Growing Gourds in a Northern Climate
Northern Grow Guide by Peter Bell
Gourds are a member of the Cucurbitaceae Family. It is a very large classification that also includes squash and melons. There are two main types: soft shelled gourds, often referred to as ornamentals and hard shelled gourds.
Soft shelled gourds (cucurbita pepo) with their bright colours and unusual shapes are common in the fall at fruit and vegetable counters. They are used for decorations during the Thanksgiving season. Most of these gourds will wither and eventually become compost. Soft shelled gourds are relatively easy to grow in the north, generally taking about 70 days to maturity.
Spring – Starting the Season
To be successful in gourd growing in northern climates we strongly suggest that you start your seeds indoors. To reach maturity gourds require 110-140 days so we need to give them as much time as possible. Sowing directly into the ground will most often produce a final fruit that has not reached maturity and will eventually collapse and rot during the drying process. Our recommendation is that you start your seeds six weeks before your proposed plant date.
Before planting, gourd seeds should be soaked in pure water for 24 hours. Avoid using water that has been modified with a water softener. Gourd seeds are very thick and woody and this soaking will soften the shells and aid both the rate and the speed of germination. We suggest you use either a pot or pie plate and cover the seeds completely with water.
With small quantities of seeds consider sprouting the seeds between paper towels and place them in a warm and dark place. Always keep the paper towels moist (NEVER LET THEM DRY OUT). Once the seeds have sprouted transfer them to peat pots. For larger quantities sow seeds directly into peat pots after soaking.
Use good quality potting soil mixed with vermiculite and peat to improve drainage. Do not use garden soil as it will increase the likelihood of problems with weed, pests and diseases. Plant 2 seeds per 3” peat pot. The 3” pot is large enough to handle the vigorous root growth and will get you through to transplanting time. Any smaller pot may result in your seedlings becoming root bound and not growing at as rapid a rate. From our experience it is best to lay the 2 seeds sideways in the peat pots far from each other. Cover with 1/4” of soil. Water the soil well before and after planting. Keep the pots warm and moist in full sunlight or use a grow bulb during the sprouting period. Sprouting times can vary between 5 to 30 days depending on the variety and the thickness of the shells. Be patient and give them as much heat, light and water as you can.
Preparing the Soil
Hard shelled gourds are a heat loving plant and should only be planted in areas that receive full sun. Gourds are very heavy feeders and love rich composted areas. Gourds prefer a slightly acid soil (PH of 6 – 6.5). They require lots of potash and it is best to work in either potash or wood ash.
Do not plant until all danger of frost has past! Your seedlings are now anywhere between 6” to 18” in length. Water the seedlings well before transplanting. Space the plants at least 6 ft apart. Dig the hole deeper and wider than the plant requires and refill hole with loose soil. This will assist the roots into moving into its new environment. Water the transplant to assist the settling in process.
Once the plants have settled in they will start their rapid growth. At this early stage they require nitrogen and should be fed anything from a fish fertilizer, manure tea or commercial fertilizer. Plenty of water and the right amount of nutrients will encourage them to reach the desired length of 10 ft.
If the weather has been hot and sunny within 6 weeks of transplanting your gourds should be producing many flowers. Gourd flowers are white, night blooming and last only one night. They are plentiful throughout the summer.
In order to ensure a good gourd crop it is essential that you hand pollinate in the evening using a small paintbrush or Q-tip.
Fruit that is pollinated later than 8-10 weeks after transplanting is less likely to produce fruit that will reach full maturity.
Gourds are ready to harvest when the stems have turned completely brown. Even then we leave all our gourds in the field until we receive a killing frost.
Gourds will loose over 90% of their weight during the drying process. They require a great deal of air movement to remove all the water inside them. They are not affected by cold and freezing temperatures.
Most gourds harvested in late October are dry enough for crafting by the following May. Many will turn black and moldy. This is a normal part of the drying process.
Those that have not reached full maturity will collapse and rot.
Special thanks to Peter Bell of Northern Dipper