Gourd Growing Tips

Learn how to grow hard-shelled gourds for crafts

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Though I am no expert when it comes to growing gourds, I have grown them successfully on a small scale, so I decided to write an article to let you know of my experiences. Nothing beats getting out there and trying it for yourself. I hope this article will give you the confidence to give it a try.

How to grow, cure and use hard shelled gourds

I have experience growing Birdhouse gourds, Mini Birdhouse gourds, Nest Egg and Corsican gourds. These gourds seem to do well in my zone 5 gardens because they have the shortest growing season. If you live in a warmer zone, you can do research to see what will grow well in your area. If you have a greenhouse, you can extend your growing season significantly and try other varieties.

Site and Soil Preparation

Choose a location that receives full sun for best gourd production; 6-8 hours of direct sun is best. If your soil doesn't drain too well, consider raised beds to improve drainage. My raised beds are only 6" tall. Of course, if you are growing many gourds, raised beds would not be cost effective. Gourds do like water and are fairly shallow rooted, but the stems and roots can rot if kept constantly wet.

Nothing is more important to growing healthy plants than properly preparing the soil, whether you are talking about gourds, edibles, or flowering plants. If you can prepare the soil in the fall for the spring planting season, that would be best. All I do is shred up fallen leaves in the fall and pile them on the gourd beds. Then I put down a 1-2" layer of compost and/or composted manure; whatever I happen to have at the time. This will keep the leaves from blowing away and help the leaves to decompose faster. If I had a weed problem the year before, I also put a thin layer of black and white newspaper down before adding the layer of leaves. 2-3 layers would be fine for this, as you want it to decompose by spring. This will block any light needed for weed seeds to germinate and also enrich the soil. At this point, I like to hose down the bed, just to get everything settled, but it's not necessary, especially since it is usually rainy in the fall, but if you are experiencing extremely dry conditions, you may want to water it once a week so that the leaves compost properly.

Seed Starting

If you have a long growing season, you can start your seeds outside after all threat of frost is over, but if you live in zone 6 or colder, you will have to start your seeds indoors or in a greenhouse. It's easy, fun to do, and you don't have to worry about some of the seeds not germinating and scrambling to plant more.

How to grow, cure and use hard shelled gourds

It's best to start the seeds 6-8 weeks before you plan on setting them out in the garden. Make sure you have a lot of room for them to grow inside, because once they get started they can grow like weeds, put you can control them somewhat by pinching out the growing tips.

To begin, you need to nick the corner of your seeds with a pair of nail clippers or a sharp knife. They have hard shells and making a tiny cut will allow them to soak up water. Soak your seeds overnight in a cup of warm water. I've found that if you put a paper towel in the cup, it helps to keep the seeds submerged so that they can absorb the water. Check them the next morning and see if they have all sunk to the bottom of the cup. If they float, they need to soak longer. Add more warm water and soak them again overnight. If they still float, they are probably not mature seeds and won't sprout anyway, so throw them out and try some new ones.

I've found it's best to start gourd seeds in a container that is covered, which helps to retain moisture and in a warm area, away from direct sun light. The top of a refrigerator works great for this, or you can buy special warming mats that sit under the seed starting trays. Gourd seeds can take anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks to germinate. If conditions are perfect, I've had gourds germinate in three days.

I like to use a potting mix specifically for seed starting. Most gourd seeds need to be 1" below the soil surface, but check with your package instructions in case your variety is different. Sprinkle the containers with a little water, and cover with some sort of clear plastic to form a little mini greenhouse. Check them everyday to make sure the soil is still moist. Once they have sprouted, remove the plastic and sit them under a grow light. The closer the light is to your gourds, the stockier the plant will be. My lights are only an inch or two above the plants and the lights get moved as the plants grow.

The first set of leaves will be smooth and oval in shape and will not resemble a gourd leaf at all. Once they have grown their first set of true leaves (the ones that resemble a gourd leaf), it's safe to give them a little fertilizer. I use an organic fertilizer that encourages root development at half strength. It has a 4-15-12 ratio of Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, but any kind with a similar ratio will do fine. Once you begin to see the roots growing out the pot, it's time to pot them up to a bigger size. If you started out with small cell packs, a 4" pot, or quart size pot is fine. In this pot, I like to mix a sterile potting mix with half compost and mix in some worm castings and a slow release granular fertilizer. If they should outgrow this pot before they get set out in the spring, you can pot them up even bigger, but you shouldn't have to. If this is a problem, consider starting them later next year.

To encourage bushier plants with strong roots and to keep the gourds in check while you are growing them inside, you may want to pinch off the growing tips. I usually wait until I start to see the long tendrils growing. I don't know the technical term, but they wrap themselves around trellises or anything else they can, so that they can grow upward. They are very thin and no leaves will be growing from them. Just pinch them off, going back to the first set of leaves. This way, they won't get all tangled up in themselves. You aren't going to hurt the gourds, so don't be afraid to pinch them back.

Hardening Off

Hardening off your plants is extremely important and if you don't do it right, you can ruin all your hard work. About a week before your last frost date, you can begin hardening the plants off. Daytime temperatures should be consistently in the 50s at this point. On the first day, water the plants and then sit them in the sun for 20 minutes, bring them back inside. On the second day increase the time in the sun to 30 minutes. On the third day, increase the time to 1 hour and then double the time outdoors each day until they can stay in the sun five hours without the leaves showing signs of wilting or scorch. Check the soil to make sure it's not too dry and move them into the shade if they look stressed.

I also believe it's important for the plants to get used to the cooler temperatures outside as well. If your nights are cool, but yet well above freezing (mid to upper 40s), I like to sit them outside for several hours in the evening so they can get used to being outside in the real world. This can be done during the same week as you are getting them used to the sunshine; just start later in the day and leave them outside after the sun has set for an hour or two each night.

If temperatures suddenly turn cool in the middle of your hardening off process, you can build a cold frame for them and they can stay in that once they have gotten used to the sun.

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