The fantastic shapes and countless uses of the gourd family has made it one of the top plants for artists, home decorators, hobbyists, and heritage crafters. The plant is a perfect fit for beginning gardeners because it is both easy and fun to grow – and it also presents a welcome challenge to gardeners with a more experienced green thumb, because it presents countless possibilities for experimentation.
Choosing a Variety
Before you pick out which type of gourd to grow, you should determine what you plan to use the gourds for. If you are looking for gorgeous ornamental varieties for painting, wood-burning, or otherwise decorating for your home, choose a unique shape such as the Speckled Swan. If you are looking for practical use, choose the Dipper, the Birdhouse, or even the Luffa (which makes amazing natural sponges). Whatever your need, there’s a gourd species just for you. You can check out our gourd types here.
Starting the Seed
Germination is often the hardest stage of life for a gourd. This plant has an extraordinarily tough seed coating, and breaking out of that “shell” is difficult for a tender seedling. You can help your plants get off to a quicker start by very gently nicking through the tough seed coating. Don’t peel it off – just poke a tiny hole through the “shell” portion (not into the tender seed interior) to allow moisture and warmth to speed the germination process. You can also get your seedlings off to a jump-start by soaking the seeds overnight before you plant them.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac recommends planting indoors in very early spring, because these plants can take four months or longer to reach maturity. The Almanac recommends starting the seeds 6 weeks before the last frost, but keep in mind that you may need to adjust the number of weeks depending on the length of your climate’s growing season. Transplant once all danger of frost has passed; try not to disturb the roots when setting out in the garden, because many varieties are sensitive to early damage.
You will need a lot of space between plants. Depending on what variety you choose, the Old Farmer’s Almanac reports that vines can grow up to 40 feet long! You can manage this enormous space requirement by training gourds to a trellis or a wall. Because of the sprawling vines, Cornell University recommends planting rows eight feet apart, with hills four feet apart.
Cornell University reports that gourds grow best on rich soil, with full sun. Warm weather is key to rapid growth, so don’t set seedlings out if frost is still a danger, and make sure your seedbed is not shaded by nearby tall vegetables such as corn.
The growing season is the best time to “mold” your plants. If you want a particular shape, you can flatten, distort, or even knot the young fruits while they are still tender. As they grow, they will retain the new shape and make fascinating artwork or conversation pieces. (Check out some gourd shape “training” suggestions from the American Gourd Society here.)
Pollination is important. If your plants aren’t setting fruit, make sure that your weed or animal control methods don’t include harmful pesticides. Insects typically don’t cause much harm to the plants, but keep an eye on young seedlings to make sure they aren’t being overwhelmed while they are still tender and susceptible to damage.
Harvesting and Use
For most gourds, a very hard, thick “shell” is the goal. To get to this stage, you need to leave them on the vine long after normal harvest season for your other vegetables. Keep the gourds dry, if you can; after the growing season is over, don’t let them sit on damp soil in wet, rainy areas. The Old Farmer’s Almanac, linked above, recommends letting them dry for up to six months before use. Don’t worry if you see spots of mold staining the skins; this is normal, and as long as you keep an eye on them to make sure they aren't rotting, you can paint or wood burn over these areas later on. Cornell suggests waiting until the vine is dead and you have had a hard frost before you bring in the gourds.
Gourds have nearly countless uses. Let your imagination run wild! The plant is so fascinating to work with that national and international groups host events specifically to celebrate and explore its uses. As inspiration for your projects, you can view stunning artwork from the Welburn Gourd Art Festival here.
There are few garden plants as useful and as versatile as the gourd. Whether you are a hobbyist or a dedicated artist, exploring the amazing possibilities of gourds is a must – and there are so many options to choose from that you are sure to find one that’s perfect for you.