"My fourth and fifth grade special needs students are captivated by things they can nurture and interact with," reports Joan Gould from Athens, GA. "The kids had been watching and feeding birds for some time when we learned that purple martins provide natural control of insects," she adds. When Joan brought in plans she'd found for "gourd houses" that attract and shelter these avian helpers, students were eager to go to work in the school garden.
As they pursued seed catalogs, students were fascinated by the wide variety of gourd shapes, sizes, and colors, so Joan agreed that they could try growing a little bit of everything. "We asked parents and other teachers to share gourd seeds they had, then rounded out our collection with picks from catalogs," says Joan. "The patch of colorful and odd-shaped gourds we raised delighted students and inspired activities across the curriculum. For instance, students weighed some of the gourds as they were harvested, then recorded the weight on each skin. These keen observers discovered over several months that the gourds had lost weight. "When the children explored inside both fresh and dried gourds, they made the connection that water, which somehow left the dried gourd, had made the difference in weight," explains Joan.
Visions of enticing bug-eating purple martins to their schoolyard kept students focused on creating a 16-gourd purple martin complex by drying and drilling holes in "birdhouse gourds," then using acrylic paints to decorate them. But their fascination and creativity didn't stop there. "We learned that some Native American and African groups used certain gourds for vessels, some as instruments, and others as sponges," says Joan. "The kids wanted to try it all, so we created gourd bowls and planters and raised loofah gourds for washing classroom dishes," she explains
Inspired to share their growing expertise, the kids dried and polished dipper gourds with long necks and small bottoms, then presented their homemade maracas to the music teacher. They painted others with tempera or acrylic paints, covered them with a clear polyurethane, and drilled holes at the top from which to hang their ornaments. At a school sale, the proud students raised hundreds of dollars from gourd product sales alone!
"Now each February, we all wait anxiously for the purple martins to return to our newly refurbished houses. My students prepare information about the returning birds -- numbers of males and females, descriptions of their behavior, and so on -- then create an in-house TV broadcast for the rest of the school," explains Joan. "The science, math, and life skills these students developed during this project were impressive, but perhaps more significant was the self-esteem that grew as these more challenged students became the resident gourd experts and artists," she adds.
These humble fruits, most of which are related to pumpkins, squash, and cucumbers, have a long and rich history. Evidence from African art, Egyptian tombs, and Mexican caves reveal that gourds have been cultivated for many thousands of years and used in dried form in ceremonies and rituals and as vessels, floats, instruments, art objects, and more. When picked fresh and green, some types were enjoyed as food. Early Native Americans used the larger gourds, cleaned out, drilled, and hung, to attract a variety of nesting birds. Although humans, no doubt, helped to disperse gourd seeds as they traveled, gourds' ability to float across great expanses of water probably helped them make their way to new regions.
In addition to the historical and artistic explorations gourds can inspire, imagine the variety of science and math investigations that could flourish as your students explore these quirky fruits. Are dry or moist gourds better floaters? Does the number of seeds inside relate to the size of the gourd? What conditions help gourds dry most quickly? What types of pollinators are attracted to these plants?
If your classroom gardeners are inspired to raise gourds, you'll need plenty of sun, rich soil (or compost) and room for the plants to sprawl. Since they take a long time to grow (three to four months) and dry (a few weeks to six months), you should plant them in the spring and expect to use them during the following school year. Although most gourds will survive on neglect, they require some special care after the harvest, since they'll be 90 percent water at that time.
When gourd plant stems have shriveled and turned dry, cut the fruits, leaving as much stem attached as possible. Brush off the soil and garden debris, then keep them under shelter in a location with good air flow. You can also wipe them with a very weak bleach solution (2 cups per 5 gallons of water) to sterilize the surface and help prevent rotting. As a gourd dries, it lightens and seeds inside begin to shake. (Mold that appears on the outside won't hurt the gourds. To clean it off once they dry, let the fruits soak in warm soapy water for a few minutes, then scrub them with a kitchen scrubbing pad.)