The final product after the gourds have been grown, harvested, and painted.
PHOTO: GORDON SOLBERG
You might not have thought so, but gourds are actually an ideal cash crop for the small-scale gardener/farmer: You not only got the pleasure of watching the colorful "fruits" grow, but — if you're at all artistically inclined — you can also paint the mature gourds and sell them for as much as $15 each. (When you consider that a single vine can produce 30 fruits in a season, you can see that you've got a potential moneymaker on your hands.)
There are two main varieties of gourds: Cucurbita and Lagenaria. The first kind — the cucurbits — are the small striped or warted ones that you see strung up with Indian corn in the fall. These fruits, which are closely related to squash and pumpkins, have thin shells and bright colors that quickly fade. You can sell them at the local farmers' market in the autumn and make enough profit to pay for your Thanksgiving dinner, but the selling season for the cucurbits is short and the price per gourd is low.
We make our $15 objets d'art from the other variety of gourd, Lagenaria. Those hard-shelled beauties have traditionally been used to make canteens, storage vessels, and water dippers ... you've undoubtedly seen them many times. The fruits grow on long vines that have large, saucer-shaped leaves and fragrant white flowers which open in the evening.
You can purchase seeds of the more common Lagenarias (such as Birdhouse or Dumbbell) through any seed catalog. (A packet of 50 seeds is enough to grow over 1,000 gourds.)
For best results, the soil where you intend to plant the seeds should be rich and well-drained. (Dig a wheelbarrow-load of compost into the ground where each vine is to grow, and you'll be sure to have a bountiful crop.) Also, the plants do their best when they're grown on trellises in full sunlight. (The vines will produce a crop if they're shaded part of the day, but they'll give you a lot more fruit if they're allowed to pack in those rays from sunrise to sunset.) Make the trellis large — about 10 or 12 feet of trellis per plant is adequate, although the vines can grow 30 or 40 feet — and above all, make the support strong ... unripe gourds are heavy! (If you've got a fence or a dead tree on your property, you won't have to make a trellis at all: Lagenaria vines will climb any object that they can wrap their tendrils around.)
Plant the seeds an inch deep after all danger of frost is past. I sow about four seeds in a hill and space my hills at least eight feet apart, then thin the seedlings to one strong plant per hill a week or two after the tiny green shoots have poked up through the ground. (A single healthy vine will produce more gourds over its life span than several small ones growing in the same area.)
Within a couple weeks of the time the seedlings break into the sunlight, the vines will begin to grow at an incredible speed. They'll branch and rebranch, form tendrils, and start up the trellis, and then the first flowers — the long-stemmed male blossoms — will form. Female flowers will follow shortly (you'll recognize them by their shorter sterns and the embryonic gourdlets hidden below their petals).
Of course before gourds can begin to form, the male flowers and the female flowers have to get together somehow. This is normally taken care of by late-working honeybees or moonlighting moths, but if nightflying insects seem to be scarce in your area, you can always help fertilization along by breaking off a male flower and rubbing it against several female blooms.
From this point on, you have to make sure that your plants don't go thirsty. A gourd vine — with its dozens of platter-sized leaves — transpires (or "sweats") an unbelievable amount of water during those dry, 100 degree midsummer days, and if it starts to wilt under the afternoon sun, you can kiss part of your crop goodbye since the smallest gourds will dry up and fall off.
Unless you got a heavy rain at least once a week In the summer, then, your vines will have to be irrigated. This is a simple matter, though: Just use your hoe to build a low 6-feet-by-6-feet dike around the base of each plant, and fill the 36-square-foot area with about 2 inches of water once a week (or more often, if the plants' leaves start to go limp during the hot part of the day). By fall, you'll have a bumper crop for sure.
We usually harvest our gourds after the first autumn frost. (The cold air causes the plants' leaves to shrivel up, exposing the fruit.) You can harvest your crop earlier than this if you want, however. You'll recognize the mature gourds by their matte surface and dull-green color. (Immature gourds are dark green, shiny, and covered with "down.")
The next step is to let the gourds dry out. We start curing ours in the sun on our porch roof until we can get around to bringing them indoors, then we  pierce the stems with a nail,  string the fruits together on a wire, and  festoon them from the ceiling next to the heater. About four months later, they're bone-dry and ready to be converted into $15 "works of art." Here — briefly — is how we work that conversion:
First, we select a symmetrical, blemish-free gourd and cut off its top with a hacksaw. (A regular carpenter's saw will do the job — if it's sharp, that is — but we prefer the narrower cut that a hacksaw makes.) Next, we take a stick and ream all the seeds out of the gourd. (Our goats and chickens consider these a delicacy.) Then we sand off the shiny outer skin since paint adheres best to a slightly rough surface and smooth off the saw cut at the top of the gourd.
At this point, Judy begins to paint her design(s) onto the gourd carcass using acrylic paint. When the acrylic is dry, we cover the gourd with a coat of low-gloss varnish to bring out the paint's colors and the gourd's texture. And — finally — we sell it.
The selling of art objects — as we've learned so well — is an art unto Itself ... unpredictable, frustrating, and (occasionally) lucrative. Judy sells her gourds by several routes: to individuals (for $10 to $15), to gift shops outright (for $7.50 to $10), or on consignment (for $17.50 to $25, minus a commission to the store of 40 percent).
There's money to be made from gourds, all right. It's not a regular source of income by any means, but we aren't choosy. Income's income as far as we're concerned. And gourd-dealing is one of the more pleasant ways of making a part-time buck that I can think of.
So how 'bout it? Why not put a little extra fun in your gardening (and extra money in your pocket) this summer? You can if you grow gourds!
Gourd Growers of the World, Unite!
Every gourd grower should know about the American Gourd Society, P.O. Box 2186, Kokomo, IN 46904. The Society publishes a quarterly magazine called (that's right) The Gourd, which tells of the experiences of gourd raisers, discusses gourd shows, and lists sources of seed. The subscription price is $7.50 per issue.
The Society also puts out a number of lowcost bulletins on the finer points of gourd raising: hand pollination, the training of vines, etc.