- Gourds and Health
- What are Gourds?
- History of Gourds
- Finding Gourds
- Growing Gourds
- Drying Gourds
- Cleaning Gourds
- Cutting Gourds
- Coloring Gourds
- Sealing Gourds
- Woodburning Gourds
- Carving Gourds
- Sanding Gourds
- Video Tutorials (Growing, Cleaning, Crafting)
Your Health Comes First
I know that gourds can be a lot of fun, but you need to be serious when it comes to safety and your health. Keep in mind the following points:
- Make sure you read all directions before attempting anything (eg. power tools, leather dye, stains and sealers, etc.).
- If you feel uncomfortable wearing a mask, goggles, ear plugs, plastic/leather gloves (you get the picture) you need to either learn the virtue of fortitude or you need to search for safety equipment that you feel comfortable using.
- Remember to pay attention to what you are doing. Yes, I know, this pointer seems almost condescending but believe me, being focused could make all the difference. Don't over estimate or underestimate your strength and your immunity to accidents (that all crafters believe they have).
- Make sure to remember to shut off and unplug all tools after you have finished using them - especially that woodburner!
- Gourd dust and mold are not good for anyone. Work outside when you can, wear protective gear at all times, and, when you can, use a fan to blow the dust away from you.
- Dry gourds in a place away from people and pets. As the gourds dry they produce a lot of mold - this particular mold can be hazardous to health, especially for people who have allergies.
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What are Gourds?
Gourds are members of the Cucurbitaceae (curcurbit for short) family, which produces hard-shelled, mostly edible fruit. It is a very large family with more than 100 genera and 1,000 species. It's interesting to note here that many of the vegetables and fruit you purchase at the farm market are also cucurbits, including pumpkins, winter squash, melons, zucchini, and cucumbers. But be mindful, gourds are the only fruit from this family that produce hard enough shells for crafting.
Most gourds grow on a vine, although there are tropical gourd-like fruit that grow on trees, but they are seldom used for crafting here in the US. I only craft with two types of gourds as do all the gourders I know. They are the ornamental varieties and the large green gourds.
The ornamental varieties are those little colorful, sometimes warty, gourds you see everywhere during the fall. The scientific name for the small colorful gourds is Cucurbita pepo, but we'll call them ornamentals. The shell of these little gourds never get extremely thick or hard, but they do dry out and are often crafted into tree ornaments.
The large green gourds are the type of gourds 98% of crafters use for their art. The scientific name for them are Lagenaria siceraria, but we'll call them green gourds. Green gourds are able to produce very thick, hard shells. The thickness depends on several factors: length of growing season and variety of green gourd. There are many varieties of green gourds and they are often named after their shape such as apple, bottle, snake, and canteen. Easy to remember, but here is a chart that may come in handy.
Click here for gourd charts.
Let me briefly explain another interesting gourd; it's scientific name: Luffa aegyptiaca Mill. Unlike regular gourds, people admire this fruit more for its inside than for the outside shell. The shell of luffas is brittle and can be peeled away after you soak it. Inside, you'll find a durable sponge that can be used for many inventive purposes. The most obvious being a sponge for scrubbing! I heard the largest luffa grown came in at 2 ft. long and weighed in at 5 pounds. Interested in other strange gourd species then you may want to search around for the hedge hog cucumber or the pumpkin pepper. Gourds like these can make some unique accents for green gourds.
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History of Gourds
Gourd crafting is one of the oldest artforms in the world, perhaps just behind that of cave paintings. In fact, remnants of gourd art are still being found all over the world to this day; and to this day this art form is still going strong and becoming stronger with each passing year. Perhaps the gourd art form most familiar to the average person today is the birdhouse. Interestingly, this is not some new gourd invention. Birdhouses became especially popular in Europe during the Exploration Era. Speaking of familiarities, you may have noticed that many ancient and modern pottery pieces were shaped into all kinds of bulbous shapes. This is because before there was man-made pottery, there was the gourd, nature's pottery.
The oldest specimens of gourds were unearthed in Ayacucha, Peru dating from 10,000 B.C.; and in Gainsville, Florida, dating from 11,000 B.C. Scientists believe the gourd species we know today originated in Africa.
With this history fact you are probably wondering what were gourds used for back then? Gourds were used for all matter of practical uses, but these men and women found the gourd was also a perfect canvas for art. Many of these people made practical utensils such as bottles, bowls, pots, spoons cradles, clothing, and musical instruments into works of art.
Gourd clothing was worn in China, Mexico, South America, and Africa. In New Guinea, men in certain mountain tribes still use gourds for this purpose.
