Before the first frost touches your garden with its icy fingers, harvest gourds and prepare them for their use as birdhouses, decorations, sponges, or whatever else is in store for this useful fruit.
To harvest, cut the gourds’ stem a few inches above where it attaches to the fruit. Clean the surface with soap and water to minimize potential for decay. Rubbing alcohol or a 10 percent bleach solution can also be used to clean gourds’ skin.
Next, gourds should be cured. For ornamental varieties (cucurbita family) this takes about a week. These are the brightly colored, thick-skinned gourds that make beautiful fall displays. Cucurbita gourds should be cured in a dark, dry, well-ventilated space. Use a rack or tray to keep them off the ground and set them so that they have space between them. Discard cucurbita gourds that develop soft spots or decay, as they will not keep.
Once ornamental gourds are surface cured, they can be displayed as such or they can go through a second curing process for an even longer shelf life. Internal drying takes a month or more and is achieved the same way as the initial curing process. Ornamental gourds are fully cured when the seeds rattle inside and can then be painted or waxed.
Birdhouse gourds (Lagenaria family) are cured in the same way as ornamental gourds, they just typically take much longer. Birdhouse gourds harvested this fall will be ready to turn into birdhouses next summer or fall. Mold on the surface of these gourds as they dry is common and of little concern.
When birdhouse gourds are dry enough for the seeds to rattle inside, prepare them for use. Place a wire hanger in the stem end first so you can see how the gourd will hang. Determine placement for the bird entrance hole by selecting a spot that will point straight out.
The size of the hole is determined by the type of bird you want to attract. For example, purple martins prefer a hole that is about 2 1/8 inches in diameter, while a wren prefers a hole about 1- to 1 1/4 inches in diameter. Drill the hole using a hole saw or keyhole saw and wear a dust mask.
Use the bird entrance hole to remove seeds and any remaining membrane from the interior of the birdhouse gourd. Drill a few very small holes in the bottom of the gourd for drainage.
The third type of gourd is the luffa. Fruit of the luffa gourd take 150-200 days to mature, so sometimes in Kansas the vine produces gourds but they are still immature at first frost.
Luffa gourds should be cut from the vine when the outer shell is dry and seeds rattle inside. To prepare for use as a sponge, remove the stem and shake out the seeds. Soak the gourds in warm water until the skin softens enough to peel. After removing the skin, soak the fibrous interior in a 10 percent bleach solution until the sponge is creamy-white. Rinse with water and dry completely before first use.
— Jennifer Smith is the Horticulture Extension Agent for K-State Research and Extension in Douglas County. Contact her or an Extension Master Gardener with your gardening questions at 843-7058 or firstname.lastname@example.org.