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Backyard Gardener: ‘Get your gourd on’

Hello Mid-Ohio Valley farmers and gardeners! As I write today’s column were are experiencing a beautiful autumn day here in the Valley. We had a few rainy days but we could definitely needed the moisture. As we continue fall harvest watch for farmers on the road hauling harvested grains and late season hay.

If you are cleaning up the garden consider planting a cover crop. Many cereal grains and legumes are available to build up organic matter as well as prevent soil erosion over the winter. Winter wheat mixed with Austrian Winter peas or hairy vetch is one I use. Plant winter wheat at 4-6 pounds per 1000 sq. feet and hairy vetch at 3 pounds per 1000 sq. feet. Fall is also a great time to apply soil amendments such as lime, compost and manures.

This week our journey takes us to growing gourds, a warm season vined plant in the cucurbit family (Cucurbitaceae). I have seen many cool and unique looking ones at farm markets this fall.

Gourds are related to pumpkins and other squash. Many gardeners will grow a few gourds for fall decoration or for drying and used for crafty items such as bird houses. Keep in mind most gourds are not edible, but for decoration or craft use (there are a few edible varieties but to be safe I would always recommend not to eat gourds).

Historically, farmers have grown gourds to be used as storage containers, utensils and even musical instruments. Gourds are a very diverse group of plants and the fruit of the small ornamental gourds have many unique shapes, textures and colors. The fruit may be white, cream, yellow, orange, green, blue or even bicolored. Their surfaces may be smooth or warty. Fruit shapes include ball, egg, pear, bottle, spoon, and turban.

There are three main classes of gourds that are commonly grown. Cucurbitas (Cucurbita pepo var. ovifera) are the ornamental gourds which include a variety of shapes with bright colored mature fruits. The Lagenaria (Lagenaria siceraria) gourds are large gourds used to make birdhouse, dippers and bottle gourds. Finally, there is the luffa, or sponge gourd.

If you do not have a lot of space, provide a trellis, fence or something else for gourds to climb. The tendrils on the plants allow them to attach easily. As an added bonus, gourds grown from a trellis have a much better shape than those that grow on the ground.

If you plan a spot for growing gourds, be ready for the long haul. They require a long growing season with minimum of 90 to 180 days to maturity. The fruits will develop hard, glossy, shells.

There are some really cool gourd varieties out the top choose from. Ornamental gourds are given names such as Goblin Eggs (egg shaped), gremlins, speckled swan (green with white speckles), turban (many colors available) and Autumn Wings (green and yellow).

Gourds love high organic matter, well drained soils. They will not tolerate frosts so wait until mid-late May or early June to plant. Mulching is highly encouraged for weed control, but it also helps conserve moisture, and keeps the fruits cleaner.

Planting gourds is similar to squash and pumpkins. Plant the seeds two to three feet apart, so they will cover and fill in faster. Set out one to two plants in each hole, or if direct seeding drop three to five seeds in each location and thin after they begin to grow. Apply an all-purpose fertilizer at the time of planting and side dress when the vines begin to run. Boy will they run, which is why they need plenty of room or a trellis.

Gourds must be pollinated by insects such honey bees or native bees. They produce separate male and female blossoms similar to pumpkins and other squash. However, they are also susceptible to the same pest problems as squash, cucumbers and other members of the cucurbit family including the squash vine borer, squash bugs, cucumber beetles and powdery mildew. Monitor and control them early.

Gourds must be properly harvested and dried. Gourds are ready to be harvested when the stems dry and turn brown. The stems are usually quite tough, so harvest with pruners, or use a knife to cut them off the stem. Be sure to leave an inch or two of stem attached. The rind or skin is susceptible to bruising or scratching, so handle the gourds carefully.

Gourds benefit from being cured after harvest. Clean gourds by washing them in warm, soapy water to remove any dirt. Then wipe the gourds with a soft cloth dampened in a household disinfectant such as bleach or dip the gourds into a bath of one part bleach to nine parts of water. The disinfectant should destroy decay organisms which could lead to fruit rot. Finally, dry each gourd with a soft cloth.

Lay gourds out to dry so they do not touch each other. Gourds used to make birdhouses, dippers painted crafts may need to cure three or four weeks depending on the type and size of the gourd.

Once they are completely dry, gourd are very light-weight and you can hear the seeds rattling around inside. Contact me at the Wood County WVU Extension Office 304-424-1960 or email me at jj.barrett@mail.wvu.edu with questions. Good Luck and Happy Gardening!

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