In Haiti, the gourd became valued for not only its functional uses, but was turned into an actual item of currency after the country went bankrupt in 1807. Gourds were traded for coffee beans and then the beans were sold to Europeans for gold. Slowly, their economy grew and in honor of the gourd they named their unit of currency the gourde.
Many people honored the gourd, too, not for this particular purpose, but as special instruments to contact the spirit world and for healing or chasing away evil spirits. The Huichol Indians in Mexico believed spirits lived inside gourds when they visited earth, which is why the interiors of gourds were so elaborately decorated. China even used gourds like crystal balls, to see into the future.
The methods used to decorate gourds varied from culture to culture.
Carving is one of the oldest methods. People used whatever sharp point on hand to engrave or lightly carve away the top layer of the shell. The decorations carved into the surface were usually found to be of images from nature or mythology, or some sacred or religious symbol.
Weaving around gourds was very usual among ancient human settlements.
African gourds show excellent craftsmanship with beads. The whole gourd is often entirely covered with beads.
Pyrography was also used in ancient cultures, mainly in Africa. They used metal points or blades heated in the fire to scrape into the shell. They also used burning eucalyptis or quinal sticks to shade the gourd varying degrees of black.
Interestingly, in most cultures growing and embellishing gourds was a woman's responsibility. Gourds were like a status symbol of a woman's household wealth and also a main feature of her dowry.
Now, enough of the past. Let's talk about the present. All these ancient embellishment techniques have surely not been forgotten and are all still being used today. However, the method of apply them has gotten a lot easier with so many machines and power tools available today. This certainly doesn't take away from the pride that goes into each work. It makes it much more enjoyable if you ask me!
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Finding Dried Gourds
There are many gourd farms where you can buy already dried gourds of any size and shape. Check them out:
- Welburn Gourd Farm
- Wuertz Farm
- Foothills Farm
- Northern Dipper
- Rustic Acres
- Leiser Gourd Farm
- Pumpkin Hollow
- And Magicland Farms
This discussion about growing gourds is good for both green gourds and ornamentals, although I will only be referring to the green. Due to this, I will state now the growing differences between these two gourds.
- You can direct seed the ornamentals later than the green gourds, since they do not need as many days to mature. Green gourds need to be planted outside as soon as you are clear of frost. It is recommended to start green gourds inside if you live in a colder climate.
- Green gourds take about 100-180 days to mature depending upon type and size. The ornamentals are quick growers and mature quickly, they would be on the shorter end of the green-gourd-growing season.
- The ornamentals have yellow blossoms while the green ones have beautiful white ones that remind me of Clematis.
- Ornamental gourd vines do not typically grow as long as the green gourd vines.
- Ornamentals seem to be easier to grow. I perceive this from the fact that wherever we toss a little gourd, the next year there will be a gourd plant in its place.
Where to plant gourds?Gourds can be planted practically anywhere in the U.S. However, I am talking about the soil conditions and the plot of land. You need to select a large open spot - direct sun is needed. Vines can grow up to 50+ feet long, but normally they grow only 20 to 30 feet long. Note: Many gardeners suggest that you clip the vine back after the fruit have developed in order to give the remaining fruit on the vine a chance to grow larger.
The soil isn't terribly important since gourds seem to adapt to any place, but for a great crop you will need light, well-drained soil. Fertile loam does exceptional.
The pH range should be between 5.9-6.3. Obtain this reading by buying your own soil sample kit, ask a kind farmer in your area, or just go to your county's Extension office with a bucket of soil. If you have acidic soil (less than 5.9) some crushed lime mixed into the soil will do the trick. If your soil is 7+ you will need to lower the pH by doing one or all of the following: mix pine needles into your garden in the fall, or add sulfur in early spring.
Leaves, potash, and organic matter are always good things to prepare your soil with. If you use leaves or wood chips you'll need to put them in the ground in the fall so they can break down in time for planting next spring.
What about fertilizer? If you decide to start them inside, make it a habit to water your plants once every two weeks with liquid fertilizer. You can start doing this when the plants are just beginning to get their first true leaf. Outside in the garden, before planting, mix a couple pounds of common grade fertilizer 12-12-12 into your soil with a rake.
One last thing you should keep in mind about choosing a spot is that the gourd vine is very pretty, so if you can help it, don't hide the vines. Gourds love to climb up things, which is very helpful for small garden plots. Have them grow up an arbor, tree, or shrub, keeping them away from the rest of your garden as they are known to engulf a whole yard!
