What would fall be like without gourds? No pumpkins for Halloween. No decorative gourds for our fall décor. No dried gourds for next year’s birdhouses and feeders. Thank goodness for our local growers who flood the market each year with their latest crops. I love the almost endless variety; but even more I love the pleasure of growing my own.
Gourds are a challenging and interesting plant to grow. The gourd family covers a large spectrum of species, from edible pumpkins to squashes and decorative varieties. The ornamental gourds are called Cucurbita; utilitarian gourds are Lagenarie; and vegetable sponge gourds are named Luffa. The ornamental gourds are oddly shaped and come in many different colors. The utilitarian varieties grow with a green color and then dry to a light brown color.
Gourds have been used through the ages in utilitarian ways and for decorative purposes. I remember as a young child, we had a gourd drinking scoop near the well bucket. The American Indians used gourds for practical and decorative purposes. Many remnants of gourds have been excavated in ancient Greece and Rome, and many other locations. Today we see them used mostly for ornamental purposes as in birdhouses, bird feeders, painted containers, and scoops.
Growing this plant is not for the faint of heart. It takes patience, tenacity, and knowledge to pull off a successful crop. They need lots of sun, warm weather, plenty of water, and a full growing season. They need temperatures of 70-85 degrees, but can be grown in Parker County quite successfully. You will need a lot of space to grow the larger gourds, which are wonderful for birdhouses and feeders. You can trellis the smaller varieties if you are limited on space. The bicolor pear gourd is a good choice for this. I have seen gourds grown successfully over the ruins of an old shed. It was perfect because it gave the vines space and kept them away from insects on the ground. It also helped camouflage a fallen structure and added an interesting aspect to the garden space.
There are some plant diseases and insects that are common in gourds. Aphids, cucumber beetle, squash bug, and squash vine borer can cause significant damage if not removed. Rather than risk my bee and butterfly population with insecticide, I usually remove these by spraying the leaves with the hose, or by removing the affected leaves and throwing them away. Powdery mildew can be problematic during wet weather. This can be controlled by using an organic fungicide.
It would be wise to start your gourd seeds inside to get a jump start on the growing season. This plant has an extra long germination process. It takes 180 days from planting to harvest on most species. That is under ideal growing conditions with proper sunlight, water, and fertilization.
Preparing the gourd seeds for planting is a learning experience. They are famous for their hard seed coverings. You must scarify the seeds by scratching the surface so that water will penetrate. Use an Emory board, nail file, or sandpaper to roughen up the outside coating of the seeds. Then place them in a bowl of lukewarm water and allow them to soak for 24 hours. Remove the seeds and lay them out on a paper towel to dry. Plant the seeds in a seed-starting soil mixture and water them well. Keep the soil damp, but not dripping until the seeds germinate and the plants break the surface of the soil. Once the seedlings have grown their first true leaves, the plants can be moved outside for hardening off and transplanting after the last frost of the season.
Planting outside is very easy. Gourds prefer an acidic soil. Since most Parker County soils are alkaline, a soil amendment such as iron sulfate to lower the pH would be helpful. Plant the seeds individually two feet apart and in rows that are five feet apart. Plant rows near your trellis if you are planning to use one. Cover the seedling to the base of the first set of leaves. Water the seedlings generously, and water daily thereafter until they are established. If you are using a trellis attach strings to guide the new plants.
Caring for your new seedlings is a daily business. Add a layer of mulch to help maintain moisture and keep out the weeds. Fertilize monthly throughout the growing season. As the gourds develop, pay attention to the surface that is touching the soil. Gourds will develop a flat side or spots due to water pooling near the fruit. You can place a rock under the gourds to prevent this from occurring.
When the gourds have reached their full size you will need to cure them. You will know this is happening when the leaves begin to die on the vines. Give them several weeks to cure naturally on the vine. You will notice the outside color becoming lighter and lighter. Move the gourds by rotating them to keep their round shape and keep them from becoming flat on the side closet to the soil.
At harvest time you will know gourds are ready when they feel hard and waxy. If they are mushy, they are rotten and need to be thrown away. Shake the gourds to see if you hear a rattle. If so, they are ready to cut off the vines with a sharp knife or garden shears. If you want to preserve them wash, them with an antibacterial soap to kill any bacteria or fungus spores. Next, use a fine grit sand paper to rough up the surface of the gourd. Apply wax liberally to bring out the sheen and color of the gourds, or you may chose to paint or stain them. You may use a jigsaw to cut holes to make birdhouses or birdfeeders. You may also want to save the seeds to plant for the next year. Just cut a hole in the bottom of the gourd and shake the seeds out. You can begin the process all over again next year.
If all of these instructions sound a bit daunting, don’t be discouraged. After learning and growing gourds for myself, I find it very rewarding; and I end up with something I can use and enjoy for many years to come. My latest gourd was supposed to be a bird feeder. I hung it in my yard and the next morning, I saw a squirrel sitting in it. So much for plans! Now it’s the squirrel feeder. I am including a photo for you to enjoy. I am also including some martin birdhouses mad from gourds from our neighbor’s backyard. We love the martin houses because these birds eat mosquitoes.
Here is a list of my favorite gourds along with a suggested purpose:
Aladdins Turban - use for birdhouses or luffa sponges.
Mini Red Turban - use for long handle dippers.
Large Turks Turban - use for extra -long dippers.
Striped Crown of Thorns - use for large bottle shaped dippers.
Bicolor Pear - use for small egg-shaped jewelry or painted eggs.
Cannon Ball - use for round shaped birdhouses.
Flat Striped - use for martin birdhouses.
White Egg - use for wren birdhouses.
Ohio Gourd Society
American Gourd Society
Hersberger Amish Farm, Spring Green, Wisconsin
Seed Saver Farm, Seed Bank and Exchange, Decorah, Iowa
Parker County Master Gardeners, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension
Phone: 817-598-6168; www.pcmg-texas.org
The information given herein is for educational purposes only. Reference to commercial products or trade names is made with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the Parker County Master Gardener Association or the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service is implied.