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Great gourds!

Pottery of the plant world, hard-shell gourds grow in a fascinating array of shapes and sizes. When carved, painted, or embellished with colorful designs, they're prized as decorative art.

To grow and dry hard-shell gourds (Lagenaria siceraria) for craft purposes is to continue a practice that dates back 9,000 years to the Ocampo Caves in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Over the centuries, use of gourds as functional and decorative containers became widespread, spanning continents, from the Americas to Asia and Africa.

You can grow hard-shell gourds, also known as calabashes, just for the delight of watching them develop into unusual shapes, or for craft projects. Green fruits dry to a hard, woody outer shell that's waterproof and lasts for years with care.

Plant them any time after the last frost. Since they require a long growing season (at least 120 days), order seeds and get them into the ground as soon as possible.

OVER AN ARBOR OR UP A TRELLIS

Like their melon and squash relatives, gourds are easy to grow. But make sure to give them plenty of space; vines of many varieties can reach 20 feet long.

An ideal location is over a sturdy arbor--either temporary (as above) or permanent. This allows ample room for vines to grow vigorously up the sides and over the top and also provides an open area for the gourds to hang freely through the arbor and develop into symmetrically shaped specimens.

The vines' long tendrils cling to almost anything, so plants can also be trained on fences, trellises, poultry wire, or lengths of twine or wire stretched between two poles.

Keep all but the heaviest gourds off the ground. Allowing vines to sprawl can distort developing gourds and make them more prone to pests, discoloration, and rotting. Particularly hefty gourds like 'African Bushel Basket' can't be grown off the ground because their vines won't support the weight. A board or piece of cardboard set under each gourd will help prevent rotting.

PLANT SEEDS IN RICH, WELL-DRAINED SOIL

Choose a site that gets full sun most of the day. In cool or short-season areas, plant in a warm, protected area, such as along a south wall.

If you plan to save seeds from this year's crop to plant out next season, you should grow only one variety of hard-shell gourd. If you grow more than one kind, blossoms may cross-pollinate and produce offspring that are different from the parents.

Soak seeds overnight, then sow them 1/2 to 1 inch deep in moist, compost-enriched soil (or mix in a complete fertilizer). If you grow gourds along a fence or trellis, plant seeds about a foot apart; thin to about 2 feet apart when plants have several sets of leaves. Or plant in hills about 4 feet apart (eight seeds per hill), and thin to the sturdiest two or three plants.

Seeds germinate in a week to 10 days. The rapidly growing plants need plenty of moisture, so water thoroughly and often enough to keep the soil moist. For efficiency, use ooze tubing or drip irrigation. Or use a hoe to form wells around mounds or along rows, and water with a hose. Mulch with leaf mold or other organic matter. Hand-pull weeds; cultivating may damage shallow roots.

PRUNE VINES TO ENCOURAGE BRANCHING

Gourd vines rarely need pruning. But there are exceptions. If you want vines to grow in a certain direction, you need to direct developing growth. To guarantee a large harvest, prune to encourage lateral (side) branching where female flowers--which become gourds--develop. Clip the growing tip off each main vine when vines are 8 to 10 feet long.

If you want big specimens rather than many, you don't have to prune; allow just a few gourds to develop per vine and pick off the rest.

Gourds have separate male and female flowers. (Male flowers are musky-smelling and form on the main vine; female flowers are bulbous just below the petals.)

Bees and moths pollinate the female flowers. If bee activity is low early in the season (because of wet, cold weather), you can hand-pollinate using a small paintbrush. Collect pollen from the stamens in the center of a male flower and transfer it to the pistil inside a female flower.

Control aphids with insecticidal soap or wash off with a gentle stream of water. Pick off and destroy mildewed leaves at first sign of damage. In fall, remove and discard vines and immature gourds, or compost them if they're disease-free. To discourage disease, plant gourds in a different location each year.

WHEN TO HARVEST

You can harvest gourds when tendrils next to their stems are dead, but it's best to leave them on the vine as long as possible--until the gourds turn yellow or brown. They can even stay on the vine through frosts, but a heavy frost can discolor them. If you want to save seed for next year, harvest before a heavy freeze.

Remove gourds with pruning shears, leaving at least 4 inches of stem. Do not handle gourds by the stem or the stem may break off. After harvest, wash gourds thoroughly and scrub with a solution of 2 tablespoons bleach or other disinfectant to a gallon of warm water.

Large gourds require six to nine months or more to dry to a hard shell (don't rush it). Hang or set on racks in a dry, well-ventilated area. Until shells are dry, monitor them weekly for mold (a fuzzy, dark growth); it will discolor them. Wipe or brush off mold with the solution mentioned above. Turn the gourds weekly to aid drying.

When the shells are light and seeds rattle inside, soak the gourds in warm water and scrape off the outer skin and any remaining mold with a knife. Smooth the surface with fine steel wool or sandpaper, then wipe with a damp cloth. Allow to dry completely--a day or more.

CRAFTING GOURDS

After gourds are dry and well cured, you can craft them into birdhouses, bowls, planters, art objects, and musical instruments.

Depending on what you want to make, cut the top off the gourd or cut the gourd in half with a craft knife or fine-tooth hacksaw blade (for a birdhouse, cut a hole in the side). Wear a mask and gloves as you work (gourd dust can be an irritant).

To clean out the insides, remove seeds and fibers with a spoon. Finish off by rubbing with steel wool.

To waterproof the inside, coat with several layers of paraffin. The outsides can be shellacked, painted, waxed, or stained with shoe polish or wood stain. A wood-burning tool can be used to make designs on the outside of the shell.

WHERE TO GET SEEDS

The following three sources can supply seeds of hard-shell gourds by mail.

American Gourd Society, Inc. Box 274, Mount Gilead, Ohio 43338. Members sell seeds in the winter and spring editions of The Gourd, a quarterly newsletter. Annual membership (including newsletter) is $5.

Native Seeds/SEARCH, 2509 N. Campbell Ave., #325, Tucson 85719. Catalog $1. Sells nine kinds.

Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 N. Pacific Highway, Albany, Ore. 97321; (503) 928-9280. Free catalog. Sells seeds of eight kinds of hard-shell gourds.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:growing and drying gourds for handicrafts
Author:Swezey, Lauren Bonar
Publication:Sunset
Date:May 1, 1992
Words:1200
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