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Gourds go beyond Thanksgiving table

For at least one day colorful gourds have a prominent place at the table. They are associated with harvest. Maybe they spill from cornucopias at the Thanksgiving table or harvest dinner, or they hang on autumn wreaths on the door. These plants have history and many uses, well beyond the decorative crafts you’ll find on Pinterest. They’re all worth growing for next season, and maybe this week you can buy and dry a few for interesting uses in next year’s garden.

Gourds are mostly Cucurbitaceae, the plant family that includes cucumber, squash, luffa and pumpkins. Fruits of the tropical Calabash tree are also called gourds. Gourds have appeared in archaeological sites from 13,000 BC, many of them originally from Asia or Africa. While immigrants that settled in North America found gourds in use by indigenous people, DNA shows those gourds to have come from Asian subspecies.

They have been used all over the world as dishes, tools, musical instruments and some foods. The snake gourd has received recent attention for its use in Indian cuisine and ayurvedic medicine. Chinese people tied molds around young gourds to shape them into boxes or bottles.

In March every year I find many kinds of gourds in an elegant booth at the Philadelphia Flower Show, painted and displayed as drums, utensils, luminaries, flower pots and colorful décor – great gifts with interesting stories.

Grow a gourd

 If you look at seed catalogs – such as Harris, Park, Gurney – or online marketing this winter you’ll find hundreds of gourd varieties, suitable for growing in a northeastern garden. Some of the gourds names are dipper, bottle, hedgehog, bird house and snake gourds. Notice the growing time they need (called “Days to Harvest”) as some require long seasons and you may have to start them early inside under lights. Local garden centers choose cultivars with shorter growing seasons, so start there, especially with some of the mixes that offer you or a child the fun of seeing the weird and quirky varieties.

Growing them is the same as cultivating squash or pumpkins. The soil must be warm, with all risk of frost long past. I have typically waiting until Memorial Day. Prepare some holes about 4 or 5 feet apart in all directions, using lots of compost and aged manure if you can find it.

We typically plant in so-called “hills” (a misnomer as the clusters typically remain at ground level) with about three seeds per hill. Later select the two strongest plants. Some hills should be as far apart as 8 feet, for pumpkins for instance, so check growing instructions for each crop. Vine crops all need full sun, lots of water, and some (such as bird house gourds) do best if you provide a trellis to climb.

Weeds are always a challenge in vine crops that ramble over large areas, leaving lots of open soil. My own companion-garden technique (“Great Garden Companions”; Rodale Books) worked well to block the weeds and also improve the soil for future years: Spread large sheets of heavy-duty black plastic over the entire section of the garden, with 2- or 3-foot holes for planting the squash, pumpkins or gourds, either seeds or young plants. (Farmers markets or garden centers usually offer strong seedlings that had a good start in a greenhouse.)

I recommend sticking in some seeds or plants that are good for pollinators such as calendulas, borage or cosmos – anything that flowers early and long. When the vine crops grow they will spread across the plastic, which keeps them clean and adds heat around the plants, and weeds don’t pop up everywhere.

The other benefit to the plastic sheets: I use this as a soil-improving moment. Under the sheets you can stuff layers of straw, old leaves, shredded paper and compost, even if it’s unfinished. When you’re preparing the space, typically in May, it’s also a good time to break down last season’s compost pile or bins. I call it under-the-sheets composting. By the end of summer the soil under there will be loaded with worms and very rich, and the roots of your vine plants will already have benefited.

Dry a gourd
Harvest gourds when their stems are dry and brown, leaving a few inches of stem on them. (Removing the stems opens the flesh to rot.) Do this before a hard frost. Clean the surface with rubbing alcohol or a cloth, and air dry them for at least a week out of direct sunlight. Then find a dark area to dry them for about six months, ideally well-spaced on a screen or crate that provides air circulation. Turn them every few weeks and check for and discard any decaying ones.

Some pros prefer to hang the drying gourds. When they are well dried they will feel light and you’ll hear rattling. The skills follow, whether you paint or shellac them for dishes, or drill holes in them for the birds.

It’s not too late to collect some gourds for decorative uses or craft projects. At the garden center be sure to feel for any softness or moisture that would indicate potential rot. (Staff in those stores have been checking daily and eliminating anything questionable.) You may even find bottle or snake gourds – start the drying process now.

My own plan is to stop work now and sit down with some Yerba Mate, in the drinking gourd cup that my daughter brought me from Argentina. The cup is beautiful – this one carved – and the theory is that this drink will infuse me with energy. Hope so.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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