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Tuolumne Master Gardener: Gourds

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Gourds, pumpkins and squash are in the same Cucurbitaceous family. It has been said that pumpkins are to carve, squash is to eat and gourds are to look at. It can be very rewarding to plant gourds and watch them grow. Harvesting these colorful plants is a joy as they add to the color of fall decorations.

Growing gourds is a great way to get children involved in nature and off of their electronic devices. Planting and caring for a garden teaches children and adults alike how our produce grows and is harvested.

Start Gourd Plants Indoors
Gourd seeds have an extremely hard protective coating, so many gardeners find that snipping the shoulders of the seed with nail clippers encourages germination. Presoak the seeds for 24 hours to reduce the germination time. A lengthier soaking time may cause the seeds to rot.

Start seeds in peat pots or mix a little native soil with compost. This will allow plenty of room for seed development. Cover the tray with plastic so the container keeps warm and moist. Check daily.

Transplant the seedlings from containers to the garden once the plants reach the 4 inch, “true leaf.” stage (about 4 -6 weeks), and the outdoor temperature stays above 55 degrees. Harden the plants prior to moving them outdoors because they need to be acclimated to the light and outdoor temperature. Start by placing trays outdoors for fifteen minute intervals and increase the time until they can be left outside for 24 hours.

Move Plants Outdoors
It is better to plant the seedlings in the same type compost mixture that the seeds were started. At first, keep the soil moist, then taper off to moderate watering as the plant matures. Flowers will appear. These plants are monoecious, having both male (staminate) and female flowers (postulate) on the same plant. Only female flowers bear fruit.

To insure fertilization, pollen from the male flower must be carried to the stigma of the female flower by insects. Although beetles, flies and butterflies are useful bearers, bees are the major pollinators. The bee population is declining, possibly due to pesticide usage in our gardens and orchards. So, look at alternate methods of pest control in the garden. Gourds can be trained on an arbor or fence. If the gourd is hanging, there could be 25 – 30 on one plant, all with different shapes.

Harvest Time
Gourds need 110 -120 days to reach maturity; larger gourds need 175 days. Harvest when the vines become dry and before the first hard frost. Gardeners usually cut the gourds from the vine, leaving a three-inch long stem, then store them in a dark, dry shed or garage.  Now the gourd needs curing.

Curing the Gourds
Mold may grow all over the gourds, which when cleaned off will leave an unusual and beautiful mottled design on the surface. The gourd is cured when the seeds rattle around inside. To cure the gourds, start by cleaning the surface of the gourds with soapy water, then allow them to air dry. You can wipe them with rubbing alcohol to further ensure the surface dries completely.

Place in a well-ventilated area away from direct sunlight, for about 1 week. The skin will begin to harden and change color. After a week, the outside of the gourd should be well dried.

Save the Seeds
Be prepared for a foul order. It can be countered by washing the inside of the gourd with a baking soda and water bath for a few days. Put the seeds in an open container or paper bag to dry without becoming moldy. Later you can store them in a plastic, lidded container. Label and date.

Gourds are not pumpkins. The difference between pumpkins, gourds and squash can be confusing. There are many types that come in a variety of shapes and colors. Some are summer fruit, others are winter fruit. By examining the stems, you can tell the difference. Pumpkin stems are woody and the skin is hard. Squash such as Banana, Hubbard, Turban and Buttercup have a spongy stem. Gourds have a sturdy stem that is enlarged near the fruit.

Although gourds do have some nutrient value, such as calcium and fiber, as well as being low in sugar, they are mostly grown for their ornamental, showy shapes and colors. They are wonderful in autumnal displays, even more enjoyable when you grow them yourself.

This article was adapted from previous Master Gardener articles and research completed at University of California Berkley.  Jim Gormely is a Tuolumne County Master Gardener living in Columbia.