Decorating for the fall with gourds

It’s hard to believe, but the fall season officially starts next week on Sept. 22. The autumn pallet of yellows, oranges, reds and browns transform our landscape until the snow falls.

The fall harvest of gourds, squash and pumpkins are a home decorator’s dream. These fruits are from the same family as melons and they can be used to brighten up the interior or exterior of your home.

Gourds date back to around 2200 to 2400 B.C. and are some of the oldest plants known to man. Primitive people made containers and ladles out of them because they have a hard outer rind that can be hollowed out. Native Americans used gourds for spoons, dishes and containers, as well as decorations. They come from the Cucurbitaceae family and are recognized to have at least 95 genera and 965 species. There are several types of gourds. There are the hard-shelled gourds (Lagenaria sp.) that have large white flowers and there are the soft-shelled (Cucurbita) gourds. The soft shell gourds typically have yellow flowers and are used in many decorations like bird houses, flower arrangements and decorative containers. A third type of gourd is the luffa gourd. Luffa gourds are known as loofah or sponges and very often sell as bath items.

Around the first of September you can find gourds at farmers markets, craft shows, or farm stands alongside of beautiful mums in just about every color. Homeowners have found many ways to utilize gourds fall pallet of colors — from porches to windows, to decks and fireplaces the possibilities are endless. Do you know that the amount of money spent on fall decorations continues to grow and is second only to Christmas?

Growing gourds is easy when you have a sunny site with good air movement. They are rapidly growing annuals that produce abundantly in well-drained soil and fertile sandy loam or clay with high organic materials. Gourds can be planted indoors in the spring several weeks ahead of the last frost or you can plant them in the ground after the last frost. Seeds can be sensitive to cold weather until after the frost-free date. They need warm nights and warm days and watering thoroughly through the growing season, and infrequently late in the season. Vines take up a lot of space, so you may want to trellis them if space is an issue. If space is not an issue, just plant them outdoors in mounded hills. They usually do best in soil pH 6.0 to 6.5. You will want to fertilize but over fertilizing can result in too many vines. Control weeds by mulching or utilizing a fabric cloth to cover soil to inhibit weed growth.

Pests can sometimes be a problem for gourds. The most serious being the squash vine borer, squash bug, aphids, and cucumber beetles. Gourds can be infested with wire worms and red spider mites. They are also prone to stem blight, powdery mildew, downy mildew, anthracnose, bacteria, and viruses. In addition, wet foliage can result in fungal diseases. Use organic or standard methods to control disease and pest damage.

gourds come in all shapes and sizes — smooth, warty, plain, or patterned varieties. For instance, “Turk’s Turban,” comes in rich, deep colors. The fruits are brilliant orange-red with prominent “turbans” that display stripes and spots of scarlet, orange, cream, white, and green. “Autumn Wings” are small, bicolor, warty gourds that catch the eye with their ridges or wings. “Crown of Thorns” is an interesting, vibrant gourd, roughly round with ribs and curved “fingers” pointing to the blossom end. Plants produce a variety of striped and colored fruit with white, orange, yellow, light and dark green colors. And then there are fancy warted gourds that have numerous combinations of yellow, orange, ivory, and green shades in color patterns that are solid, striped and bicolored. Bird house gourds are big, pear-shaped gourds with smooth skin. They can be cured and used as homes for Purple Martins, Bluebirds or Wrens. Speckled swan gourds have long necks curved gracefully to resemble a swan’s head. The gourd ‘Hoargarth’ looks spooky with its dark green and orange colors. These warty gourds are great for Halloween displays.

Harvesting gourds is time consuming but will yield satisfying results. They mature on the vine and should be handled gently at harvest. Cleaning is a chore but using a soft cloth dampened with disinfectant such as rubbing alcohol, vinegar and water will do the trick. Gently handle the gourds to avoid bruising and denting. You can lay them out on newspaper and turn them each day to dry. They are done drying when the gourds are lightweight and the seeds rattle. A warm, dark, well-ventilated area is best for drying them. Your basement, garage or spare bedroom might be suitable. After drying, they can be painted, waxed, and varnished to make beautiful decorations that will last for years.

Gourds harvested in their green state may rot. Hard-shelled gourds may be left on vines until after first killing frost. Gourds should be lightweight, which is an indication that the water inside has evaporated. Gourd seeds can be saved and could be viable 4 to 5 years. However, if pumpkins, squash, or melons were grown nearby cross pollination may occur. Separate the seeds from the pulp, spread the seeds on absorbent paper until dry. Store for next year.

As you can see, gourds are a most interesting addition to the fall table or flower arrangement. They can be seen on porches or decks in all different shapes, sizes, and colors. You can grow them or purchase them to have a fall display that you will love!

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Resources for this article include Cornell Cooperative Extension, Nebraska Extension, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, UConn Extension, Iowa State University Extension, Harris Seeds and Purdue University.

Have a gardening question?

Master Gardener volunteers are normally in the office Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. until noon. You can stop in at our CCE office at 420 East Main St., Batavia; call (585) 343-3040, ext. 127; or e-mail them geneseemg@hotmail.com. Visit our CCE web site at genesee.cce.cornell.edu or like us on Facebook www.facebook.com/CCEofGenesee.

Join us for our next Garden Talk on Oct. 7 which will be “Winter Bird Feeding 101.” This free program will be start at noon via Zoom.

Register at our CCE website events page at http://genesee.cce.cornell.edu/ to get your personal link.

Rosemary Olchawski is a master gardener with Cornell Cooperative Extension.

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