Gourds in the garden

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Bottle gourds can be made into birdhouses.

Gourds have been cultivated for thousands of years and were used as utensils, storage containers and instruments. Once a utilitarian item, they are now showing up in painted crafts, birdhouses or scattered around with pumpkins and mums for fall décor. Although it is too late to grow them this year, it’s good to plan ahead for next season.

Gourd is the common name applied to a group of plants in the Cucurbit family. They are closely related to squash and pumpkins. These warm-season vining plants produce hard-shelled fruits. There are three main classes of gourds that are commonly grown. Cucurbitas are the ornamental gourds, which include a variety of shapes with bright-colored mature fruits. The Lagenaria gourds are those that encompass the large utilitarian gourds such as birdhouse, dippers and bottle gourds. And, lastly, there are the luffas, or the sponge gourds.

All gourds like warm soil, full sun and a relatively long growing period. Wait for all chances of frost to pass before you plant gourds, and allow the soil temperature to warm up. Usually late April to early May is the soonest you should plant, with subsequent plantings up through June or early July.

Gourd vines, like many members of the Cucurbit family, are prolific growers. Give them room to grow and spread, or give them a fence or trellis to grow on. For the long club, dipper and bottle gourds, trellising them will provide straight fruits.

Prepare the soil by adding organic matter prior to planting. Try to have the area as weed-free as possible, and mulch to prevent the growth of grass and weeds.

Fertilize with a complete fertilizer at planting, but don’t overdo it as fertilizer will give you more vines and fewer flowers and fruit. If you plant your gourds like pumpkins and watermelons in hills, with several seeds per hill, you will need to thin them back to two or three plants per hill after germination. Water is essential to good production, especially when it gets hot and dry.

Gourds, like all other members of the Cucurbit family, produce separate male and female blossoms, which must be pollinated by insects. They also suffer from the same pest and disease problems as squash and cucumbers — the squash vine borer, squash bugs, cucumber beetles and powdery mildew.

Various gourds in fall colors

Most gourds require a long growing period. Usually a minimum of 90 days up to 180 days is required from seed to harvest. At maturity, the fruits will develop hard, glossy shells. They are ready to be harvested when the stems dry and turn brown. The stems are usually quite tough, so harvest with pruning shears, knife or scissors to cut them off the stem. Be sure to leave an inch or two of stem attached, to help them last longer. Handle the gourds with care. Avoid bruising, scratching or puncturing the fruits. It is best to harvest most of your gourds prior to a frost.

Gourds benefit from being cured after they have been picked. To cure gourds, first start with clean gourds. Wash off the soil, and then wipe the fruits with a cloth dipped in rubbing alcohol, or dip the gourds into a bath of one part Clorox to nine parts of water. Don’t soak them, just a quick dip. Then lay them out so that they aren’t touching each other. Those gourds that you want to use for birdhouses, dippers or as painted crafts should cure even longer, up to three or four weeks, depending on the type and size of the gourd. Periodically turn the fruit to discourage shriveling and promote even curing. If you can provide warmth during this time period, it will speed up the drying and discourage decay. Once they are completely dry, the gourd becomes very lightweight and you can hear the seeds rattling around inside.

Luffa, or sponge gourd.

Luffa, or sponge gourds, should be harvested when the outer shell is dry. When you can hear the seeds begin to rattle around inside, remove the stem end and shake out the seeds from the center cavity. Then you can begin to remove the outer rind. You can peel the skin, or soak the gourds in warm water until the outer skin softens to the point where it can be easily removed, or use running water to help soften the outer skin. Once the sponge is removed, soak it in one part bleach to nine parts water to obtain a creamy white appearance. Rinse it in clear water and dry before using.

Janet B. Carson is an extension horticulture specialist for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

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