Ornamental gourds make great Thanksgiving decorations as well as useful containers. A close relative of pumpkins, squash, and other vegetables in the Cucurbitaceae family, like cucumbers and melons, these odd-looking autumn treasures are easy to grow and the harvests are bountiful. For thousands of years, indigenous cultures have cultivated gourds for use as tools and utensils. Today, since their taste is sub-par, people use them instead to make various seasonal crafts.
There are many different types of ornamental gourds, but hard and soft-skinned varieties are the most prevalent. Soft-skinned gourds (Cucurbita) are orange, gold, and green. They look like small squash and come in odd shapes. Cucurbita gourds are used fresh in fall cornucopias. They are beautiful as is and can also be carved into luminaries, flower pots, or dishes. Hard-skinned gourds (Lagenaria) are larger, more utilitarian gourds that work well for birdhouses, bottles, and ladles. Hard-skinned gourds grow green on the vine and eventually turn a familiar shade of tan or brown as the shells dry.
When to Harvest and Dry Ornamental Gourds
Drying ornamental gourds begins with the first harvest. Gourds are ready for harvest when the stems dry out and turn brown on the vine. Cut them from the stem before the last hard frost, as immature gourds will not last long and frost will ruin their soft skin. Even a light frost can alter the color of hard-skinned gourds and affect their ability to dry (an important thing to note for those in cold climates). Discard any that are bruised and spoiled. They will decay in storage and the rot will quickly spread to neighboring gourds.
- Working time: 1 to 2 hours
- Total time: 6 months
- Material cost: Under 20 dollars
What You'll Need
- Gardening gloves
- Garden shears
- Dish soap
- Rubbing alcohol
- Screened shelving or twine
There is no shortcut to drying gourds. While the outside of the gourd dries rather quickly, it will take several months for the inside to cure. Lagenaria gourds, in particular, can take twice as long to dry as Cucurbita gourds, so plan on waiting until the following spring to use them.
Harvest the Gourds
To harvest, cut the gourds from the vine leaving a few inches of stem intact. Make sure to cut instead of pull, as you might damage the stem, allowing a fungus to move in and decay the vegetable.
Wash the Gourds
Bring your gourds inside and wash them in the sink with soapy water. Allow them to air dry.
Sanitize the Gourds
Wipe the gourds with rubbing alcohol to further ensure the surface dries completely.
Dry the Gourds
Place the gourds in a well-ventilated area away from direct sunlight for about one week. The skin will begin to harden and change color. After a week, the outside of the gourd should be dry.
Cure the Gourds
Move the gourds to a dry, dark area where they can remain for at least six months. Store them on a screen or vented surface in a single layer and make sure none of the gourds are touching. Alternatively, hang each one by twine, allowing for ample airflow under and around the vegetable.
Rotate the Gourds
Turn the gourds every couple of weeks (unless you hang them) so they will dry evenly and to prevent rotting.
Check on the Gourds
Check your gourds every few days and discard any that begin to decay, shrivel, or become soft. Remember, drying gourds is not a pretty process.
Gourd Drying Tips
If mold appears in the curing process, wipe it off with a dry cloth or one dipped in bleach. If the gourd is still hard, it should be fine despite its looks.
When a gourd feels light, becomes hard to the touch, and you can hear the seeds rattling around inside when you shake it, it is ready for use. Now you can carve, paint, wax, shellac, or decorate it any way you wish. A hard-shell gourd may peel and can be smoothed and polished with steel wool or fine sandpaper to make a birdhouse that will last indefinitely.
Some recommend scraping Lagenaria gourds or cutting a hole in them to drain the insides and facilitate the curing process. This is highly inadvisable, however, as piercing the protective outer invites disease and rot.
Growing Ornamental Gourds
Ornamental gourds can be grown in most plant hardiness zones (aside from Zone 1 and 2). However, gardeners in colder zones may have to enlist the help of a greenhouse or row covers to protect the plants and their fruit from fall frosts.
Start ornamental varieties indoors from seed or outdoors as small plants in the early spring, after the last frost, in well-drained soil that receives full daytime sun. Make sure to give each plant plenty of space, as most gourd plants grow unruly (vines can reach 15-feet long) making them unsuitable companions to other vegetable plants.
Most gourd varieties produce fruit in approximately 180 days. But you must wait longer than this before harvesting. Waiting until the vegetable has ripened on the wine—indicated by its colorful display and hard-to-pierce exterior—will yield the best results when drying.