Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
I want to hang some birdhouses in my yard. They are a little pricey to buy. You can make them yourself, but I am not good at carpentry or other DIY skills. I am a gardener and lucky for me, I can grow my own birdhouses.
What are Birdhouse Gourds?
Birdhouse gourds (Lagenaria siceraria), also known as bottle gourds, are members of the cucurbit family. They are related to pumpkins and other squashes. Gourds are not grown for food. Rather they are grown for their ornamental value or made into containers or utensils. The birdhouse gourd is often made into bowls and spoons, as well as used for birdhouses.
How to Start Birdhouse Gourd Seeds Outdoors
Birdhouse gourds have a long growing season, 120 to 140 days. In warmer climates with longer growing seasons, the seeds can be sown directly in the garden. They grow best in hills which can provide drainage. Your hills should be 4 to 6 inches high and 12 inches around. The vines are long so space your hills 4 to 8 feet apart.
Place a half dozen seeds on the top of each hill and then cover with ½ inch of soil. That sounds like a lot of work to me, so when I plant cucurbit seeds, I make my hills a little higher then use my finger to poke a hole deep enough for each seed. So much easier than hauling soil around, don’t you think?
Cucurbits are heavy feeders. That’s a fancy way of saying that they require a lot of nutrients. To make sure that they don’t exhaust your soil of nutrients, spread some fertilizer (10-10-10) around each hill and scratch it in to the soil. Then water well. Add more fertilizer in 30 days.
Germination will occur in 1 to 6 weeks.
How to Start Birdhouse Gourd Seeds Indoors
Gardeners in colder climates with shorter growing seasons start their gourd seeds indoors about a month before their last frost. Cucurbits in general do not like to have their roots disturbed, making it difficult to transplant seedlings into your garden. Start them indoors in biodegradable containers such as peat pots. The four inch size is a good option. Again, the recommendation is to place the seeds in the pots and then cover them with an inch of soil but I take the easy route and fill my containers and then poke holes in the soil with my finger and drop the seeds in. Plant 2 or 3 seeds 1 inch deep in each pot.
Germination will occur in 1 to 6 weeks. You can transplant your seedlings peat pots and all into mounds in your garden when they have 4 true leaves. The cotyledons, those first two leaves that appear at germination, do not count. Wait until the seedlings have 4 regular leaves.
Conventional wisdom says that you can transplant after your last frost date when the seedlings have 4 leaves. My personal experience is that the soil is too cold at that point. Cucurbits will not grow in cold soil. I always wait until the soil has warmed to plant them. In my NJ zone 6 garden that is at the end of May.
How to Grow Birdhouse Gourds
All gourds require a minimum of 1 inch of water every week. Because the vines grow along the ground, they are particularly prone to powdery mildew, a fungus which grows where there is poor air circulation. Powdery mildew fungus lives in the soil so you need to be careful when watering your gourds. Drip irrigation is best. If you need to hand water your vines, use a watering wand so that you can direct the water at the roots. If you water from overhead, the force of the water hitting the soil will cause it to bounce up and splash the leaves potentially infecting them with the fungus.
Keep your garden well weeded. Weeds compete with your vines for nutrients in the soil. All cucurbits are heavy feeders so they don’t like competition. A nice 2 to 3 inch layer of mulch will prevent weed seeds from germinating as well as keep the soil moist so that you don’t have to water as often.
Interestingly, birdhouse gourds develop on the side branches of the vines, rather than the main vine. Be sure to pinch the growing tip of the main stem to encourage it to branch out and produce more gourds.
How to Grow Birdhouse Gourds on a Trellis or a Fence
If you don’t have space for long vines, you can grow your birdhouse gourds on a trellis or a chain link fence. It’s actually better to do it that way because gourds that are grown on the ground usually have a flat side where the fruit was laying on the ground. Gourds grown on a support hang from the support so they keep their rounded shape.
Because of the size of the vines, it’s a good idea to only grow one vine on each trellis. If you want more vines, grow them on a length of chain link fence. Space your mounds 15 feet apart so that each vine will have 30 feet of space. Whether you grow on a trellis or a chain link fence, always pinch the growing tip of the main stem which will cause the vine to branch out. The gourds grow on the side branches, rather than the main stem.
How to Harvest Birdhouse Gourds
Most of us hurry to harvest from our vegetable gardens when a frost is predicted. Not so with birdhouse gourds. They should be left on the vine until after a hard frost. This is because the longer the gourds are left on the vines, the better they will hold up to being dried and used as utensils, containers or birdhouses.
Don’t pull the gourds from the vines. Use your pruners to cut the gourds from the vines. Just like with pumpkins, you will need to leave part of the stem attached to the gourd. A “handle” of 3 – 4 inches is a good size. Without that “handle”, the gourd will rot.
If your vines are growing on a trellis or a fence, there is no need to harvest. You can leave the gourds on the (dead) vines throughout the winter to dry instead of drying them indoors.
How to Dry Birdhouse Gourds
Dry your harvested gourds indoors in a dark, well ventilated room. A basement is not a good place to dry them because basements tend to be damp. A well ventilated attic is better. If you have wooden pallets, they are excellent to place your gourds on while they dry. Be sure that the gourds are not touching each other. Good air circulation is key to properly drying them.
The outer shell of the gourds should be dry and hard in a few weeks. The insides will take up to 6 months to dry. Be aware that as the insides dry, the moisture escapes through the skin. Mold will take advantage of this moisture and start growing on the skin. Don’t worry about it. As the gourds dry, less and less moisture will be coming through the skin and the mold will die.
Your gourds are completely dry when they are light tan in color, very light in weight and you can hear the seeds rattling around inside when you shake them.
© 2020 Caren White