A secondary crop for consideration

The results of a successful gourd growing season.
Photo courtesy of Helen Olena.

Few, if any, gourd growers in the Northeast can sustain a farm on gourds alone, but for those looking to expand or diversify operations, there could be a profitable niche market for craft-ready gourds.

While most are tight-lipped with their gourd growing tips and secrets, others like those associated with the Pennsylvania Gourd Society (PAGS), who depend on successful crops to support their cottage craft industries, are more open.

Meadowbrook Farms gourd crop at the end of its season.
Photo courtesy of Helen Olena.

Helen Olena, a master gardener from Mohnton, Pa., who takes a scientific approach to gourd growing, is one of the most helpful and advanced growers in the region. She’s written a reoccurring feature called “Focus on Growing” for the PAGS’ quarterly newsletter, Gourd Vibrations, since the newsletter’s inception in 2005. She’s using heat-treated seeds to reduce pathogen transfer, and she has a no-till patch that’s three years in the making for which she’s using past cover crops as mulch. She may even venture into the world of mycorrhizae, beneficial organisms that aid plants in the uptake of nutrients.

Gourds in the midst of the growing season.
Photos courtesy of Bonnie Adams, unless otherwise noted.

A larger grower, Eli Smucker’s Gourd Farm in Kinzers, Pa., where every June the PAGS hosts its annual Gourd Fest, has recently changed some of his gourd growing practices to incorporate Olena’s advice. For example, he used to plant direct seed in the spring, but now he starts some of his plants indoors. He didn’t originally hand-pollinate, but he does now. “I’m not claiming it was only advice from me,” Olena says. “He well may have heard this same advice from others.”

Olena, a former biology teacher and environmental educator, began growing gourds in 2002 as a retirement hobby. She grows about 1,000 gourds on an average of 25 plants a season, and opened a small business in 2005 selling craft-ready gourds to artists and hobbyists. She has taught PAGS gourd growing classes, and has also taught at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa.

How to grow gourds

Gourds need a 16 to 18-week (112 to 126-day) growing season, generally from the middle of May to late September, for the majority of the crop to successfully dry. Gourds are not hardy plants, so that may necessitate starting plants indoors as Olena does in mid-April.

She germinates her seeds between damp paper towels on covered ceramic plates suspended over seedling heat mats. “This way, in a matter of a few days, growers know what will germinate and what won’t,” she says. “This allows you time to restart additional seeds without missing too much time.”

Gourds—there are as many as 150 varieties with names like long handle dipper, Chinese bottle, canteen and kettle—prefer not to have their roots disturbed, so use individual pots and avoid undivided flats where the roots might tangle. When Olena’s seeds germinate, she transfers them to 5-inch-tall pots.

A half-hour before planting, she dampens the soilless mix thoroughly, then fills the pots to .75 inch from the top and lays two or three seeds on the mix, covering with additional soilless mix about two to three times the thickness of the seed. She presses down gently, then waters gently by misting. “The seeds will germinate more quickly if kept warm, say about 75 to 85 degrees,” says Olena, who has written a planting primer on the PAGS Web site (www.pagourdsociety.org). “Move them to a light source as soon as the seedlings emerge. If your plants become ‘leggy,’ they are not getting enough light.”

The seedlings are dicotyledonous, meaning there are already two leaves within each seed. These are whitish when they emerge, then quickly turn green. The next leaves are true leaves. Then, fertilization can begin. Dilute it as much as 50 percent, and fertilize every two weeks, gradually increasing the concentration until it’s as recommended. Switch to a fertilizer without nitrate once the vines begin to blossom. For one seedling per pot, thin the weaker seedlings by cutting them; pulling may disrupt the other seedling’s roots.

Once there are four leaves (after about two weeks), acclimate the plants to the outdoors by increasing half-hour increments each day in a sheltered spot. “Growers should keep tabs on the soil temperature in the spring,” Olena says. “I wait to plant until the soil temperature is at least 60 degrees three days in a row first thing in the morning. In zone 6, this is usually the end of May.”

She also recommends having the soil in the intended patch tested, then amended as necessary. She first tills as early as March, or whenever the soil is workable. “You cannot just fertilize the area and hope for the best,” she says. “If the pH [soil acidity or alkalinity] isn’t right, the nutrients may be unavailable to the plant.”

Plant in black plastic to warm the soil, and take care to cover the young plants on cooler nights. Space the young gourd plants anywhere from 2 to 7 feet apart, depending on trellis use. Gourds may also grow on fences, but only in full sun and close to a watering source. Mulch with straw if the plants are not trellised.

Gourd plants need 14 to 16 hours of light per day. If your gourd plants are leggy and weak-stemmed once in the ground, the plant’s early-morning water pressure pre-photosynthesis may cause the stem to split open.

“You may notice once the plant has about 12 true leaves that it appears to rest,” Olena cautions, “growth is happening underground to establish the root system.”

The male flowers will appear first. They are on the main vine. The flowers of hard-shelled gourds blossom in the evening and are white. Ginger Summit, in her book “Gourds in Your Garden,” recommends nipping the end of the vines when they grow to about 10 feet long or they reach the top of a trellis to keep each plant a manageable size and encourage lateral branches where the female flowers—and future gourds—develop.

“If you notice these tiny gourd-like growths, but they don’t seem to be growing, pollination might be a problem,” Olena says. “You can always remove the male flowers just after they open and tap and brush them over the female flowers.”

Gourds should get a minimum of 1 inch of rainfall a week throughout the growing season. It’s normal for the leaves to wilt in the hottest part of the day, but they should recover by evening, or they need more water.

“Previous advice to nip young gourds off the vine in August because of the lack of time to mature is now only true for larger gourd types,” Olena says. “Smaller gourds can still mature if the fruit set doesn’t occur until mid-August or so because killing frosts are generally later now.”

In September, the vine’s productive stages wind down. The first frost kills the vines, but allow the gourds to remain in place until the stem that connects the gourds to the vine is brown and dried.

Some growers leave gourds outside until after the first snow; others harvest and move them into a shed or barn for drying and cleaning. Smucker lets his crop overwinter before harvesting in mid-April, then he tills the ground and repeats the process, rotating his gourd fields with his corn and hay.

Tips and best practice

Gourd growing sites should be rotated away from cucurbits, even peppers and tomatoes, allowing two years of non-cucurbits before gourds are planted again, Olena advises.

Never bring gourds into the house to dry. The thin, outer epithelium gets moldy naturally. Therefore, it’s important to protect yourself from mold spores when storing and cleaning gourds.

“A small number of gourd plants, when carefully tended, watered and hand-pollinated, can be more productive than acres of gourds cared for more casually,” Olena says.

Smucker, who farms 50 acres in all, has a 10-acre gourd plot he’s gradually augmented an acre at a time. The last three or four years, he’s built his crop and clientele, which is strictly the craft market, one he says is expanding, and to a lesser extent a fall decorative market. He sells direct to an established list, shipping and selling from the farm.

Most of the success and failures result from trial and error, says Smucker, who uses his own seeds as well as those of several seed houses. “If you’re a farmer, it’s not that hard,” he says.

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.