Growing and Drying Ornamental Gourds
With the advent of crisp, cool fall days, it’s time to think about decorating for the Halloween and Thanksgiving holidays. No autumn display is complete without colorful ornamental gourds.
Gourds are divided into two groups. The larger, hard skin gourds used for ladles and birdhouses are in the Lagenaria family and originated in Africa. These larger, utilitarian gourds are a mottled green while growing and dry to a dull tan color. The smaller, more colorful soft skin gourds used for decorating are in the more familiar Cucurbita family that originated in Central America and includes pumpkins, squash and melons. Gourds are not generally used for food.
Gourds are considered winter squash like their larger pumpkin cousins. They are grown in the same manner. You can start you seeds indoors four weeks before your last frost date, preferably in peat pots because, like all squash, they do not like having their roots disturbed when you transplant them.
Even better, direct sow your seeds in your garden after your last frost date. It's a good idea to wait until the soil has warmed. Cucurbit seeds won't germinate in cold soil. The soil should be a neutral pH and nutrient rich. Gourds, although smaller than pumpkins, are heavy feeders. Plant your seeds in mounds, 4 to 5 seeds per mound which should be thinned to 2 plants after they have germinated and developed their second set of leaves. The mounds should be 4 to 5 feet apart.
Your gourd plants will need a minimum of 1 inch of water every week. Always water along the roots rather than from overhead which will cause the soil to splash onto the leaves and possibly spread soil-borne disease to your vines.
Weed regularly but carefully. Gourds have very shallow roots, and as mentioned previously, do not like to have their roots disturbed.
Trellis for best results
Gourds grow on long vines. Rather than allowing them to grow along the ground and the fruit to become misshapen and discolored from contact with the soil, train your vines up a trellis or along a fence. The fruit is small enough and light enough to hang from the vines with no support. This also allows for good air circulation which will prevent powdery mildew. Gourds are susceptible to all of the same pests and diseases that afflict squash and pumpkins.
All cucurbits have male and female flowers. The male flowers develop first. It's easy to tell male and female flowers apart. The female flowers have a small bulge at the base which will develop into the fruit after the flower is pollinated. Hard skin gourds blossom at night while the soft skin gourds bloom during the day like squash.
If you have problems with sufficient pollination, you can pollinate your vines yourself using an artist's paintbrush. Gently insert the bristles into the male flowers until the pollen adheres to your brush, then gently insert the bristles into the female flowers to transfer the pollen.
When your vines flower is a good time to fertilize your plants using compost or a balanced fertilizer. Continue watering consistently as the fruit grows and ripens.
Gourds are ready to harvest when their stems turn brown. Harvest them by cutting the stem rather than pulling the fruit from the vines which will damage both. When you cut, make sure that you leave at least two inches of stem attached to the gourd. Gourds without their stems will rot quickly.
It's a good idea to harvest your gourds before your first hard frost. A hard frost will damage the delicate skins of soft skin gourds and could possibly cause hard skin gourds to discolor. Keep only the gourds that have no bruising or signs of rot. Any that are bruised or beginning to rot, should be discarded. They will continue to rot, rather than dry.
At this point, you have two choices when it comes to the soft skin gourds. You can use them fresh off the vine for your autumnal decor. This has the advantages that it is quick and they will retain their brightest colors. Or you can dry them which will take longer and the colors will become duller. The advantages of drying them is that they will last longer, and they can be varnished or painted however you wish.
Drying your gourds
The first step in drying your gourds is to wash them thoroughly and then allow them to air dry. Place your gourds in a dry, dark, well-ventilated place to dry. Ideally, you should dry them in a single layer on a screen to allow the air to circulate. Alternatively, you can dry them on a ventilated surface. Turn them weekly to ensure they dry evenly.
Keep a close eye on your gourds as they dry. Get rid of any that are soft, shriveled or have begun to decay. If they develop mold, try wiping it off with a soft, dry cloth. If that doesn't work, dip the cloth in bleach and try again. As long as the gourd remains hard, it will be okay.
The outer skin of the gourds should be hard and dry within a week. The insides will take longer to dry, up to 6 months. When your gourds are light in weight and you can hear the seeds rattling around inside, they are completely dry and ready to be used as is or decorated.
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© 2014 Caren White