Thousands of years ago, our ancestors did not have the option of going to a hardware store or supercenter to shop for the necessities of life, such as household utensils. Instead, they were forced to improvise, often using items that could be found in nature. The dried fruit of several members of the Cucurbitaceae family proved very useful for a number of purposes. Today, we refer to those plants as gourds and still use them for a variety of purposes.
Gourds have been theorized to be among the first domesticated plant species, dating back as early as 13,000 B.C. They continued to be used by nearly every civilization throughout the course of history. When the first Europeans set foot on what is now the United States, they found Native Americans using gourds for many different purposes. One interesting use was to entice purple martins to nest near their villages by hanging hollowed-out gourds. The practice supposedly was done for insect control and soon was adopted by early settlers. The tradition continues today, although most “gourd” martin houses are made of plastic.
The gourds used by Native Americans as nesting boxes for martins belong to the genus Lagenaria. Members of this genus produce white flowers that open at night and have foliage that is soft and delicate. Most bear fruit that have thick, hard shells when dried, making them useful for items such as ladles, dippers, spoons, containers, bird houses, etc. The fibrous interior of the luffa gourd has been used to produce items as diverse as oil filters, life preservers, scrubbing sponges, hats and upholstery. Gourds belonging to the genus Lagenaria require about 120 days to mature are thought to be native to tropical Africa.
In contrast, most of the colorful gourds used for decoration (sometimes referred to as ovifera gourds) belong to the genus Cucurbita and are close relatives of pumpkin. Members of this genus produce yellow flowers that open during the day and have foliage a bit more course than the white-flowers types. Examples include the pear, egg, orange, spoon, bicolor and warted gourds. Most gourds belonging to this genus mature in about 90 days and are thought to be native to the Andes and Mesoamerica.
Like most curcubits, gourds are a warm-season crop. Outdoor planting should be delayed until danger of frost has passed, and soil and air temperatures have warmed. Gourd seeds may rot before germinating if planted in cold, wet soils. For those varieties that take a long time to mature, starting seeds indoors can help to assure success of the crop.
Gourds prefer a sunny, well-drained site. The soil should be enriched with organic matter, such as compost, composted manure or peat moss, and prepared thoroughly. It is best to base fertilizer applications on soil test results. However, a general recommendation is to apply two to three pounds of fertilizer with a 1:2:2 ratio (e.g. 5-10-10), per 100 square feet of garden area. The pH of the soul should be maintained at between 6.5 and 6.8.
When planting, space seeds or transplants two feet about in rows separated by five feet. Alternatively gourds can be planted in hills four feet apart in rows separated by seven feet. If the hill method is used, thin to two plants per hill. Gourds produce vigorous vines that adapt well to a trellis, fence, or other type of support. Trellising helps to prevent fruit from forming areas of discoloration that occur, if allowed to come in contact with the ground.
When the vines begin to "run," additional fertilizer will help to maintain optimum growth. Apply about three pounds of a fertilizer fairly high in nitrogen (e.g. 10-10-10) per 100 square feet of garden area.
At this time of the year (August), gourds should be growing rapidly and should be kept well-watered to encourage vigorous growth. Weed control is important since they compete for water and soil nutrients. Gourds have relatively shallow root systems. Therefore, if cultivation is practiced for weed control, take care not to injure the plants’ roots. Mulches applied beneath the vines help to control weeds, conserve soil moisture and prevent ground rots or other problems associated with soil contact of the fruit.
As is the case with other cucurbits, cucumber beetles can become troublesome pests on gourds. They serve as a primary vector for bacterial wilt, which can quickly kill vines. Additionally, when they feed on the surface of developing fruit, they cause discolored, brown areas to form rendering the gourd unattractive. Cucumber beetles are very mobile and can move quickly from one garden to another. Therefore, constant monitoring is required. If found to be present in significant numbers, use an approved insecticide labelled for their control on gourds (e.g. carbaryl). Always read and follow label directions when using pesticides.
Small ornamental (ovifera) gourds may be harvested as soon as the rinds are mature and hardened. It is best to harvest by cutting them from the main vine allowing a small portion of the stem to remain attached. After harvest, they should be allowed to cure for several weeks in a warm, dry area with good air circulation. After curing, dipping them in or coating them with a household disinfectant can help to prevent storage diseases. A light coat of wax also will protect them from diseases in addition to giving them an attractive sheen.
Lageneria gourds normally are allowed to remain on the vines until the vines die or are frozen in late fall. Freezing will not harm mature gourds but will cause immature ones to collapse. Immature gourds are of or little value anyway since they do not cure well. After harvest, these hard-shelled gourds should be stored in a warm, dry area to cure. For most types, the curing process requires in the neighborhood of four months. Curing has been accomplished when the seeds inside the gourd rattle upon being shaken. At this time they can be sanded, sawed, painted, polished or have whatever is necessary done to them to make them into useful or decorative items.
For adventuresome gardeners, saving seeds from gourds can be an interesting experience. Since the cucurbits freely cross-pollinate, seeds saved from gourds grown in the garden will likely produce a plethora of fruit of different shapes, sizes and colors. More likely than not, very few of the offspring will resemble the fruit from which the seed was saved.
“Are gourds edible?” is a common question often asked. The answer depends on the species in question as well as its age. The majority of the Lageneria gourds can be eaten when the fruits are young. However, as these gourds mature, they develop a chemical rendering them sour and bitter to the taste. A good example of an edible gourd is Lagenaria siceraria, more commonly known as calabash or bottle gourd. It can be used as a vegetable much like summer squash when immature. Allowed to fully mature and dry, it can be made into a bottle or utensil.
The small, colorful ovifera gourds used mainly for decoration are not considered to be edible.
REVISED: August 20, 2015