Growing and Crafting Hard-Shelled Gourds
Hard-shelled gourds (Lagenaria siceraria) have been in cultivation for many millennia -- perhaps as far back as 7,000 B.C. They come in many shapes and sizes, but all possess a shell that will dry to a hard, almost wooden, consistency. This characteristic is what has made gourds so valuable over the centuries, allowing them to be used as water vessels, storage containers, musical instruments and more.
Gourds are a long-season crop, requiring between 120 and 140 days for the fruits to reach maturity. In areas with a shorter season, it's necessary to sow seed indoors up to 6 weeks before the local frost-free date. Soak the seeds for 24 hours before planting to soften the seed coat and reduce the time to germination -- typically 8-14 days. After soaking them, sow the seeds 1 to 1-½" deep in individual 4" pots.
As soon as the little seedlings sprout, provide a strong source of light to encourage stocky growth and prevent them from getting leggy. As the weather starts to become warm and settled, gradually harden off your seedlings by acclimating them to outdoor conditions -- first a few hours in the shade, then a bit longer, then into the sun. Once your seedlings are used to spending the day outdoors, and temperatures remain consistently above 60° F, it's time to plant them out.
Gourds appreciate rich, fluffy soil with plenty of organic matter in it. Gourds are also happiest and most productive in full sun -- at least 6 hours each day, but the more the better. Space plants 4' apart, mulch and keep them well watered.
SUPPORTING AND PRUNING GOURD VINES
Gourd vines are best grown vertically. Keeping them off the ground reduces the likelihood of pest and disease problems and results in more uniformly shaped fruits, especially for the Dipper and Maranka, or Swan, gourds. Whether you grow them on an existing fence or trellis or build a structure specifically for them, be sure it's robust enough to support the vigorous vines and their large, heavy fruit.
Pruning gourd vines is a two-stage process. Initally, you want to encourage them to grow long; then you want to encourage them to bush out and set a lot of fruits. To accomplish this, snip the growing tips of any side branches once they have a couple of little branchlets themselves. Then, when the main stem of the vine has reached the top of its support or is nearly as long as you'd like it, cut the main growing tip. This will stimulate growth of the side branches, which is where the female flowers grow and where the fruits will form.
HAND-POLLINATING GOURD FLOWERS
Relying on natural pollinators is uncertain at best, so most gourd aficionados pollinate by hand. This may sound difficult, but it's actually quite easy once you learn to tell the female flowers from the male. The female flowers emerge from the side branches of the vine and have a swelling that looks like a tiny, green gourd at the base of each bloom. The male flowers, by contrast, grow off of the main stem and do not have a swelling at their bases. To pollinate a female flower, gently pluck a male flower, remove its petals and brush the pollen-coated anthers against the stigma at the center of the female flower. Using more than one male flower to pollinate a female flower will improve the odds of success.
DRYING, CLEANING AND CRAFTING GOURDS
As the days shorten and summer gives way to fall, your gourds will start to reach maturity. How can you tell? Normally, the vines will have died back and the stem of the gourd will turn brown and dry out. If you're unsure whether a gourd is ripe and ready for harvest, you're better off waiting, so long as a hard frost is not imminent. A gourd that is harvested while still immature will rot rather than cure.
Once you have harvested your ripe gourds, hang them or set them on wire mesh (such as chicken wire or hardware cloth), in a dry place. This ensures ventilation on all sides, helping the gourds dry evenly and preventing soft spots from developing. Gourds can take months to dry; large ones may require up to a year. Don't be alarmed if surface mold develops on a gourd during this time -- it's normal and can be scraped or scrubbed off after the gourd has cured fully. You can monitor the drying progress by observing the change in weight as gourds give off moisture and their insides dry out. You can also shake a gourd to listen for seeds rattling within.
After a gourd has dried, scrape off the epidermis, which may be quite moldy and dirty. A dull knife or a copper-mesh kitchen scrub pad works well for this job. The gourd can then be drilled or sawn with regular woodworking tools, sanded, and painted or sealed with varnish, polyurethane or liquid floor wax. Let the gourd's shape inspire your craft projects: Bowls, ladles and birdhouses are just the beginning of what you can make with these marvelously versatile vegetables.