While most vegetable gardens are brimming with edible delights, there are some vegetables, such as ornamental gourds, that are grown for their sheer beauty and utilitarian aspects. Ornamental gourds fall into two categories: the large, hard-shelled gourds and the small, soft-shelled gourds. Hard-shelled gourds are often named after their use, such as basket, bottle, spoon, and dipper gourds. When dried and cured properly, hard-shelled gourds can last for years. They are used around the world as cooking vessels, musical instruments, smoking pipes, and works of art.
Small, soft-shelled gourds are named mostly for their shape, such as apple, pear, turban, and egg. They are grown solely for their decorative qualities. While not as long lasting as the hard-shelled gourds, they make great ornaments for the fall table.
Plant and grow gourds as you would winter squash. The sprawling plants grow best in warm-summer conditions, requiring 120 to 140 frost-free days to mature. In warmest regions, sow seeds outdoors in full sun after all danger of frost has passed. Amend the soil with compost, then sow two seeds per hill, with hills spaced 8 feet apart; or sow in rows with plants spaced 4 feet apart. The seeds have particularly thick skins so it helps to nick them with a file before planting to help water penetrate the seed coat.
Cover the seedlings with a floating row cover, especially during chilly, spring nights. Keep plants well watered. Preserve soil moisture with a 2- to 4-inch layer of hay, straw, or leaf mulch. When the vines begin to run, fertilize with fish emulsion.
To grow these gourds to maturity where the growing season is 120 days or less, start seeds indoors and use season-extending devices, such as floating row covers, to protect against frost.
In cool-summer climates, preheat the soil with black plastic mulch four weeks before your last frost date. Start seedlings in individual pots indoors at the same time you set out the plastic. Transplant them directly into the ground after the last frost date.
Harvest gourds only after they mature on the vine. They're ready when the stem and tendril next to the gourd have turned brown and the gourd's skin has begun to turn an ivory color and feels firm. Cut off the gourds, leaving at least 2 inches of stem on the fruit.
Harvest soft-shelled gourds before a frost. Mature hard-shelled gourds can withstand frost, but it may affect the skin color.(After curing, hard-shelled gourds harvested before frost tend to be tan or mahogany, while those harvested after frost will take on a curly maple appearance.) It's best to pick the gourds as soon as the vines are dead (especially on trellised vines that may not be able to support heavy fruits), and to move the gourds indoors to a dry, well-ventilated place for curing and drying.
Curing and Drying
Soft-shelled gourds can be enjoyed for a few months but hard-shelled gourds are worth curing. Bring harvested hard-shelled gourds into a cool (50° to 60° F), well-ventilated room. Clean away any soil from the surface and wipe the gourds with a mild bleach solution (1 ounce liquid bleach to 2 quarts water). Don't try to save any gourds that have cracked or broken skin, since they will rot eventually. To cure the gourds, place them (not touching) on a wire-mesh or slotted tray out of direct sun.
Depending on the gourd's size, shape, and skin thickness, it can take up to six months to completely dry on the inside. As gourds dry, they may develop a fuzzy, white growth on the shell. This is natural, and as long as the shell isn't soft there's no cause for alarm. You can remove the mold by periodically wiping the shell with the mild bleach solution, or leave the mold to form interesting patterns on the skin. The gourd is finished drying when it feels much lighter and the outer skin sloughs away to reveal a brown or tan inner shell. You will also hear the seeds rattle inside.
To hasten the drying process, slice off the top of the gourd right after harvest, and scrape out as much of the seedy pulp as you can without harming the shell. Then fill the inside with water and let sit for a week. The remaining flesh will turn gelatinous and mucky, making it easier to scrape out.
For more on growing and harvesting gourds, go to the Virtual Vegetable Guides at www.willhiteseed.com/store/asp/guides.asp
Question of the Week
Q. Last year my onions grew well in the garden, but when I harvested, many were mushy and rotting inside. The ones in storage are also rotting. I followed the correct drying procedures. What went wrong?
A. Your onions probably had bacterial neck rot. The bacteria enter the neck of the onions through wounds made during growing, harvesting, and curing. Unfortunately, there isn't much you can do once your onions have the disease, but you can prevent neck rot in future crops.
Avoid using mulch and take care not to wound the tops while cultivating. When selecting varieties, plant onion seeds rather than sets, which can carry the disease over from year to year. Also avoid white and thick-necked varieties, which are more susceptible to the disease.
To harvest and cure onions properly, wait until 75 percent of the tops have fallen over naturally. Then gently dig or pull all the onions and store them in a dry, shady place with good ventilation, such as an outdoor shed or barn, for 10 days to two weeks. After the onions have cured, put them in slatted crates or mesh bags and store them indoors in a cellar with low humidity and temperatures between 33° and 45° F.