It’s the time of year when strangely-shaped, multi-colored, warty gourds begin to appear in gardens, markets, CSA boxes and on front porches. If you planted any type of gourds in your garden this year, enjoy peeking under leaves now to see what variations have developed.
Decorative gourds belong to the cucurbit family and can be classified into two types. Miniature pumpkins, warty varieties, winged and others with soft shells belong to the genus Cucurbita.
Those with hard shells, such as bottle, birdhouse and calabash gourds, are members of the genus Lagenaria. Both types are easy to grow at home and share some basic harvesting and curing strategies to extend their decorative life. Lagenaria gourds, however, require an additional step to fully utilize their unique characteristics.
Gourds can be harvested when the stem begins to turn brown. Clip the stem a few inches from the gourd. Gourds can be left on the vine to dry completely but should be harvested before a frost.
Fully ripe gourds will have a tough skin that cannot be pierced with your fingernail. Underripe gourds can still be used but will begin to rot sooner.
To extend the life of your mature gourds, they also need to be dried to prevent decay. Wash the surface of harvested gourds and dry thoroughly.
Place gourds somewhere out of direct sunlight to continue drying. They can be set on a screen to increase air circulation or hung with string tied around their stems. Be sure to check regularly for moisture and prevent mold growth if you are drying the gourds on a solid surface.
The skin of Cucurbita gourds will be dry and hard in a couple of weeks. Now that your gourd is dry, it will last on display throughout the season. Gourds can be polished with vegetable oil for an attractive shine.
You may also choose to wax, shellac or paint your gourd at this point. If you do, remember that some decorative treatments should not be composted.
Lagenaria gourds require additional drying time to dry out the interior flesh as well as the outer skin. This drying process can take several months.
These varieties will be ready to use for displays or crafts when you can hear the seeds rattle inside. Historically, fully dried gourds of this type have been used for art or as musical instruments, utensils and containers.
Compost your gourds when they begin to show signs of deterioration or when you are done with them. You may find a surprise in your compost pile next spring. Gourds love the warm, nutrient-rich environment of the compost.
(Andrea Knepper is a University of Vermont Extension master gardener from Bolton.)