More than decorative fall staples, gourds can be made into many things
By Carol O’Meara
Gourds have been an essential part of human life throughout history. Excavations in the Americas show gourds were in use 10,000 years ago as vessels and more. Creativity knows no bounds when it comes to gourds, either. Big, little, warty and smooth, these fanciful fruits can become fine art as well.
“People are drawn to gourds because you can create fantastic, awe-inspiring art out of nature,” says Reagan Bitler, artist and president of the American Gourd Society. “They can be cut, carved, burned, stained, woven upon. They’re a multidisciplined canvas to work with.”
When you come across specialty gourds at local farm stands or farmers markets, pick some up to take home with you. Look for ones with stems that are completely brown and dry; that is how they should appear before being harvested. If they’re green, they won’t cure well and are prone to rot. Also, make sure they’re free of blemishes, cracks and insect holes.
Look for ones with interesting shapes and sizes, or dried shells that have mold patterns—coveted by artists as part of the beauty left behind when the skin sloughs off from the hard inner shell. “Gourds talk to people,” Bitler says. “When you find one that appeals to you—one you can envision what it can be—that’s what you want. If you’re going to carve it, choose heavier ones with thicker shells. If you’re interested in painting it, go with what strikes your fancy.”
Gourds must be harvested and fully dried—or cured—before they can be turned into art, containers, birdhouses, instruments or other things.
If your gourds aren’t cured (hardened into a wood-like texture), take them home for a bath, using warm, soapy water to remove dirt and debris. Then dry them and wipe them with a soft cloth dampened with a little rubbing alcohol, which will destroy organisms that could lead to fruit rot. After washing and disinfecting, your gourd is ready for curing.
The Right Cure
There are several methods for curing gourds to make them last for years. According to the American Gourd Society, gourds grown in hot, dry, western states are tougher to clean due to their baked-on white skin.
Colorado is hot and dry too, so the recommended curing method here is to submerge gourds in damp potting soil for three days to soften the skin and make it easier to remove. Pour several inches of potting soil on the bottom of a large tub, lay the gourds on top without letting them touch each other or the tub, add potting soil to cover, place more gourds on the soil, cover and continue until you reach the top of the tub. Make sure a full layer of potting soil covers all parts of the gourds, then dampen the potting soil with a small amount of water—approximately one quart per 5-gallon container.
Don’t leave the gourds in the tub longer than three days; they’ll pick up an off-odor and become very wet, making cleaning and drying unpleasant. Smaller gourds need only a day or two in the tub, so remove those earlier. Hose off the gourds, rub them with a scrub sponge, and tackle tough spots with fine steel wool to remove any skin still clinging to the gourd.
Alternately, you can cure gourds by drying them on sheets of newspaper in a dark, warm, ventilated, dry area like a shed or garage. Because curing encourages some fungi to grow on the gourd’s exterior, avoid keeping them in the house where spores could irritate people. Squirrels and mice love to nibble on gourds, so cure them in an enclosed area.
Leave enough room between the gourds for good air circulation and turn them every day to ensure all sides dry at the same pace. Change damp newspaper with dry sheets to wick away moisture, and watch the gourds closely for signs of decay, mold or soft spots, discarding those in favor of unblemished fruits.
Hard-shelled gourds, like calabash, bottle gourds and other varieties in the Lagenaria genus, take longer to dry on the inside. Once the exterior is dry, wipe down the gourd with alcohol or a household disinfectant, then place it back on the newspaper in a warm, dark, dry place for another four weeks. Scrape the dried skin from the gourd using fine sandpaper, steel wool or a small, sharp knife.
Once your gourds cure, it’s time to get your gourd on by turning them into bowls, containers, birdhouses or whatever you fancy. Explore your creative side by decorating, carving, shellacking or painting these amazing autumn fruits.
Hard-shelled gourds are broken into divisions: long gourds, such as dipper, snake or club; kettle gourds, like goose-in-the-neck, bottle or canteen; and other gourds, including pear, Mexican bottle or cannonball. All are Lagenaria gourds.
The most popular gourds for beginner artists are Martin or kettle gourds, according to Bitler. Shaped like a pear with a large round bottom and pointed top, kettle gourds can be easily made into birdhouses. You can also cut off the top to create a vase or cut lower down the gourd to turn it into a bowl, he says.
Chinese bottle gourds have a snowman shape and can be turned into birdhouses as well. Dipper gourds have long, thin necks and bulbous bottoms, which can become spoons or musical instruments. Cannonball gourds are small and round and can be turned into lights if you cut off the bottom and hang a light fixture through the top.
Canteen gourds are round, flat and perfect for conversation pieces when stood on their sides, cut toward the top, and hinged to make handbags or storage containers. “Part of the artistry is how you can cut these into different shapes, how you take nature and keep it beautiful,” Bitler says.
Fashion smaller mini-gourds, like Tennessee spinners or egg gourds, into jewelry or ornaments for trees and windows using colored pencils and tempera paint.
Find more inspiration and details on working with gourds at the American Gourd Society, americangourdsociety.org.