When should I plant?We live in Michigan, zone 5b, where the winters usually are pretty cold (gets down to -10) and the summers are quite hot (in the three digits at times). We plant both the green gourds and the ornamentals in late May. In the south they begin in late April.
Should the gourds grow on the ground or off?We let the gourds grow and mature on the ground, not that we disagree with the trellis method, but only because gourds are just a small fraction of what we grow. We don't have the time to make a trellis and then take it down year after year for rotating the crops.
Now, the main problem for leaving gourds on the ground while maturing is they tend to get flat sides or misshapen in some way. This can be solved if you periodically check your gourds through the growing season and prop them up on their blossom ends when needed.
However, if a trellis sounds good to you, especially if you have a small plot of land and growing gourds horizontally may be impossible for you, go right ahead with the trellis method!
You can construct (or buy) a large, sturdy trellis for the vines to grow up on. I have done this by simply making a teepee out of some branches and tying them together. A fence or tree will do the same trick.
Another good reason for using a trellis, you don't even have to harvest them. Just let them hang out there to dry over the winter (unless you have animal problems).
What about seeds?What gourd varieties are you looking for? There are dozens and dozens of shapes and sizes available – see charts. You can buy them from:
- Turtle Feathers
- Carolina Gourds and Seeds
- Rachel's Supply
- or from seed companies such as Stokes Seeds, Johnny's Seeds, and Harris Seeds. However, beware of big seed companies if you are looking for a pure strain. They do not sell pure strains, but rather a mixture of similar looking gourds labeled under one name.
Keep in mind that the germination of gourd seed greatly diminishes over time. Store gourd seed in a cool, dry place (refrigerator works well) for up to three years.
If you want to save the seed from a drying gourd you must not let the gourd freeze during this process. Germination is greatly diminished if the seeds freeze within a moist environment such as a green or drying gourd.
Another option: If the gourd is fully mature and you do not want to use it for crafting, you can cut open the gourd and scoop out the seeds before the gourd is done drying out. Wash the seeds and place them on a screen to dry. Once the seeds are completely dry (several days) put them in a jar or bag, label the bag, and place it in the refrigerator until it's time to sow.
Starting your gourd plants:INDOORS
We start gourds directly out in the field and have come across no problems with this. However, you can give your gourds a big head start by starting them indoors.
If you rather direct seed your gourds plant your seeds in hills about three seeds to a hill and four to six feet between each hill.
We plant gourds using a planter and tractor since it does a quicker job and tends to deter seed-loving animals. Using the planter, then, we obviously don't plant in hills. The planter drops one to three seeds about every foot. 19-19-19 fertilizer is sown at the side of each row.
You can mimic the row method of planting by hand. Make two parallel ditches with a hoe about a foot apart. Drop fertilizer in one row and the seed into the other. Cover about one inch. Be sure to wear plastic gloves while handling the seed. (This makes it harder for animals to find the seeds.) Seeds will germinate in about 1 ½ weeks.
The germination of gourd seed is low, so I will let you in on a few secrets that might heighten this rate.
- Soak seed in warm water overnight before planting (in pots or direct seed.).
- When planting indoors place planted seed on seedling heating mats.
- Sand the outer coating of the gourd seed with sandpaper or use a nail clipper and nick the sides of the seed as shown in drawing below.
- Lastly, place the seeds flat on their side when sowing to mimic how a gourd would naturally sow itself.
One last note. If you want your gourds to keep their true-to-type shape and look, you must plant each variety far from each other to minimize cross pollination. This includes keeping your different gourd varieties away from each as well as other curcurbits such as melons and pumpkins.
Taking care of your gourd plants:
Gourds are wild and ferocious growers so they do not need a lot of fertilizer during the growing season, but they do need some. Fertilize them once a month (which means only about twice a growing season) with a nitrogen enriched fertilizer, but lay off the fertilizer when the fruit is just beginning to mature.
Every plant can use water to help it grow better and become healthier and sturdier, but gourds are naturally drought tolerant plants so there is no necessity of watering them every other day (like you would your other garden plants). Despite the drought tolerance of gourds, I am sure your plants will be needing water so setting up a good watering system before your gourds start vining out is very helpful for the long growing season ahead. A drip irrigation system (or soaker hose snaked through your garden) is a great alternative to an overhead sprinkler, which invites disease. We purchase drip tape supplies from here: http://www.dripworks.com
When the gourd plant begins to vine out it is a good idea to bury the vines with a shovel load of dirt to keep the vines from being torn by the wind. If you are having it grow up a tree, the vine will produce tendrils so there is no need for added stability. If you are having it grow up a man-made structure you may need to periodically tie the vines to the structure.
