For fun, plant a horde of gourds

In The Garden

April 03, 2005|By Marty Ross | Marty Ross,Universal Press Syndicate

This summer, make room in the garden for some fun: Plant a few gourd seeds and see what develops. Gourds shaped like apples, snakes, swans, penguins and ducks, as big as basketballs or as curvy as an hourglass are all easy to grow, look great in the garden, and can be used to make birdhouses and in other crafts after the harvest.

Gourds are annual vines, eager to scramble up a trellis or over an arbor; they can climb up 15 feet. When the weather warms up, they grow as fast as Jack's beanstalk and set fruits with fascinating shapes. A pergola dripping with long-handled dipping gourds or crook-necked swan gourds has a silly, other-worldly look, and the dense growth makes a shady bower that will take the steamy edge off an August afternoon.

"There are so many shapes: Some are as tiny as jewelry, and others are so long and skinny people tie knots in them," says Bob James, president of the American Gourd Society.

"They're easy to grow and fun to watch," James says. Once a gourd vine sets fruit, "it seems like you can see them grow from day to day."

Gourd Society members favor what the experts call "hard-shell" gourds (Lagenaria), which have white flowers. The gourds are green or green-and-white striped during the growing season, and pale brown or buff-colored after the vine dies and the gourds mature. These gourds inspire crafts of all kinds.

Yellow-flowered gourds are from a different species (Cucurbita). Their bumpy, globe- or bottle-shaped fruits are often two-toned or striped, usually in a harvest palette that looks terrific in a bowl on the dining room table or in lavish fall flower arrangements.

Harry Hurley grows them all in the sunny fields on his 15-acre gourd farm, Carolina Gourds and Seeds, in Fuquay Varina, N.C. He plants about two dozen different kinds of gourds every year. Most of them are allowed to sprawl, like pumpkins; dipper gourds and others that are best when they're straight grow on big trellises in the field.

"One year I had 700 of them hanging on my trellis," Hurley says. "It was 95 degrees in the sun, but it sure was nice under the trellis."

You have to plant a lot of seeds to get 700 gourds. Small-fruited types produce the highest yield, Hurley says. Banana gourd and egg gourd plants (the names describe their shape and approximate size) might each produce a harvest of up to 30 gourds. If you're growing larger gourds, expect about half a dozen fruits per vine, he says. The harvest will be about the same whether you grow them on the ground -- in a vegetable garden, for example -- or on a trellis.

Trellises are practical for most backyard gourd growers, and gourd vines are very accommodating: they'll grow on anything. A chain-link or post-and-rail fence makes a handy trellis. You can also grow gourds up an old apple tree, or on a teepee made of sturdy stakes.

"All gourds are twisting and twining," Hurley says, "and it doesn't matter to them what they grow on." You could plant gourds at the base of a deck, and let the vines climb up the supports to the rails.

If you are starting a new garden, an arbor covered with gourds will create instant shade, provide some structural interest, and help you feel settled your first season. Gourd vines are leafy enough to help hide an unsightly view, and they make a good backdrop for colorful flowering plants. Gourds also look great with tropical cannas, gingers and elephant's ears. Children, of course, love gourds: The vines could be trained up one side of a swing set, or up the ladder to a tree house.

Gourd vines will look lush and healthy in the garden all summer, but they fade as the days and nights cool off, and die when frost hits. It's best to leave hard-shell gourds in the garden as long as possible, at least until they turn brown. Then cut them off with a bit of stem attached, so you can hang them to cure.

Once they're dry, "there's a thousand million things you can do with them," Hurley says. Members of the American Gourd Society paint them, dye them and use them to make baskets, lamps, jewelry and musical instruments, Bob James says.

"Gourds are a versatile canvas," James says. "Whether you are a carver, a painter or a basket weaver -- whatever skill you have, you can bring it to gourds and make something beautiful."

TIPS

Gourds are easy to grow from seed. Start seeds indoors three or four weeks before your area's last frost, or wait until the ground warms up (about the time gardeners set out tomato plants), and plant the seeds directly in the ground. Give young plants a boost with liquid fertilizer.

You may need to give climbing gourds a little help by stringing bits of twine on the supports. Once the first tendrils have found their way, the vines will cover whatever structure you provide.

Fertilize during the growing season with granular fertilizer, according to the instructions on the label. A package of gourd seeds costs about $2 and up.

Gourd crafters often buy their gourds from growers who sell amazing gourds at the American Gourd Society's regional meetings. Birdhouse gourds might cost about $5; fancy shapes go for around $15, and the biggest gourds with really thick walls sometimes fetch $50.

SOURCES

W. Atlee Burpee & Co.

300 Park Ave.

Warminster, Pa. 19874

800-888-1447

www.burpee.com

Carolina Gourds and Seeds

259 Fletcher Ave.

Fuquay Varina, N.C. 27526

919-557-5946

www.carolinagourdsand seeds.com

Wellburn Gourd Farm

40635 De Luz Road

Fallbrook, Calif. 92028

877-420-2613

www.welburngourdfarm.com

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