Gourds For Farmers And Homesteaders
By Anita B. Stone, Raleigh, North Carolina
There is a legend that says, “If you give or receive a gourd, with it goes all the best in life; health, happiness and other good things.”
Anytime of year is excellent to think about growing gourds, sometimes referred to as “nature’s pottery.” The original shapes of clay pottery is thought to have been modeled on the shapes of certain gourds to make grain storage containers and musical instruments, such as rattles, drums, horns, whistles, and flutes. They were even made into elaborate stringed instruments and thumb pianos. Some cultures turned gourds into birdhouses and hats. These are the ornamental gourds.
Originally, women were prohibited from gourd cultivation in Europe. That idea certainly has changed in the modern world.
So how does one describe a gourd? It is no surprise that a gourd is a member of the cucumber family along with squash, pumpkins and melons. The tendrils grow on the vine near the fruit and the leaves are usually five-lobed. Both male and female blossoms are known to grow on the same vine. Gourds are numerous and offer variety. For example, you can grow a “hard shell” gourd in the shape of a bottle, a dipper, a trough, or a snake. For this type of gourd it is suggested to plant seeds as soon as the soil warms in the spring. In southern climates it is safe to plant gourd seeds around the end of April. However, if you plant too early, your seed can rot. If you plant too late, the gourd will not mature at frost. So it can be a tricky proposition. But if you pay attention to temperatures you can easily plant, sow, and harvest gourds. The ideal pH conditions should range from 6.0 to 6.5. To raise the pH levels, add lime, wood ash, organic matter, or seaweed. To reduce pH levels, add sulfur, peat moss, evergreen needles, and ground bark.
Pay particular attention to ornamental gourds, as they are not edible and offer very little flesh. They are grown mainly for show. The flesh they do contain is tasteless and may even be bitter.
To begin a gourd garden is a simple task with several choices. In spring, after the final frost, plant gourd seeds. It is preferable to soak seeds overnight to speed germination. If you decide to start seeds indoors, use peat pots or similar sized containers. Indoor plantings lengthen the growing season.
All gourds sprawl, so give the seedlings room to grow. Black fabric mulch helps keep weeds down between the hills and raises the soil temperature as well. Mulch is an excellent protective coating and provides thick cover for gourds. You can also use straw, grass clippings, shredded leaves, and newspapers. Space four to six seeds about twice the length of the seed per dug hole, in hills six feet apart and in rows at least four feet apart. If you keep the seeds moist, they typically germinate in eight to 10 days, but can sprout as long as six weeks after planting. Most early growth is underground, so don’t despair if you don’t see much happening the first month or so. Gourds need at least six hours of daily sun and well-fertilized soils. Regular watering throughout the growing season is a must, especially right after you plant the seeds or seedlings. This holds true whether planted in the ground, in containers, or in small peat pots for starters.
Drip systems and soaker hoses are excellent choices because they deliver water directly to the soil and will avoid wetting the leaves. Wet leaves become susceptible to mildew and other fungal problems, so it is preferable not to use overhead watering systems for this crop.
When applied properly, mulch becomes a thick protective cover for gourd growth. You can use straw, grass clippings, shredded leaves and wood chips. One spring planting I used shredded newspapers. This type of mulch worked, but it became messy due to ever-changing weather conditions, including wind and rain.
Gourds are vigorous growers and will readily cling to a trellis, fence, or arbor for support. Growing gourds vertically on a trellis is ideal if you don’t have a lot of ground space. Simply attach string or other type of gentle connective item and guide the plant upward, allowing each one to hang from the trellis. This method works well and, not only will you have an entire trellis covered with healthy gourds, but you can see what is growing and how the crop remains clean and easy to protect from insects.
Trellis varieties include dippers, snakes, birdhouses, bottles, and luffa. An oversized wire cage, larger than a tomato cage, works for smaller gourds. The ground varieties include kettles, cannons and baskets. A fun and creative planting would be to grow gourds in wood frames. For example, set the gourd seed in a wood box and allow it to grow. You will get a square-shaped gourd as it takes on the shape of its surroundings while moving through the growing stages.
Luffa gourds, often called the “sponge” gourd, has remained a specialty gourd for decades. This cucumber-shaped gourd can be used for filtering, cleaning, and bathing. A surprise offering of the luffa is that it is edible when small. You can prepare and eat it in a similar way as zucchini or any type of squash. Luffas should be grown on a fence or trellis. They require a long growing season of 150 to 200 warm sunny days, the longest growing season of all gourds. The vines grow about 30 or more feet. To sow luffa seeds, place directly into the soil. Because luffa loves nitrogen, apply plenty of it on a monthly basis until you see signs of bloom. Then, switch over to a potassium formula as the fruit grows.
