By: National Gardening Association Editors
In the world of vegetable growing, gourds have earned a secure niche. These members of the cucumber, melon, and squash family are grown for their decorative and utilitarian qualities rather than for their edible ones. The best known and most versatile are the hard-shelled gourds (Lagenaria siceraria), so named because their shells dry to a hard surface that can be treated for many different uses. These familiar, durable gourds are used around the world to make everything from containers and utensils to water dippers, smoking pipes, musical instruments, and works of art.
There are four main types of hard-shelled gourds. Basket gourds have large, bulbous bases and no neck. Bottle gourds develop two distinct bulbous ends with a constriction between them. Dipper gourds feature long, thin necks and a small bulblike base at the blossom end. Snake or siphon gourds have long, tubular necks and no bulbous base. Within each of these types are many variations, each with its own particular shape. Before you plant, decide which is the right kind for the uses you have in mind.
Growing Hard-Shelled Gourds
Plant and grow hard-shelled gourds as you would winter squash. The sprawling plants grow best in warm-summer conditions, requiring 120 to 140 frost-free days to mature. To grow these gourds to maturity where the growing season is 120 days or less, start seed indoors and use season-extending devices, such as floating row covers, in fall if necessary.
In cool-summer climates, preheat the soil with black plastic mulch four weeks before your last frost date, when you can set out seedlings. Start seedlings in individual pots indoors at the same time you set out the plastic.
Where summers are warmer and longer, sow seeds outdoors after all danger of frost has passed, in full sun and in soil amended with compost or manure. Sow two seeds in hills spaced 8 feet apart, or sow in rows with plants spaced 4 feet apart. The seeds have particularly thick skins; to hasten germination, nick them with a file before planting to help water penetrate the seed coat.
Cover the seedlings with a floating row cover, especially during chilly spring nights. Keep plants well watered. In warm areas, preserve soil moisture with a 2- to 4-inch layer of hay, straw, or leaf mulch. When the vines begin to run, fertilize with 3 pounds of 10-10-10 per 100 square feet of garden, or use fish emulsion. Once the gourds have set, don't apply high-nitrogen fertilizer.