Extension Educator, Horticulture
Despite what your older brother told you, "gourd head" is not a compliment. When gourds are mature, they are hard skinned with a few seeds rattling around inside. Certainly no compliment there. However, gourds are attractive to use as decorations throughout autumn. By caring for gourds properly and purchasing mature gourds, they can last several months.
During a recent Master Gardener meeting we were dazzled with the diversity of utility gourds by our resident gourd guy, Ernest Young, his wife Rita, Les Lange, Chicago Botanic Garden Master Gardener, and artist Betsy Kuchinke. They did a marvelous job of sharing their ideas on growing and crafting with gourds. There are many fruits referred to as gourds.
Two commonly grown gourd groups are ornamental gourds and utility gourds. Ornamental gourds have extremely variable shapes, textures and colors of orange, yellow, white and green. Ornamentals include nest egg, crown-of-thorns and Turk's turban gourds.
Utility gourds have a hard thick shell and include dipper, bottle and trumpet gourds. Utility gourds are very durable and have been used throughout history for bowls, dippers, birdhouses and musical instruments.
Gourds will last longer if they are mature when harvested and kept dry. If you grow gourds in your own garden, pay attention to the days to harvest listed on the seed packet. Gourds can be left in the garden to dry or dried in a well-ventilated warm place. Handle gourds as carefully as possible. Bruises, scratches and punctures can result in deterioration.
The brightly colored ornamental gourds can be harvested once their stem turns brown and the tendrils next to the stem dry. Ornamental gourds will develop a hard, glossy, brightly colored shell. To preserve the color of ornamental gourds, they can be washed in a solution of one-cup borax with three cups water. After curing, ornamental gourds can be rubbed with a water base wax.
Utility gourds take longer to mature needing 120 to 140 frost-free days to mature. The large gourds may take longer. Gourds should be left on the vine as long as possible or until frost kills the vine. This year's early frost was not good for gourds.
Utility gourds develop hard shells and may begin to change from green to lighter, slightly yellow shades. The stem should be very tough and brown. The necks on long handled types should be stiff. Harvest with at least one to two inches of stem attached. After harvest, utility gourds can be washed in a one-quart water to a half-cup bleach solution.
Utility gourds may take four to six weeks of curing and even up to a year in order to dry completely. The curing process can be hastened by scraping off the thin green epidermis of utility gourds. Select only fully mature gourds to scrape. Hard-shelled utility gourds dried indoors with the skin intact tend to develop a mold over the surface. This does not hurt the shell and actually creates interesting designs.
Pumpkins are closely related to gourds and therefore require similar care. Pumpkins can be harvested whenever they have a deep solid, usually orange, color and the rind is hard. Harvest before heavy frosts. Be sure to leave three to four inches of stem attached.
Pumpkins without stems, not fully mature, injured or subjected to heavy frost do not keep well. Pumpkins that are decorated by paint and not carved will last longer. Store pumpkins in a dry place at 50 to 55 degrees F before use.
For more information contact the U of I Extension office in Champaign for a fact sheet on gourds or join the Illinois Gourd Society. Annual dues are $10 sent to Bill Ruesink 2040 County Road 125E Mahomet, IL 61853. I hear they have some pretty wild meetings including hats made of gourds.