If you want to make a sponge, harvest when the fruit stops growing and the skin feels loose to the touch. Remove the skin, shake out the seeds, then bleach the gourds in a solution of water and 10 percent bleach. Simply dry them in the sun for about three weeks. Luffa gourds have become an excellent cash crop for homesteaders, farmers, agriculturalists, and gardeners.
Another unique ornamental gourd is called a “finger gourd.” This gourd is also called, “Crown of Thorns,” or “Gourd of the 10 Commandments.” The upper surface of this gourd bears five pairs of prongs and may be white or cream-colored at maturity. Other colors include green-and-white-striped, orange and bicolor, which is green and green-striped with bands or areas of yellow.
Once a gourd has reached its prime growth, there are two steps to curing. Surface drying is the first step and takes about one week. During this time, the skin hardens and the exterior color of the gourd is set. Place the clean, dry fruit in a well-ventilated area and arrange gourds in a single layer. Make sure the fruits do not touch each other.
Internal drying is the second step and takes about four weeks. Adequate curing in a dark, warm area will accelerate drying and discourage decay. When the gourd becomes light in weight and the seeds can be heard rattling inside, your gourds are ready to use.
Seeds saved from gourds grown in your garden will likely produce an assortment of fruit of different shapes, sizes and colors, none of which may resemble the fruit from which the seed was saved.
Ornamental gourds make impressive decorations, which are prized for fall color schemes. A bowl filled with gourds makes an ideal table centerpiece. Dried and crafter gourds are always fun to see at annual state gourd festivals which are usually held in the fall of each year and you can always purchase gourd seeds to begin your own gourd garden.
When you purchase gourd seeds, feel confident at a garden center or through catalogues. These seeds have satisfactory germination rates and are true to variety. If you collected seeds from a gourd that was allowed to freeze while it was green, the seeds will not germinate. Freezing kills fresh seeds. Dry seeds can be stored in the freezer without affecting germination rate. You can also use seeds from the inside of any gourd that has been dried. One year I placed a handful of viable seeds inside a plastic bag where they received moisture within a warm environment. The seeds did well and sprouted. When each one displayed four leaves per stem, they were ready to be transplanted outdoors. Make sure you use the “hardening off” technique for beneficial growth. The process of hardening off is to keep seedlings safe from sudden temperature changes. It gradually exposes young plants to the elements of wind, sun and rain and toughens them to help prevent transplant shock. If not processed properly the seedlings may die. Flexibility is the key word. Be prepared to take good care of baby plants through fluctuation of temperatures. And if there is a sudden late freeze, ice or snow, bring them indoors as you would any youngster to protect them from drastic shock. Using diligence you can figure out a method for each type of seedling that you transplant from an indoor temperature to an outdoor temperature. I have always chosen to set the transplants in their small pots outdoors in the sun for a brief period of time each day, slowly increasing the amount of time until the plant is totally ready to stay outdoors. You can do this with any seedling. You can also avoid transplant shock by using a heated germination mat, which is available in any garden center.
All gourds are susceptible to disease, much like squash, pumpkins and cucumbers. So be on the lookout for the cucumber beetle, aphids, slugs, snails, and squash borers. You can easily forego any fungicides and herbicides by selecting a safe organic insecticidal soap, which not only protects the soil and the environment, but also prevents any ground toxins. Should you see powdery mildew, you can employ the same practices on the gourds.
“Gourds are as promiscuous as alley cats and will cross with each other,” says James Underwood Crockett of The Victory Garden. “The fruit that results from initial crosses looks and tastes exactly like the variety that you plant…there’s no telling what kind of gourd mongrel will result.” Gourds are an easy and fun crop to grow and have become so useful in many areas, including food utensils, ornamental beauty for any season, bird nesting houses, excellent craft creations and you can even keep them as musical instruments if you desire, especially those with seeds inside the hardened skin. Take a look around the neighborhood, along country roads and urban gardens and you will see a variety of gourds, whether painted, plain or cut, being used for multiple purposes. Gourds represent a plethora of uses and have done so for hundreds of years, and will undoubtedly remain an excellent crop for the future.
Originally published in the March/April 2016 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.