Gourds in the Garden

Gourds have been cultivated for ages. Ones dating from 7000 B.C. have been found in Mexico, which makes them one of the oldest plants in cultivation in the New World. They are not, however, native plants. Originally from Africa, it is thought that gourds made their way to foreign shores by floating across the ocean.

Not surprising for plants so long in cultivation, gourds have a long history of both practical and ceremonial uses. They were used by early peoples for food storage before the advent of clay pots, and over the years have been fashioned into musical instruments, masks, fishing floats- even baby cradles! Today the hard-shelled gourds are still used for containers and bird houses, while others make attractive seasonal decorations. And some different types of gourds altogether are used as a vegetable in Asian cuisine.

Gourd Groupings

There are several broad categories of gourds. The white flowered hard-shelled gourds (Lagenaria siceraria) develop tan colored fruits with tough shells that will keep for many years. They come in a variety of sizes and shapes, with common names that often reflect their uses, such as dipper gourds or birdhouse gourds.

Yellow flowered, thin shelled gourds (Cucurbita pepo var. ovata) are the decorative ones used in fall displays. They come in a range of colors and patterns, including white, yellow, green and orange in solid or multi colors, and an amazing array of shapes and textures. Some are smooth, some are warty, some are crooknecked, other have curly projections. With their thinner skins, they don't keep as long as the hard-shell types.

Then there are the edible gourds that are used in Asian cuisine. Some, called bitter gourd or bitter melon, have long, toothed fruits, while others are small and round. But with all of them, it's the edible flesh that is valued, not the soft shell.

Growing Gourds

Hard-shelled gourds need warmth and a long growing season to thrive, so gardeners in northern parts of the country will be most successful starting seeds early indoors and warming the soil of the outdoor planting area with black plastic for a couple of weeks before setting out transplants. The faster maturing soft-shelled ornamental and edible gourds can be direct seeded after the soil is warm and all danger of frost is past.

Plant seeds in hill of 3 to 4 vines, spaced 8 feet apart. You'll be most successful if you give your vines a trellis or other type of support so the developing fruits aren't resting on the ground. If you decide to let the vines ramble, be sure to put down a thick mulch of straw so that the fruits are not in direct contact with the soil to prevent problems with rot.

The first shoot to grow on a hard-shell gourd vine is the leader, which produces only male blossoms. The laterals that branch off this leader bear the female blossoms that produce the fruits. To encourage the formation of these fruiting laterals, prune the tip of the leader when it reaches 10-12 feet long. Then when each lateral has developed four leaves, snip off its tip, but don't prune the shoots that form on the laterals.

All gourd vines will do best if planted in full sun and rich soil. They need a consistent supply of water throughout the growing season; mulch will help to conserve water and keep down weeds around these shalllow rooted plants. Give plants one or two sidedressings of a complete fertilizer over the course of the season, but hold off on feeding at the end of the season and reduce watering as the gourds begin to harden their shells.

Give bitter gourds similar growing conditions, but don't hold back on water.

Harvesting Gourds

You'll know that your gourds are fully mature when the stems and the tendrils growing from them are both dry. In shorter-season parts of the county, the skins of the gourds may still be green when frost kills the vines, but they are still ready to harvest if the stems and tendrils are dry and the surface is hard. Try to harvest before frost hits. Carefully cut the gourds from the vine, leaving a few inches of stem, treating them gently so as not to bruise them. Remember that uncured gourds are heavy, so don't pick them up by their stems, which might break off. Wash the shells with a disinfectant solution of 1/2 cup of white vinegar or bleach in 2 quarts of water to remove dirt and fungi. Then spread the gourds out on a raised screen in a dry, well-ventilated spot, making sure they don't touch one another. Turn them regularly as they dry. Drying time will depend on the size of the gourd, but usually takes at least 4 weeks for thin-shelled gourds, even longer for hard-shelled ones. You'll be able to hear the seeds rattle inside the gourd and it will feel lightweight when it is completely dry. After the gourd is dry, clean the surface with rubbing alcohol, let it dry, then seal with floor wax or paint, if desired.

Bitter gourds that are eaten fresh should be harvested every 1 to 3 days, when the fruits are small and tender, as you would with summer squash.

Question of the Month: Harvesting Habanero Peppers

Q.I have a habanero pepper plant that is quite large and loaded with peppers. Some of the peppers are orange and others are still green. How do I know when the peppers should be harvested?

A. Hot peppers may be harvested at any stage of maturity. The longer they're allowed to ripen, the hotter they will become. There's no "best" time to harvest; taste and decide for yourself if the peppers should remain on the plants. Red peppers are generally 2-3 times hotter than green ones and dried pepper pods can be 2-10 times hotter than fresh peppers. Habanero peppers are some of the hottest peppers you can grow!

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