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."
What Is a Gourd?
Gourds are annual vining plants in the cucurbit family, which is also known for squashes, pumpkins, melons, and cucumbers. A few gourds, like the cucuzzi, are edible (harvest the barely mature fruits about 75 days from sowing, slice, sauté in olive oil, and serve with Parmesan cheese); but most are not. Gourds can be made into bottles, bowls, dippers, floats, pipes, and even musical instruments. It is quite likely that dried gourds were used as containers before fired pottery was invented.
Most gourds, including those with yellow male and female flowers, are varieties in the subspecies Cucurbita pepo ovifera. The dishcloth gourd is in the genus Luffa. A few types, including the useful calabash or bottle gourd and the edible cucuzzi (both varieties of Lagenaria siceraria), bear white flowers and may be pollinated by nocturnal moths.
Gourds may be small or large, smooth or covered with carbuncles and warts. Some have a solid color; others are striped, banded, or two-toned. Michael's favorites include Lunch Lady, small Goblin Eggs, and Daisy Gourd, all of which are color mixtures; plus 'Nest Egg', which starts yellow and fades to white, and heirloom 'Tennessee Spinning'.
"Lunch Lady is an enormous fruit," he says. "I do not know where the name came from. After teaching elementary art for 33 years, I have always thought fondly of the lunch ladies in schools, and hate to say that the gourds named for them are covered in warts. They come in all different colors—you never know what you are going to get, but you won't be disappointed.
"Goblin Eggs and 'Nest Egg' are sometimes placed in chicken coops to show hens where to lay their eggs. My third favorite is relatively new: Daisy Gourd. It's flat like a flying saucer," he says, "and has rays like a composite flower." Michael grows 'Nest Egg' on the wire deer fence along the boundary of the two cultivated acres. He varies his gourd plantings from year to year, letting the vines mingle with flowers like cleomes to attract pollinators.
"The prolific 'Tennessee Spinning' gourds look really nice growing with flowering annual vines like Mina lobata [Spanish flag vine]. The striped green fruits are small and dangle like old-fashioned Christmas lights," he says. "You get strands and strands of them." They do look like little tops. Michael likes to put them on wooden skewers and stick them into arrangements with flowers.
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