Gorgeous gourds for the holidays

November 11, 2004
MARIA SOBCZAK
Victoria County
Master Gardener Intern

Several weeks ago, there was an article in this newspaper about pumpkins and how to grow them in this area. It was a great piece, inspiring me to actually consider trying my hand at creating my own pumpkin patch. It also brought to mind the decorating theme that prevails during this time of the year inside and out. Pumpkins! Pumpkins! Pumpkins - and a few gourds!

When I taught kindergarten, I am sure the children must have thought that in the fall the world turned into a pumpkin, as October and November seem to be inundated by them. Those gorgeous orange orbs are on flash cards, homework and notes going home, as well as in classrooms, hallways and displays all around ... and every child knows that the "most important" use for a pumpkin is for it to be carved into a happy, funny or scary jack-o-lantern.

But there are other vegetables with which to decorate besides pumpkins. Consider the lowly gourd, forgotten by many, including myself, until I agreed to this great writing assignment as a neophyte Master Gardener. Gourds are really neat things. They can be used for so many purposes, such as birdhouses, utensils, storage containers and ornaments. They have even been made into a patchwork quilt. I discovered this fact while surfing the Net in search of needed information for this article - and had the opportunity to actually view it during a recent visit to Chicago.

This gourd patchwork quilt was on display recently at the Chicago Botanic Gardens.  It is made from stitched-together 4x4 gourd tiles designed by more than 100 gourd artists from the United States, Australia and Canada.

The Gourd Society of Illinois was holding its convention there and had it on display at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, an amazing 350-acre place to tour. I found out that there are gourd societies all over the United States charged with the education and instruction of people interested in gourd culture, uses, history and crafting. Now I may sound rather tongue in cheek about this, but not so. I have been sincerely impressed. In fact, by the date this article is published, I hope to have visited the Texas Gourd Society festival in Austin on Nov. 6.

I suppose that I need to back up a bit and give you some basic information about gourds. They come from the cucurbitaceae family, which includes cucumbers, watermelons, pumpkins and squash. There are three major classes: the cucurbita, or ornamental type; the lagenaria, or hard-shell gourd encompassing the large, utilitarian gourds; and the luffa, or vegetable sponge.

Gourds are classified as a warm-season crop with a growing season from 100 to 180 days. Although we enjoy them now, this means the best time to plant them is spring through mid-summer. Since they demand such a long growing time, they are the perfect item to keep winter gardeners busy inside before they can again go outside to play in the dirt. Prepare the seed by soaking in water several hours - and no longer than overnight. Seeds may be clipped on the edges next to the point. These two steps will speed up the germination time. Gourd seeds should be planted in individual containers, such as peat pots, approximately four weeks before planting outdoors, since the roots will not tolerate disturbance during transplanting. Select a sunny, well-drained site.

Prepare the soil by adding organic matter, such as compost, composted manure or peat moss. Plant seeds or transplants singly 2 feet apart in the row, with rows 5 feet apart; or in hills (thinned to two plants), 4 to 5 feet apart with rows 7 feet apart. Gourds are vigorous growers and will readily adapt to a trellis, fence or arbor for support.

The cucurbita plants produce large orange or yellow blossoms that bloom in the daytime. The lagenaria group produces white blossoms that bloom at night. Luffas produce prolific vines with yellow blossoms and require the longest growing season of the gourds. Many gardeners become concerned when gourd plants blossom, but do not set fruit. This happens because gourds produce separate male and female flowers. Male flowers serve as the pollinator and female flowers bear fruit. Several male flowers are produced before any female flowers, and it is the male flowers that drop without setting fruit. In time, both male and female flowers are produced and the first fruit is set.

Water all gourds regularly during the early growing season. When the gourds are mature, usually in September or October, stop watering altogether. To discontinue the heavy watering in August is a trigger for the gourds to start the drying and hardening off process. Gourds are ready for harvest when the stems dry and turn brown. Just be mindful that if you take a gourd before it is ready, it will shrivel and rot. So remember: you can never leave a gourd on the vine too long, but you can cut it too soon. However, it is best to harvest before frost.

Gourds come in many shapes and sizes, and when it comes to crafting with gourds, what to do with the shape and size is only limited by the user's imagination. The artwork that I have seen on some gourds is amazing. When crafting with gourds, they are treated very much like wood, in that they can be cut, painted, stained, chiseled, wood-burned, glued and made into many objects. Gourds bring nature into holiday decorations, and our eyes are delighted with the humor or depth of the artist, as can be seen in the pictures accompanying this article. Similarly, the identification chart gives a good sampling of the varieties available. Some of the names indicate how those particular gourds can be used.

1.  Banana  2.  Club, cave-man's club  3.  Tobacco box, sugar bowl  4.  Canteen, sugar bowl  5.  Cannon ball  6.  Basketball  7.  Mini-bottle  8Sennari  9.  Mexican bottle  10Hardshell wartie  11.  Hercules Club  12.  Bushel basket  13.  Baton, snake, longissima  14.  Short handle dipper  15.  Powder horn, penguin  16.  French dolphin, maranka, monkey  17.  Lump-in-neck bottle  18Zucca  19.  Chinese bottle, dumb-bell  20.  Long handle dipper  21.  Indonesian bottle, Costa Rican bottle  22.  Japanese bottle siphon  23.  Kettle

Also illustrated is how purple martin lovers have made use of gourds for birdhouses and how creative they gave gotten in doing so.

There is a lot more to know about these amazing plants, and it all can be found at http://texasgourdsociety.org/ or at the Texas A&M Web site, to name a few. Hope you enjoy the exploration as much as I did. Be sure to read next week's article about more fall holiday customs and decorating ideas. The season is almost upon us.