fabulous way to appreciate gourds. I hose the gourds off again when I think I’m done cleaning them, and then do it again. I get right down to it and use the flat end of a metal butter knife to scrape and scrape. Then I use a plastic scouring pad, and then finish it off with fine sandpaper. It is a LOT of work to prepare a gourd! And I have not even got to do anything fun with it yet!
Preparing to create
When the job is done and you are exhausted, sit back and ponder your efforts. Most gourds are so naturally beautiful, they are just fine left as is. Or if I want to decorate them, I then usually sit in a chair with a pencil, sketch out a design, hexes mostly, on the dry gourd. I can draw and then also erase any lead mark I’ve made on its surface. I can use a pushpin to make marks, or carve thin lines with an Exacto blade, or use a wood burning tool to make my mark. I’ve discovered the hard way that some gourds have thicker shells then others. Some are so beautiful that I don’t even need to alter them at all, just a quick sanding and then a treatment with stain or shellac sets them off just fine.
I often cut mine, and turn them into birdhouses, and place them everywhere I can legally get away with it. Small gourds are great homes for wrens, which in turn are the best creature ever to adopt your garden as its new home. They are aggressive at eating aphids and any other invasive, harmful insect. Turning a completely dried gourd into a bird house requires a good blade, (be very careful, as you are cutting into a rounded surface that does NOT want to be cut). I chop off the stem at the base of it, which usually leaves a sort of bowl-type object, which now has to be emptied of gourd seeds, and a dried, papery sort of inner material. I save the seeds for that years spring planting, and save the papery inside for use in making handmade paper. Birds love to live in these gourds, they are all natural and don’t harm the environment. When all is said and done after a few years when they usually fall apart. That’s fine, its all organic, good for the soil, and removes any diseases that sickly birds may have left behind in them. Sometimes I treat the gourds with stain or painted colors, and usually pierce the back or top or sides of them, thread a strong wire through it, (careful with this step) twist it into a loop. This quick and easy way of manufacturing a hanging method works well to display your gourds from a nail or branch or fence post, as well as tucked in your fall and winter garden displays.
Gourds are far more then just a thing you grow in your garden. Dried gourds, when used in this manner, fulfill our traditional and contemporary cultural Pennsylvania mindset of beauty and duty, form and function. When put into practice by serious and hobby gardeners, artists and craftspersons, gourds help to beautify our area, and make it a healthier place to live for both plants, animals, and humans. So plan on including them in next year’s garden, it couldn’t be easier.