Usually when I talk about vegetable gardening, I suggest that people grow things they like to eat. The exception: Grow things you like to craft or use in decorations!
Gourds are a popular fall decoration and/or craft item. You have probably seen them in a cornucopia or fall display, painted, dried into birdhouses or carved into bowls. Their bright colors complement pumpkins, corn stalks and straw bales.
Jan Elder of Baldwin City likes to grow gourds to display in the fall. She often uses them and grows them alongside miniature pumpkins. In previous years, she has dried gourds to increase the already long shelf-life.
“I’ve grown them off and on for about 10 years,” Elder says. “Sometimes I skip years. They keep.”
Elder says gourds are easy and fun to grow. Her preferred method is to mix gourd seeds with miniature pumpkin seeds. Since pumpkins are sometimes attacked by squash bugs, she believes interplanting them helps protect pumpkin vines and fruit.
Gourds prefer warm weather and warm soil, so Elder suggests waiting until early to mid-June to plant them. Ambitious gardeners can start the seeds indoors four to six weeks earlier to get a head start.
Elder plants seeds directly into the soil.
“As I dug up the potato plants, I just threw a few seeds in each spot,” Elder says. “I just keep them weeded until the plants get big.”
Gourd vines can take up a lot of space, so some gardeners might wish to grow them on trellises or arbors.
To harvest, wait until gourd stems are dry. Elder and gourd experts recommend leaving at least a few inches of the stalk to help prevent decay. After picking, wash gourds with warm, soapy water. Some sources suggest wiping the exterior with rubbing alcohol or a 10 percent bleach solution. Harvest gourds prior to frost.
Elder says she sometimes sprays gourds with clear acrylic to make them a little shiny and help preserve them.
To dry or cure gourds, put them in a warm, dry place. Experts have differing opinions about light conditions — some suggesting dark and some suggesting full sun. Either way, temperature and moisture are most important.
Gourds dry in four weeks to one year. Elder says she tends to forget about them, then will occasionally pick one up and give it a shake. When the seeds rattle inside, gourds are adequately cured.
Dried gourds can be painted or otherwise decorated. They are often made into birdhouses by drilling an appropriately sized entrance hole and removing the seeds and membrane. Skilled artisans craft dried gourds into bowls, vases and other useable items.
The two most common types of gourds are cucurbita and lagenaria. Cucurbita gourds are small and range in size, shape and color. Lagenaria gourds are larger with less range in color and are most commonly used for birdhouses. Cucurbita and lagenaria gourds are grown and cured with the same methods.
A third type of gourd commonly grown in the Midwest is the luffa gourd, also called the vegetable sponge. Luffa gourds have a fibrous interior that can actually be used as a sponge, but the drying process is more difficult than that of its sister gourds. Specific information about luffa gourds should be referenced to produce vegetable sponges.
Elder also saves seeds from her gourds for future plantings. Since plants in the family that gourds belong to typically cross-pollinate, next year’s produce may bear little resemblance to the parent crop. I think that just adds to the fun.