Michael Russo is an enterprising gardener whose dream is to open a roadside farm stand where he will sell fresh cut flowers and vegetables from his gardens. Anyone who stops to shop in autumn will discover Michael's particular passion: He loves gourds. Michael devotes 2,400 square feet of his 4-acre Connecticut property to these expansive vines. Perhaps his interest in gourds comes from having grown up in a Sicilian-American family that relished the edible cucuzzi, or snake gourd, which they called gagoots. Maybe it is because he likes to incorporate the odd fruits into innovative flower arrangements. Or it could be gourds' link to a certain holiday.
"My birthday is on Halloween," he says, and it just wouldn't seem right not to include gourds in the celebration.
The former Christmas tree farm that Michael shares with his partner, Ray Lenox, includes a wooded hillside, a lake edge that is carpeted by nodding yellow trout lilies in April, and a flat, fenced 2-acre area for growing. Every spring, Michael sows seeds of favorite gourd varieties and some new ones in a 60-by-40-foot plot in full sun. "The gourd seeds have to go in just after the last spring frost," he says.
Michael seeds directly where the vines will grow. First, he dumps well-rotted manure and/or compost in mounds about 6 feet apart—about a half wheelbarrow load per mound. He forms each mound into a broad hill 3 to 4 feet in diameter with a shallow depression at the center to capture rainwater. He then adds a 3-to-4-inch layer of topsoil over the hill and sows eight seeds around its top edge. Many of the vines will sprawl along the ground, but others climb supports, and toward that end, some of the mounds get a sowing of about four seeds of ornamental corn at the middle. The cornstalks will hold up some of the clambering gourd plants and also produce decorative ears at harvest time.
Other hills have cylindrical trellises made of 5-by-10-foot sheets of remesh, a welded steel wire grid used to reinforce concrete and available at building and masonry supply stores. Michael rolls each sheet into a tube 10 feet long and about 18 inches in diameter and secures the edges with wire or zip ties. He then sets the cylinders upright, drives rebar rods into the ground next to them, and attaches the cylinders to the rods with more wire or zip ties. In some cases, Michael connects two remesh columns across the top with bamboo poles. These trellises are for heavy gourds, such as the bottle types that have to hang in order not to be distorted, or the 5-foot-long cucuzzi that will grow straight if suspended.
Michael keeps the ground moist until the seeds sprout and are on their way. He thins the seedlings to about four per hill. The compost and manure provide the plants with all the nutrients they need; he does not use additional fertilizer. Gourds grow best where summers are hot, requiring as many as 100 days to reach maturity.
"Perhaps the most important thing is mulch, mulch, mulch," he says. He uses straw spread 3 to 4 inches thick over the entire bed. The mulch keeps the soil cool and moist, discourages weeds, and keeps fruits clean and healthy.
But there are potential pest and disease problems. Michael examines the vines every day for sawdustlike frass—waste material excreted by a squash vine borer. If he spots frass and an entry hole at the base of one of the hollow vines, he makes a small incision in the stem and fishes out the borer with a slender wire. He then covers the cut with some topsoil. The plant continues to grow well if he gets the critter early enough.
Michael hand-picks and squishes other pests, such as cucumber beetles. He waters during dry spells, but to reduce foliar diseases, he avoids wetting the leaves. "The plants pretty much always get powdery mildew that shows up at the end of the growing season," he says. "It is unsightly, but it comes on late and doesn't harm the production."