Gourds should be well weeded, although, due to the fact they are such vigorous growers they often overpower the weeds. This, however, does not mean to neglect weeding. Weed them by hand or when the gourds and weeds are small, you can take a tiller between the rows.
Spraying is another method to get rid of the weeds. We use Select and Poast. But, be sure, before doing anything with herbicides, insecticides, pesticides, contact your local county's agricultural extension agent. Some sprays you'll need a license for. Ask your local farmer for some pointers, too. Doing a little research and asking around will save you a lot of trouble later on.
Insect problems are the same for cucumbers, pumpkins, etc. We don't normally spray the gourds for this since they seem to grow right out of any damage quite rapidly. We use Assail and/or Asana when the need arises, but make sure you contact your county's Extension office to learn more about insect control. Also, when using insecticides try your best to do it when the bees are not out (honeybees and bumblebees are the main natural pollinators of many plants including gourds). Apply insecticide is best done in the evening time with little to no wind.
Diseases such as bacterial wilt, powdery mildew, angular leaf spot, and mosaic viruses are the most common. Again, we do not normally spray the gourds for these problems, but living in wetter climates (or it has just been one of those years) you may need some spraying done. Ask your county's Extension office.
Now, a word about pollination. We already mentioned natural pollination (something we rely on), but there is also hand pollinating. The gourd plant has two different flowers, male and female. The male blossoms are the ones you will notice the most, as the female blossoms are usually hidden in the undergrowth and carry the fruit. When blossoms are full, you can take a brush and transfer the pollen of the male blossom to the female blossom or clip off the male blossom and tap it into the female blossom. It's that simple.
The advantage of hand pollinating is that you are able to pollinate a single fruit to the max. The more a gourd is pollinated the more seeds it will produce, and more seeds means the larger the gourd will grow. Plus, more seeds means more gourd plants for next year! :)
When do I harvest the gourds?To be honest, it is best to wait until the vines are completely dead for you to harvest them. However, in order for us to sell the gourds while they still have their fresh green color, we pick them while the vines are still green. We make sure there is no fuzz on the gourd, we can't puncture the shell, the gourd is light for its size, and the tendrils closest to the stem of the gourd are dead.
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Quick Note on Small Ornamental Gourds:
Choose the hardest gourds you can find - no flexible necks or flexible wings. The harder the gourd the more mature they are and the better chance you'll have of them drying out to a hard shell.
To dry the small, colorful ornamental gourds I like to hang them up in onion bags or lay them out on the ground or on a pallet away from rodents and animals. Squirrels and chipmunks are the main culprits.
Ornamental gourds do not have thick shells like the large green gourds, but I love to use them for ornaments and small crafts.
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See my YouTube videos.
There's really only one way to clean the outside of gourds. Using hot soapy water, let the dirty gourd sit in it for an hour, keeping it immersed in the water by covering it with a heavy wet towel or a board weighted down with bricks. Take a kitchen metal scouring pad and scrub away all the mold and epidermis (skin). I also use a plastic-bristle scrub brush, plastic scouring pad, and a butter knife for cleaning. Hang wet gourds to dry or place them on a rack.
An interesting method to dry and clean a gourd at the same time is done when the gourd is still green. Take a butter knife or some such dull tool and scrape off all the green skin. I've heard that some people give it a wash in bleach after this, but I haven't found a need. When you scraped every bit of the skin away, let it dry out like normal. (I prefer to dry green scraped gourds in a hot environment. I have even placed them in an oven to dry out. No matter where you store you gourd for drying, green scraped gourds need a shorter drying time.) When it has dried out you will find that you don't have to scrub any of the icky mold away; instead, the gourd will be all set to craft with. Be mindful that the shell will be a creamy white with maybe even a hint of green – it won't look like "normal" dried gourds. My one problem with this method is that some gourds dry out too quickly, thus they sink like a bad loaf of bread. You need to be careful, and pick out the right gourds to scrape. I look for ones that are on the verge of drying out (a single discoloration is a good sign).
As for cleaning the inside of gourds: I use a melon baller and scrape out all the seeds and membrane. Then I take coarse sandpaper and sand it well, removing everything I missed from the initial cleaning. If you are having trouble cleaning the inside you may want to soak the gourd in water for a bit and then, when still wet, scrape it with a melon baller. After it is dry, come back with sandpaper.
Sometimes I am never satisfied with the inside of the gourd (mold spots are quite unsightly) and so I have found several methods to hide the imperfections. I use Durham's Water Putty, mixing in a little paint to match the gourd, I decoupage homemade paper, I use several coats of sanding sealer (sanding well between each coat), or I paint the inside with enamel or latex.
