With their variety of shapes, bright colors and patterns, ornamental gourds (Lagenaria siceraria) are some of the easiest and most attractive plants to grow. But the fun isn't over after harvest and fall display. Dried gourds can be decorated and made useful in your home and garden.
Gourds grow into a range of shapes — from pear, to round, to oblong and bottle-shaped — and bear striking patterns in white, yellow, orange and green. To dry, harvest when growth has stopped and stems become withered and dry. Set in a warm, dry place such as on the floor near a furnace vent or stove. Turn regularly so that all parts dry well. Although the pretty colors don't last after drying, their surfaces become a smooth, hard tan or light brown, similar to wood, and perfect for cutting, carving, painting, staining or wood burning.
"Choose a well-developed gourd with no soft spots," says Applegate artist Sheryl Schwind, owner of Healing Heart Art Studio. Gourds are mostly water and when dry, they become very light and you can hear the seeds rattle inside. They grow a black mold on the outside as they dry. Soak them in warm water for five to 10 minutes and then use a metal dish-scouring pad to gently scrub the mold off. Rinse with a mild solution of bleach, 1/4 cup bleach to a gallon of water. Dry in the sun for about an hour to kill any remaining mold spores.
"Brush on an outdoor-type sealer such as Folk Art® to provide a shiny surface and use outdoor acrylic paints found in any craft store," says Schwind. After you have created your masterpiece, you can seal it again to help it stand up to weather.
Gourds make whimsical birdhouses and some birds even use them. "Most likely candidates are tree swallows and house wrens," says Terence Philippe, manager of Northwest Nature Shop in Ashland. He calls them the "least discriminating." Bluebirds will use them if they are deep enough. Hang a group of gourds to create an apartment complex for a purple martin colony.
"Hole size and depth of house are very important to provide safety from predators," says Philippe. Chickadees, bluebirds, titmice and nuthatches have similar requirements: a l 1/8 to l 1/2 inch hole with about eight inches of depth below the hole. Check with the nature shop or a birdhouse book for exact dimensions and best locations to attract your favorite feathered tenants. Philippe prefers to keep his gourds natural to prevent the possibility of birds pecking off paint chips.
"Use a circle cutter on your drill or gourd cutters to cut your hole," says Schwind. She suggests using a dust respirator or mask so as not to breathe the dust. Add a small hole on top or on the stem for a hanger and three small holes with a 1/8-inch bit for drainage at the bottom. Schwind leaves pulp and seeds inside for the birds. And since it's hard to clean nest debris out of the hole, Philippe says don't re-use them, but make new houses next year.
Your gourd garden can supply your home with bowls, lamps, baskets, spoons, lanterns, and storage containers. Musical instruments such as rattles, banjos, sitars and even cellos have been made and played from gourds. Gourds can become toy animals, doll heads, Christmas decorations and Easter eggs.
So when gardening chores are done and the weather sends you indoors, you can turn your imagination and artistic talents to fun with gourds. It keeps the outdoor season alive a bit longer.