My climate is a bit cool for Lagenaria gourds, which are the hard-shelled types used for birdhouses, water dippers and other crafts. The plants grow well enough in summer, but autumn comes too soon for the fruits to fully ripen. Yet I have wonderful luck with colourful, oddly shaped ornamental gourds classified as Cucurbita pepo var. ovifera. Closely related to summer squash (a fully ripe yellow crookneck squash is a gourd), ornamental gourds can make a good crop in a 100-day growing season.
The Harrowsmith Select mixture I grew this season filled my wagon with gourds in a range of shapes, sizes and colour combinations. I did make a mistake by allowing three plants to grow inside the garden, where they jumped across beds and even invaded the blueberries. The truth be told, ornamental gourd vines are much too unruly to grow in the company of other plants. It’s best to let the vine ramble on a fence, or over grass you don’t want to mow. Most ornamental squash vines run about 15 feet (5 metres), but they can extend twice that distance under good conditions.
What does one do with all these gourds? A nicely arranged gourd basket will bring colour and life to any room, and gourd eye-catchers are especially great in offices since they require no maintenance. I like arranging the little ones in indoor windowsills, and using the bigger ones in outdoor displays. In the vegetable garden, hand-size ornamental gourds make good weights for row covers and blankets. And of course, all of my friends and relatives now have gourds.
Harvesting Ornamental Gourds
Ornamental gourds must ripen fully on the vine, so never be in a rush to harvest them. When a fruit is so hard that you cannot pierce it with your thumbnail – at all – it is ready to harvest. Or, you can simply leave the vines until they begin to fail due to old age and powdery mildew, and harvest the gourds all at once. To make ornamental gourds last, always harvest them with a stub of stem attached. Ornamental gourds that lose their stem stubs are much more likely to rot, starting at the stem end, compared to stemmed gourds.
The next step is to separate the fully ripe, truly hard gourds from not-quite-ripe specimens. Underripe ornamental gourds often show great colour, but the soft fruits are easily injured and often rot within weeks rather than months. On the plus side, it’s easy to stick pins and skewers into underripe specimens, or to cut and carve them into unique table decorations.
Underripe gourds will start deteriorating within days after they are cut, just like pumpkins. Whatever you make from underripe gourds - candle holders, vases, serving bowls, whimsical animals, or Halloween "eggs" to hang from trees – will be great fun until they shrivel and end up in the compost bucket.
Curing Ornamental Gourds
Fully ripe ornamental gourds should be cured, or dried, for a couple of weeks before being declared "done." I put mine on a shelf outdoors, shaded from direct sun, because sunshine can bleach out colour.
Cleaning can take place as you harvest, or when you bring your cured gourds indoors. I clean my gourds by wiping them with a warm, soapy water on a dry day, when they won’t stay wet for long. Many people use chlorine bleach or other disinfectant when cleaning ornamental gourds, but it’s not really necessary.
Some people like to spray cured, cleaned gourds with shellac to give them a good shine while preserving them, but I prefer a natural finish for items that will end up as compost. Buffing cleaned gourds with a soft cloth sprinkled with canola or olive oil gives them a nice polish. You may need to buff oiled gourds a second time to get nice results, because the oil tends to pool slightly on gourds’ waxy rinds.
Gourd Seed Sources
I suggest getting started by growing a mixture of types, because variability between plants can be an exciting part of any gourd growing adventure. Some types will fruit much earlier than others!
In North America, Johnny's Selected Seeds has an excellent selection of ornamental gourd seed, and Botanic Interests also offers several interesting choices. In the UK, Nicky's Nursery, Tozer and many other seed companies offer good selections.
Ornamental gourds are open pollinated and they are harvested when fully ripe, so it’s easy to save and replant the seeds. Or, let a compost pile do it for you. In my experience, there is no easier way to grow ornamental gourds than to dispose of rotting ones in their own grow heap in winter. Ornamental gourd seedlings will appear in spring, like magic, from the remains of the heap.
By Barbara Pleasant