Gourds are an interesting and incredibly easy crop to grow in your garden. The plants need no special pampering and the gourds are decorative on their own, as natural birdhouses, or in craft projects.
There are two types of gourds. The small, oddly-shaped colorful gourds often seen in autumn decorations are soft-skinned varieties of the Cucurbita family. These little ornamental gourds can be dried and saved, although their bright colors will tend to fade over time.
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The larger, hard-skinned gourds are in the Lagenaria family. These include Birdhouse and Bottle gourds, among others. Lagenaria gourds are green on the vine and become tan or brown as they dry. Lagenaria gourd vines produce white blossoms which bloom at night.
Growing gourds is very easy, making them a good choice for kids and beginner gardeners. Gourds prefer well-drained soil and they appreciate compost added to the soil when planting. Like other vining plants, gourds like to have a fence or other vertical surface to climb, but they'll just as happily sprawl on the ground.
Expert gourd growers agree that at least two inches of stem should be left on gourds when they are harvested. Remove mature gourds from the vine with a sharp pruning shears. Do not twist or snap the stem when harvesting. It is through the porous stem that much of the moisture in gourds escapes and a clean cut will help your gourds dry more readily.
Gourds that are to be dried should be harvested very late in the season, after the vines have died back. Gourds that are harvested too soon, before they are fully mature, are more susceptible to rotting as they dry.
There are several methods of drying gourds, and whichever method works for you is the "best" method. Some folks recommend washing gourds after harvest, while others insist it isn't necessary. Experiment with several methods of drying gourds to learn which method works best for you. Those who prefer to wash gourds before drying recommend gently washing the gourds to remove any caked soil, followed by a dip into a solution of 1-2 cups of bleach in a 5-gallon bucket of water.
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Handle the gourds carefully to avoid bruising them. Place washed gourds in an area where they will receive good air circulation, such as a covered porch or garage. In general, basements stay too damp and are not a good place for drying gourds. Some folks hang their gourds by a string attached to the stem. Other folks dry their gourds indoors on a pallet in an airy room, turning them regularly to ensure they dry evenly. The drying gourds can also be kept outdoors; rain or freezing temperatures won't hurt mature gourds.
Check your drying gourds each week and discard any that have soft spots. No matter how careful you are with your gourds, some of them are going to rot. While they are drying and curing, gourds may also develop mold on their skins. The presence of mold indicates that moisture is escaping through the skin. This is a good thing. Unless the gourd is soft and mushy, the mold is not harmful and will leave a lovely pattern on the dried gourd.
It can take up to six months to completely dry gourds. When the gourds become lightweight and hard and the seeds rattle inside, they are ready for use in craft projects.
I've dried gourds indoors on a pallet, and in a well-ventilated and unheated barn, and left them on the vine all winter where they were covered with snow for months. Those that dried the best for me were the gourds that laid neglected on the ground in the garden all winter. It doesn't get any easier than that.
Once you've finished growing and drying your ornamental gourds, you may wish to carve them for birdhouses or crafts. Before carving, draw the design onto the surface of the gourd with a pencil. Rotary power tools such as dremels are very handy for carving gourds, and hand tools used by woodcarvers also work well.
A mini-jigsaw works well for cutting off the top of a gourd or for cutting a hole for a birdhouse entrance. A mini circular saw can be used for cutting lines into the shell of a gourd. Be sure to wear eye protection to avoid getting dust or splinters in your eyes as you carve, and if the tool should slip and cut where it shouldn't have cut, wood putty makes a great patch for gourd crafts.
Completed gourd birdhouses or craft projects that will be outdoors will last longer if polyurethane is applied to the gourd, and an indoor ornamental gourd can be sprayed with lacquer if desired.