For relatively small-volume growers, the process often seems to be more of an art than a science. What follows is our attempt to pass on what we've learned over the past few years. We'll add to this page as we learn more about this fascinating and satisfying hobby.
Please note: We're describing what worked for us ... not necessarily what works for someone else, or what you may read on more scientifically oriented growers' sites. As with any other subject, do plenty of research, weigh the information you gather, and then decide what works best for you.
Gourds need between 120 and 150 days of growing time from germination to maturity, depending on the variety. So, if your growing season is relatively short, like it is here in New Hampshire, you must plan ahead and start the seeds indoors. If you're not sure about the length of the growing season, consult your Farmer's Almanac (you do have one, don't you?) or some other authoritative source.
If you live in a colder region, look up the "last frost date," then subtract about four weeks to determine the time to plant the seeds.
Plant the seeds in fiber (organic) potting trays in a good-quality potting soil. If desired, mix the potting soil with soil from your garden in a 2-to-1 ratio – assuming you've got good soil (see below).
Depending on the size of the potting trays, put two or three seeds in each container. Hint: Don't put seeds from different varieties of gourd in the same container, or you'll quickly lose track of which is which – they all look pretty much the same when they're seedlings.
Use a "grow lamp" or some other source of light to make sure the seedlings get plenty of light. The grow lamp also will help keep the soil at a consistently warm temperature, which is good for germination and early growth.
Keep the soil moist, but don't over-water.
When the seedlings first appear, you may wish to sacrifice the "runt" of each "litter" so that the healthier seedling has plenty of root space. If you decide to do this, be gentle! The roots are very fragile at this point, and you don't want to kill both seedlings inadvertently.
As the seedlings grow, consider using a fertilizer to encourage growth. Miracle-Gro is a good choice, but don't over-fertilize.
When the seedlings are 4 to 8 inches high, it's time to get them in the ground.
While you're waiting for the seedlings to mature, make sure your garden is ready. Actually, you probably should have started on this part the previous fall!
Gourds like a pH-balanced soil. Take one or more soil samples to a local garden center or Agricultural Extension to have it tested, or use a soil-testing kit – most garden centers and multi-purpose stores sell them.
If your soil is not pH-balanced, add the appropriate minerals to make it so. We won't try to cover all the possibilities here ... if you don't know how to do this, consult a local garden center (or the person down the street who grows great vegetables).
Gourds like potash, because it makes the shell thicker. Don't over-do it, of course, but make sure the soil is rich in potash.
Prepare the garden by creating well-spaced mounds of soil, then plant two or three seedlings in each mound. Remember that gourds grow on vines, which will spread and take over the whole garden (and your yard) if you're not careful. The mounds should be at least 6 feet apart. If you plant too close together, the vines will be so thick you won't be able to walk in the garden without crushing vines or roots.
Don't plant the seedlings outside until on or after the "last frost date." If you're not sure, or if it snowed the day before the magic date, wait another week ... a late frost will kill the seedlings just as effectively as a roto-tiller!
If you're growing more than one variety of gourd, separate the varieties as much as possible. This reduces the chance of cross-pollination, which can lead to some interesting variations!
As you plant each group of seedlings, make a small hole in the mound, then carefully remove the seedlings from the potting trays. Be careful of the roots!
You might consider fertilizing each mound with a "soup" of cow manure, common garden fertilizer, potash, and water. If your soil is particularly deficient in any particular mineral, add a little of that mineral to the "soup."
Fill in around the seedlings with a mixture of "soup" and high-quality loam, tamping lightly. Be careful of the roots!
Some growers like to use a trellis or other support, particularly if space is limited. If you choose this route, make sure to consider the variety of gourds you're growing. Large canteens, cannonballs, and bottles will pull down a trellis unless it's really sturdy. You may be better off by growing pears and ornamentals on trellises, and leaving the bigger gourds to grow on the ground.
Tending the Plants
As with many other things, sometimes the best thing you can do for your newly planted seedlings is nothing! But, keep an eye on them for signs of disease, mildew, insects, or animals. You must make your own decision about whether to use pesticides or poisons – there are a host of bugs and critters that would love to eat your gourd plants at any time. We use diatomaceous earth for insect control, and our garden is fenced to keep out all but the smallest critters (fortunately we've not had problems with mice or other small vermin).
Water the plants based on how much rain you get and how hot it gets. The best solution is a drip system or soaker hose – not only is it more efficient, but it eliminates the problem of soaking the leaves – gourds don't like having wet leaves (yeah, but what about rain? ... it doesn't have to make sense!). Keep the soil around the vine roots moist, but not soaked.
