February 17, 2011

Gourd, That's a Useful Plant!

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You can use your organic garden to grow more than food. Gourds are a perfect example of that. The hard shelled gourds have been cultivated for hundreds of years, to be crafted into a wide range of useful and beautiful objects. Because a gourd shell is waterproof, it is a more energy efficient way to create a water tight vessel than  almost any other. Nature has already done most of the work for you. The wide variety of gourds and the variety of shapes that can grow either naturally or with some assistance can be crafted into a wide range of objects,, from simple bowls and bottles to large drums and intricately carved works of art. Beyond the needs of your own household, crafted gourd objects could be sold or traded for an income stream as well.

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Gourds are very similar in growth habit to cucumbers, squash and melons and lend themselves well to trellising. This can allow more gourds to be grown in a limited space and if the trellis is on a sunny side of a house, it can also act as a seasonal shade plant and help keep your home cool. Keeping the gourds off of the ground also minimises the risk of rot and other pests and diseases as well.

There are two major types of gourds and a few miscellaneous varieties including Luffa. The Cucurbita gourds (yellow flowered) are thinner skinned and softer than the hard skinned Lagenaria gourds (white flowered), so they require more after-harvest work to dry without damage but offer the artisan a wide range of interesting shapes and sizes to work with.

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Climatic Requirements
Gourds are tender annuals that thrive in areas where the temperature is 70 to 85°F. About 100 to 180 days are required to mature most varieties. Starting plants in containers will lengthen the season and improve quality for the long season types (mostly Lagenaria). Shaping


Spacing and Trellising
Because different varieties vary widely in the size of fruit and vine, their spacing and trellising requirements vary also. The small ornamental types such as bicolor pear can be spaced 450-600 mm (18-24") apart provided they are trellised vertically 2-3 m (6-8') Larger types, such as dipper and water bottle, require wider spacing and a very substantial trellis to hold the weight of the fruit. Gourds may also be grown on an arbor consisting of posts and several overhead crosspieces. Gourd fruit hangs underneath the vines. It's a good idea not to make the arbor more than  1-1.5 m (3-4') wide.
 
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Cultivation
Gourds require a rich fertile soil to grow well and should be kept well watered throughout the growing season to get the best results. Other than that they can be a fairly stress-free crop to grow. In humid conditions they may be susceptible to mildews and the grower should keep a eye out for aphids and cucumber beetles.
 
Shaping Gourds
Many gourds are prized for their interesting shapes. You can create new shapes by tying soft string or bands around young fruit. Long, slender types can be formed into a variety of shapes by gently bending the fruit a little each day or tying off one end to maintain a constant bending pressure. 

Harvesting
Cucurbita gourds are fleshy and subject to damage when subjected to frost or freezing conditions. They should be harvested when mature and before cold weather. These gourds are more difficult to cure and must be kept in a cool dry place for several weeks, and sometimes months.
Lagenaria gourds are not readily damaged by light frost and can be harvested later in the Autumn. The fruits should be fully mature and handled carefully. Luffa gourds can be harvested when the fruits turn brown.
Stems of all gourds should be cut with some of the stem remaining. Use sharp shears and make clean cuts. Generally, stemless gourds are less useful for decoration.

Cleaning and Curing
Cucurbita gourds:  Harvest only fully mature specimens and wash thoroughly in a solution of some type of non-bleaching detergent with a soft brush. After washing, place the gourds in a dry place out of direct sunlight and with good air circulation. Leave them until thoroughly dry and hardened. After fully hardening, the gourds can be waxed, painted, or decorated, as you like.
Lagenaria gourds should be washed in a similar manner as cucurbita gourds. However, these types require very long drying periods to fully harden off. A barn attic with a metal roof usually works well. There must be plenty of ventilation. It's best if the gourds do not touch each other during drying.

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Gourds drying on recycled pallets

There are two types of luffas. L. acutangula (sharply ridged) and L. aegyptica (smooth surface) are both used for decorations; however, aegyptica tend to have a greater quality of spongy interior. These gourds are washed similarly to lagenaria and cucurbita gourds. They must be dried thoroughly. The exterior skin is then removed by retting (soaking in water) for several days until all that is left is the spongy fiber. After retting, the sponge should be shaped and dried. If desired, the spongy fiber can be bleached with hydrogen peroxide.

Saving Seeds
It is not uncommon to save seeds from a gourd only to find that the next crop doesn't look like the original. These varieties freely inter-pollinate within a given group. If you want to produce pure seed, you'll need to self-pollinate by hand or plant a single type in isolation. Seeds that are fully dry can be kept in a cool dry spot for 3 to 4 years with little loss in vitality.

Using Gourds
Once your gourds are thouroughly dry (you can test this by rattling the gourd or tapping the skin) you can cut a hole and scrape out the dried fless and seeds to make a hollow container. Bowls can be sanded on the interior and exterior to a smoothe surcace and then you can let your imagination run wild. How you decorate your gourds is up to you and quite often the shapes of the gourds can be the inspiration for some very unique works. Even undecorated, a gourd bowl is still quite beautiful, besides fulfilling many every-day uses.

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Inlaid gourd bowl

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Gourd drum

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Gourd bird houses

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Painted Halloween gourds

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Pacman gourds

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Gourd containers can fulfil many needs around the home.

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Further reading
Gourd Art Basics: The Complete Guide ti Cleaning, Preperation & Repair by C. Angela Mohr
Historic Gourd Craft: How to make Traditional Vessels by C. Angela Mohr
Beyond the Basics: Gourd Art by David Macfarlane

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