By Vicki Spencer, Master Gardener
Pumpkins and gourds always make me think of holidays with my family. What fun would Halloween be without jack-o’-lanterns? And who can imagine Thanksgiving without cornucopias, gourds and pumpkin pie? In case you didn’t know, these popular uses are not the only way to have fun with pumpkins and gourds.
Although most of us buy carving pumpkins and pie filling at the store, it’s more rewarding to grow our own. Pumpkins and gourds grow easily in our area and require little care. Like squash, they can be planted as late as July and still produce a decent crop. The only problem is the sprawling plants can take over your garden if you are not careful.
When using pumpkins from your garden, don’t make the mistake that I did 40 years ago. I didn’t realize there were so many varieties and made a pumpkin pie out of a variety better suited for jack-o’-lanterns. It was horribly bitter and had to be thrown out.
Edible pumpkins are not just good for making pies; they are also good for soups and breads, and you can roast the seeds for a wonderfully healthy snack. Interestingly, due to the high fiber content, some veterinarians recommend pumpkin as a supplement for cats and dogs with digestive ailments or hair balls. I remember my grandmother used to feed raw pumpkins to her chickens. She said it helped with decreased egg production over the winter.
During the fall, many rural communities hold festivals, some of which are centered on growing giant pumpkins. Last year, Colorado’s state record was broken at Jared’s weigh-in with a 1,685.5-pound pumpkin. While you may not relish the idea of a 1,000-pound pumpkin in your garden, your family could aim for a 100-pounder with growing instructions found on the Rocky Mountain Giant Vegetable Growers website.
Like pumpkins, gourds are plants of the Cucurbitaceous family, and different species have been used for a variety of purposes throughout history. Some archaeological sites revealed gourds dating back thousands of years. In addition to serving as a food source, their hard shells and hollowed-out centers make them useful for water receptacles, tools and musical instruments. For example, luffa gourds make wonderful scrubbing brushes after removing the skin and pulp and bleaching the fibers. Other gourds can make wonderful arts and crafts projects.
Decorating gourds is a fun activity, but it requires several months’ advance preparation. First you must dry and clean them. You can leave gourds on the vine after they mature, but I prefer to bring them inside and hang them in onion bags to dry. Since they develop moldy brown spots, you should not keep them in your house around people and animals. The gourds I dry in my shed are usually ready by March. To test for readiness tap the outside and listen for a hollow sound or shake the gourds to see if the seeds rattle inside. Dried gourds are much lighter than freshly picked gourds, and that is why they are perfect for so many projects.
After drying, clean the gourds by placing them in a bucket of warm water with a wet towel on top. Several hours later, put on some rubber gloves and scrub with a metal scouring pad to remove the mold and the outer layer of skin. Remember to clean the stem, too. Next, place them in a dry area for a day or two.
The next step is to clean the interior, which is much like preparing a jack-o’-lantern. Cut a circle around the top with a utility knife or keyhole saw, and scoop out the seeds and membrane with a scraper. Let the gourds dry some more, then smooth the edges with fine sandpaper.
Once your gourds are prepared, the creative opportunities are endless. For instance, gooseneck gourds are perfect for making birdhouses. Drill a hole in the large part of the gourd, depending on the size of the birds you want to attract. (Western bluebirds like holes about 1-1/2 inches in diameter, while house wrens and chickadees need smaller holes, about 1 to 1-1/8 inches respectively.) Drill two or three more small holes in the bottom for drainage. You can paint the gourds any color or design and spray with clear varnish to seal. Finish by wrapping twine or wire around the gooseneck to hang it from a tree.
While there are many websites with information about building gourd birdhouses, I particularly like amishgourds.com where you can buy dried gourds if you don’t want to wait until spring to begin decorating them. Given their light weight, small ones are perfect for Christmas ornaments, and your family can have fun decorating them together.