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I use several methods of cutting open gourds. I use a Foredom Jigsaw for most gourds, although sometimes I fall back on the old keyhole saw. In both cases I start the cut by inserting a utility knife into the gourd and inserting the saw blade. There are some gourds where I have to follow intricate lines and they require me to use my Dremel rotary tool with a carbide filigree bur. See Gourd Supplies to find where I purchase everything.
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Coloring Your Gourd
For painting you will need good quality brushes, none of those Crayola's please! My favorites are Loew Cornell, which I purchased off of Ebay. I’d recommend a minimum of one liner brush (size 0), one small round brush (size 2), one large round brush (size 5), one medium-sized flat brush (size 6), and one very large flat brush for base coating (size 1 inch) for starters. But if you are just planning on doing base coats or the like all you really need is a couple 1-inch bristle brushes, some foam brushes, and disposable acid brushes (brushes used to apply flux on copper plumbing) for those quick, messy jobs.
I have on hand a wide range of Acrylic craft and artist paint colors, all of them varying in price and quality. To start out with, I suggest purchasing several different hues of the primary colors from the FolkArt brand. Other paints I use are oils, watercolor, and enamel.
I also spray paint my gourds when I want a "non-brushed" look and I am in a hurry for a base coat.
Other coloring methods I use include: leather dye, fabric dye (by soaking the gourd in a bucket of it), hair dye, shoe polish, Memories Ink dye, oil pencils, soft and oil pastels, wax colored pencils, embossing powder, and the list continues to grow. See Gourd Supplies to find where I purchase most of my coloring supplies.
Many times I like to just leave the gourd alone and keep with its natural coloring.
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Sealing and Finishing Gourds
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1.) Do not use your wood burner near anything flammable such as paper, fixatives, etc.
2.) Wear goggles to help combat the smoke.
3.) Place the wood burner on a fireproof surface such as a tile. I use an old microwave tray.
4.) Let the wood burner heat up for five minutes or longer before you use it.
5.) When changing a tip while the wood burner is hot, use a pair of flat nosed pliers.
6.) Do not tighten the tip really hard when the wood burner is hot, this may ruin your wood burner.
7.) Make sure you keep your wood burning tip clean to ensure you get an even heat transfer. You will have to wipe the tip clean very often while wood burning. You can wipe it with sandpaper or on the edge of a can (or in my case, on the edge of my microwave tray).
8.) Do not press hard on your surface, this will ruin your wood burner and/or your gourd! Instead, make a darker line by moving slowly over the gourd.
9.) Details, such as shading, do not have to be a solid gradient of color. Rather, think of detailing as different shapes and lines. For this project, I chose tiny, close dots to shade the leaves.
10.) Practice! Try out different tips and get use to what each one does.
11.) Be careful! The wood burner gets very hot!
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So far I have done all my carving with my good ol' Dremel rotary tool and the indispensable flex shaft attachment. I have an inexpensive hand gouge set, which I mainly use for hard to reach areas that need carving or a bit of gourd shell removed for whatever reason.
These Dremel carving burs are my favorites: 1/8" 9906, 1/8" 9905, 5/16" 144, 3/32 9904
I have also purchased several burs from Arizonagourd.com where Bonnie Gibson has a nice selection. I try to keep with only carbide burs as they are tough and should never be replaced.
When carving with a rotary machine I wear ear plugs, a special mask because you create A LOT of dust, and protective glasses. Be sure you do the same, even if you complain about it being uncomfortable. The mask I was wearing was very uncomfortable for me so I searched out other masks and found one that I am comfortable with. The masks I use are from Moldex - #2400N5 Particulate Respirators.
Hand carvers also need protective gear. Leather gloves for a good grip and a leather or corduroy apron to hold the gourd well in your lap.
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Sanding is always needed some place along the way. I like to use my Dremel for sanding the edges of cut areas or to sand down some warts on the gourd. I use my barrel sanders for rims and the like but I use my angle attachment and sanding mandrel for smoothing out warts and imperfections and other duties.
I use fine grit sandpaper for the gourd's exterior. Do not use the coarse type as it will leave you with large erasable scratches.
Interesting Note: A wonderful, polished effect on your gourd can be a result of lots and lots of sanding with low grit sandpaper.
Use course sandpaper and then later low grit sandpaper to clean and smooth the inside of the gourd.
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Check out my YouTube channel for how-to videos about starting your own gourds from seed, harvesting and drying them, cleaning them, and crafting with them!
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