When you make your trek to the local pumpkin patch, don't forget to pick up a bagful of gourds, too. Colorful gourds are a sign of fall harvest and can be left on your porch long after that jack-o'-lantern has sunk into a moldy heap.
Terese and Dan Gust of Gust Bros. Pumpkin Farm in Ottawa Lake, Mich., are among many farm families who grow Halloween decorations. This year, they planted 15 acres of pumpkins and one acre of gourds, along with other crops such as corn, wheat, and soybeans. Sons Nate, Joe, Jake, and Dave harvest up to 500 pumpkins a night to supply local stores and the Gusts' roadside stand.
The gourds are an attraction for customers.
“People love gourds,” Mrs. Gust says. “They all take a few of them to fill a basket on the table for the holidays. The more colorful ones are the most popular.”
They planted their colorful crop at the beginning of June and the pumpkins and gourds were ripe by the end of September. “It has been dry this season, so the pumpkins are a little smaller than last year, but the dry weather didn't hurt the gourds at all,” she says.
“Gourd” is a general name for many types of plants that grow on a vine. Some are part of the cucurbit family, along with pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, and melons. Ornamental gourds, or Cucurbita, are best left for decorating your house rather than your dinner plate. Unlike their close cousins, they usually taste bitter.
Large, utilitarian gourds, or Lagenaria, are usually yellow or tan. When dried, they can be used as dippers, bottles, rattles, or birdhouses.
Gourds come in many colors and textures. Their names sometimes describe their shape: crookneck, bottle, dumbbell, ball, penguin, powder horn, angel wings, orange, pear, white crown of thorns, caveman's club, and serpent.
“There are so many different types of gourds,” says Mrs. Gust. “And when you plant them together, they cross-pollinate with their neighbors and create even more different shapes.”
If you have a few planted in the yard to use for Halloween decorations, let them mature on the vine as long as you can. When they're ripe, the shell will be hard and glossy and the stem will be dry.
“Your gourds will last longer if you keep them inside,” says Mrs. Gust. “We clean the gourds after picking them, but it doesn't hurt to clean them again before you display them.” Washing gourds with a cup of vinegar or bleach added to a gallon of water will make them last longer. Let them dry and harden, and they could last up to six months.
Gourds can mold quickly if they are not dry. If caught early, mold spots can be scraped off with a dull knife. Or spray them with polyurethane to make them last longer.
MAKE A BIRDHOUSE
According to the American Gourd Society in Kokomo, Ind. (its Ohio chapter is in Mt. Gilead), gourds have been part of our culture for centuries. They have been carved into eating utensils and pipes, and even painted to adorn Christmas trees.
Find a dried gourd and give it a shake. If you can hear the seeds rattling around inside, it might make a great home for a bird.
To make a birdhouse, you will need a dried gourd, a quarter, a pen, wire for a hanger, a drill with a 1/4-inch bit, and a sharp knife.
Look for a dry gourd with a firm shell. Clean the outside of the gourd with vinegar or bleach and water. The size of the gourd and shape of hole you make will determine the type of bird that will nest there.
Place the quarter on the bottom bulge of a bell-shaped gourd and draw around it. This will be the bird's door to its new home. Openings the size of a quarter will invite birds about as big as a finch. Larger holes will invite bigger birds.
The American Gourd Society gives these guidelines for the length of gourd and diameter of hole to attract different species:
Use the sharp knife to carefully cut the hole. Gently shake out loose seeds. You can leave the rest of the dried membrane and seeds inside. The bird will use them to make its nest or for food. Drill two small holes into the bottom of the gourd for drainage and to keep the nest dry.
Drill two more holes at the top of the gourd and string the wire through them. Use this wire to attach the gourd birdhouse to a tree.
For a twist on a Halloween jack-o'-lantern, try carving a gourd. Choose a dry gourd with a firm shell and clean it as you would to make a birdhouse. Cut a hole near the top of what will be the back side and remove the seeds and any remaining membrane. Carve a face or other shapes in the front of the gourd. A small light or string of cool-burning holiday lights may be placed inside the gourd for display.
For more information, contact the American Gourd Society, 317 Maple Ct., Kokomo, IN, 46902-3633. Its Web site is www. Americangourdsociety.org
Kelly Heidbreder is The Blade's garden writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.