Curing Gourds for Decorating
by Sandy Metzger, Sonoma County Master Gardener
“Can you eat these things?” is the first and inevitable question when people see gourds. Probably not, though some folks have been known to eat them when they are very young and still somewhat soft. Gourds used for decorating are the hard-shelled variety, Lagenaria siceraria, often called “birdhouse gourds.” They belong to the Cucurbitaceae, or gourd family, and are cousins to squashes, melons, and pumpkins. It is thought they’ve been around for thousands of years, historically used for utensils, storage vessels and simple musical instruments. Lately, there’s been a renewed interest in gourds which both professional artists and everyday crafters now turn into birdhouses, bowls, vases, art pieces, jewelry and just about anything else you can imagine. There are hard-shelled varieties which resemble apples, pears, snakes and have other intriguing shapes.
They are ready to harvest when the vines become dry and raggedy. Some gardeners set the gourds on top of hedges or tables to dry out or just let them over-winter in the field. I prefer to cut mine from the vines, leaving a three-inch stem, and store them in boxes in a dark dry place in the barn. With the latter drying method, mold will form all over the gourds, which, when cleaned off, will leave unusual and beautiful mottled designs on the surface.
The gourd is cured when the seeds rattle around inside. Through curing, the gourds become woody; it takes a saw—circular, compound miter, scrolling, hobby—to cut through them. Use a drill with a “hole saw” bit to create birdhouses and feeders, hanging planters, and the like. Have on hand different size bits to drill holes for weaving twine or leather strips onto the gourds. But before drilling, cutting, or decorating, the gourds should be cleaned with a mild chlorine-water solution. Rub or scrape off the mold, but don’t scrub hard enough to remove the unique mottling. When stained or waxed, the mottling creates beautiful designs on the gourd surface.
Sometimes when you open up a gourd, the odor will make you gag. There are several ways to alleviate this. First remove all the seeds. Then put baking soda or a baking soda-and-water paste inside. Leave for several days, shake, and rinse out. Or, you can spray heavily with a deodorizer, or temporarily, put in some potpourri or cotton balls soaked with an aromatic oil (lavender, clove, etc.). The smell will eventually dissipate. After cutting, save the scraps for testing the stains, polishes, dyes, and paints or for practicing wood burning, burnishing, or carving techniques. Clean out the seeds with a long-handled spoon or other appropriate implement; save the seeds in an open container or paper bag to make sure they dry without becoming moldy. Later you can store them in plastic lidded containers. Label.
Initially, do not buy expensive tools, finishes, and decorative items. Use whatever you can find in your garage, barn, kitchen drawers, shoe and jewelry boxes. You can purchase additional items when you become proficient and wish to pursue this craft more seriously. Gourds can be left in their natural state or colored with shoe polish or cream, furniture or floor stain, fabric dye, acrylic paint, oil pastels, or whatever you find at home. Be adventuresome: wipe on a red or blue shoe cream and overlay it with a “golden oak” wood stain. Wipe off the excess and let dry. Try other combinations: half color and half wood stain; lower half dark stain, the upper half light. Get creative! Do test your colors on the scraps first! Different substances produce different shades on different gourds.
I spray the cut and stained gourd with a clear acrylic or polyurethane sealer before adding beads, leather, feathers and such; it protects the gourd’s exterior, gives it a beautiful sheen, adds depth to the design, and accentuates the mottling. Purchase these spray lacquers at hardware or craft stores. After that finish has dried, add whatever decorative items you wish. Gather inexpensive costume jewelry and beads, feathers, nuts, seeds, leather shoe thongs or strips, hemp twine, fishing line, yarn, anything you’d like to use for decoration. You can find jewelry at garage sales or thrift shops. A glue gun and wood-burning kit are useful tools; tapestry needles are good for weaving; sandpaper is just the thing for smoothing rough edges. If you are making a birdhouse or a container for a hanging plant, drill four or five drainage holes in the bottom. Otherwise, water collecting in the gourd will cause it to deteriorate more quickly. If you are hanging a house, feeder, or planter outside, keep it protected from the elements, under the eaves, on a porch, or under an arbor. Rain and sun will contribute to the eventual destruction of the gourd. If your finished product is too beautiful and unique to put outside, please don’t.
©Sonoma County Master Gardeners
Gourds take up to 120 days from planting to harvest. Once you grow these gourds, you’ll never have to buy seeds again, as each produces a prodigious amount of seeds! “Do birds eat the seeds?” Not that I’ve observed, but squirrels will gnaw through the gourd’s hard shell to get them!
Put the seeds into enriched soil by mid-May or earlier if you’re in a relatively frost-free area. Gourds are heavy feeders and appreciate plenty of chicken manure or compost to enrich the soil. Do this particularly if you want to grow some of the huge, five-gallon size. Keep the soil moist initially to help germinate the seeds; then provide moderate water as they mature. Gourd vines can crawl on the ground or be trained up an arbor or fence. If they are pendant, or hanging, they often produce more unusual shapes. Sometimes the gourds will grow through a wire fence, creating bizarre forms. They are ready to harvest when the vines become dry and raggedy.