Add fertilizer, minerals (as needed), and potash (more is better, up to a point, of course) on a regular basis, such as every two weeks. The frequency will depend on the condition of the soil, and it doesn't hurt to take more soil samples periodically to check on how you're doing. An easy way to feed and fertilize is to use more of the "soup" described above.
Some growers will advise you to cut back the vines when they get to be about 10 feet long. This can promote healthy gourds, as extra-long vines eat up nutrients before they get to the gourd. Use caution, however – you may wish to do some more research before attempting this.
Start with the main vine where it comes out of the ground, follow it out to about 10 feet, then cut.
Trace each "lateral" off the main vine, follow it out to about 10 feet, then cut.
This is a lot harder to do if you planted your mounds too close together! The vines will be so mixed together that it will be really hard to figure out which belongs to who.
Almost invariably, the male flowers will appear first, sometimes as much as two weeks before the females. Don't panic ... the girls will show up!
Some growers let nature take its course – bees, moths, and other insects will pollinate the girls quite nicely, thank you, as they've been doing since the Garden of Eden. Others (like us) like to hand-pollinate – it's fun, gives you something to do in the evening (when the girls open up), and let's you feel more involved in the whole process. Some general guidelines:
Don't cross-pollinate between varieties. Canteens with canteens, etc.
Use one of your old artist's paint brushes to carefully swipe pollen from the stamen of the male flower and deposit it gently on the pistil of the female flower. If you can't tell them apart, do some more research first! The female flower always has a pronounced "bulb" immediately below the flower. Note: If you use the paint brush approach, use separate brushes for each variety ... and keep them separate!
Another approach is to pluck the male flower, strip the petals, and gently tap the stamen over the pistil.
Consider pollinating each female with at least two males to make sure you've transferred enough pollen.
After pollination, consider closing the female blossom (gently!) with a twist-tie. It reduces the chance of cross-pollination by insects, and lets you keep track of the ones you've already done.
Contrary to some advice, there is no need to strip naked and paint yourself blue before hand-pollinating. Ordinary gardening attire works just fine.
Supporting the Fruit
As your pollinated females begin to grow into gourds, two things are important.
Don't handle them too much, as you risk damaging the vines.
Make sure the young gourd is sitting upright (so you'll get a nice flat bottom). Consider placing a piece of plywood or cardboard under each gourd to reduce the chance of it staying too moist by sitting in the dirt.
If your vines are on trellises, you may need to improvise some supports for the gourds as they get heavier, to avoid over-straining the vines. We have had good luck making "slings" out of cheesecloth and nylon stockings. Click here to see a picture.
Keep on eye on them, as mice, squirrels, and other vermin like to eat young gourds (although they seem to avoid them after the gourds get a little more mature).
Some growers will advise you to just leave the gourds in the garden over the winter. After all, either they're mature (in which case they'll survive) or they're not (in which case they'll rot, and there's nothing you can do about it). However, others (like us) can't resist the satisfaction of "harvesting" – removing the gourds from the now-dead vines and placing them on pallets to dry over the winter.
Don't harvest your gourds until you're absolutely sure that they're finished growing. In northern regions, a sure-fire tip is to wait until after the first significant snowfall and/or hard frost.
If you live someplace where it doesn't snow ... or rarely does ... check the vines before harvesting. If the vine is brown and dried up all the way through the stem and to the surface of the gourd, it's safe to harvest.
Drying and Cleaning
As with nearly all other aspects of growing gourds, you've got choices at this point.
If you leave the gourds in the garden all winter, there's not much to do except wait until spring to see how they made out.
If you harvest, consider placing your gourds on pallets or shelves to promote air circulation and reduce the chance that vermin will carry off the fruits of your labor. Some people store drying gourds outside, others in the garage or barn – we suggest only that you don't dry them in the house, as they get really nasty and moldy in the process, and gourd mold spores are bad for you.
Part way through the drying process, consider doing some partial cleaning of the gourds. Some people call this "thaw cleaning" or "green cleaning" (or a variety of other terms). Basically, you gently clean the exterior of the gourd while it's still drying – peel off any outer skin layers that will come off easily, or just leave them out in the rain and scrub them gently with a soft brush. But, leave the hard scrubbing for the spring, after you're sure that the drying process is complete.
Enjoying the Results
You'll be glad you invested the time and effort in growing your own gourds. It's a rewarding process, particularly when you can point to a finished piece of gourd art and say, "I grew that one myself!"
Questions? Suggestions for more information? Send us your feedback.