Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
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 a few colorful ornamental gourds.
What Are 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. Soft skin gourds retain their colors when dried. Neither the large nor the small gourds are used for food like their cousins, pumpkins, squash and melons.
How to Grow Gourds From Seeds
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. In my zone 6 garden in NJ, I wait until the first week in June when the soil has warmed, well after my last frost date in April, to sow my cucurbit seeds.
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.
How to Grow Gourds
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. Use drip irrigation to water the roots. If you hand water, a long handled watering wand will allow you to reach the roots.
Weed regularly but carefully. Gourds have very shallow roots, and as mentioned previously, do not like to have their roots disturbed. Rather than pulling up the weeds, snip them off at soil level. They will grow back, but if you keep doing it eventually the weeds will die and your gourd roots will remain undisturbed.
A thick layer of mulch, such as straw, will prevent weed seeds from germinating and help the soil retain moisture so that you won't need to water as often.
Trellis Your Vines 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.
How to Ensure Pollination of Your Vines
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 not all of your fruits are being pollinated, 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 such as 10-10-10. Continue watering consistently as the fruit grows and ripens.
How to Harvest Gourds
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 the soft skin ones and could possibly cause the hard skin ones 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.
How to Dry 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.
Questions & Answers
Question: Is it better to pick the gourds in July or leave them on the vine?
Answer: Gourds should be harvested when the stems that are attached to the vines turn brown. They are not harvested by a particular date.
Question: I have only just planted my seeds. Is it too late to plant ornamental gourds?
Answer: It depends on where you live. Here in zone 6, this is the perfect time to plant gourd seeds. Colder climates have shorter growing seasons so many gardeners start their seeds indoors and then transplant the seedlings outdoors after the last frost when the soil has warmed.
© 2014 Caren White
Caren White (author) on September 26, 2014:
Growing cucurbits can become addictive, Poetryman. Thank you for reading and commenting.
poetryman6969 on September 26, 2014:
Cool hobby. Need to see if I can get the wife into it.
Caren White (author) on September 21, 2014:
I love gourds too, Crafty! I'm looking forward to varnishing mine. I'm growing birdhouse gourds next year to paint. I'll be writing a hub on those eventually. Thank you for reading and commenting.
Lori Green from Las Vegas on September 21, 2014:
I LOVE gourds. I have never tried drying them. I would love to paint them and keep them.