Harvesting and Drying
When you look at a gourd patch in summer, you might wonder where all the fruits are. The fruits of trellised gourds can be easily seen, but those growing on vines that scramble over the ground are hidden by foliage. Toward the end of the growing season, the leaves begin to wither and scores of formerly hidden gourds litter the ground. Harvest them as soon as their rinds begin to harden and are not easily scratched with a fingernail; if the skin scratches easily, the gourd is not mature and will rot after harvest. Michael prefers to harvest gourds with a few inches of stem attached. The longer mature gourds stay on the vine, the more likely they are to slip away from their stems. All gourds should be gathered before frost.
Michael encourages the outer shells of harvested gourds to toughen—a process called curing—by putting them on wire mesh shelves, where they get very good air circulation, for a few weeks. Some people varnish gourds to make them shine and in hopes of preserving them, but he thinks this actually hastens their demise by sealing moisture in the fruits. He does, however, often wipe down the curing fruits with a solution of one part chlorine bleach to ten parts water. He thinks cleaning them discourages rotting and makes them look their best.
Gourds grown for storage bottles, bowls, birdhouses, or other utilitarian purposes must be dried completely, which usually takes the entire winter. Dry gourds in a place where they can be protected from rodents. Because the rind grows potentially irritating mold as it dries, keep them away from contact with people. The gourds will dry faster if they are in a warm room, but they will eventually dry in unheated spaces, too.
Gourds are completely dry when seeds can be heard rattling inside. Wear a mask and rubber gloves to remove their moldy skin. Michael cleans the fruits outdoors, using water with a touch of oil soap and rubbing gently with an old plastic scrub pad to get all the skin off.
"I love their forms," Michael says. "I do not try to get the gourds looking pristine. I like the residual mottled discoloration. They don't need any embellishment like painting. I sometimes use wax shoe polish, maybe a mix of transparent and brown. Then I just group them in a big wooden bowl or shallow basket to show off their natural beauty."
When Michael's dream of opening a farm stand becomes reality—perhaps this will be the year—he'll get to share his love of gourds with customers. He has chosen a name: Trout Lily Farm. A renovated open-air building, used by previous owners of the farm to sell produce, is ready and waiting. Michael can already envision the roadside stand's displays of fresh flowers, organic vegetables, crafts, and gourds of all shapes and types.
Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine, Oct/Nov 2013