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One of my first childhood gardening memories is growing gourds.

They are an excellent project for the children (and those young at heart) in your household. It also doesn't hurt that you can grow bushels of gourds for a fraction of the price of buying gourds for fall decorating.

All gourds belong to the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes familiar vegetables like cucumbers, winter and summer squash, pumpkins and melons. They grow as vines and, like other members of this family, produce separate male and female flowers on the same plant. Gourds fall into one of three groups: the Cucurbita, the Lagenaria and the luffa.

The Cucurbita group is often referred to as ornamental gourds. These gourds come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. They produce yellow flowers that are pollinated during the day by insects, much like other members of the Cucurbitaceae. The fruits are dried and are often used as fall decorations. These are the gourds most commonly sold along with pumpkins and Indian corn for fall decorations.

The Lagenaria group is commonly called bottle or dipper gourds. They grow in many different shapes and sizes. They produce white flowers that open at night and are pollinated by moths. These gourds have a wide range of practical uses, from containers to bowls, spoons and birdhouses. When dried, their shell is wood-like and easily painted, carved, stained or otherwise decorated.

A unique gourd in the Lagenaria group is the Zucca, a gourd cultivated in Sicily as a food source. They were grown commercially in the 1930s through the 1950s in California and British Columbia. Some of these gourds can reach sixty to one hundred pounds! They have no taste or flavor of their own, but take up added colors and flavors easily, and could be used to extend the life of products like jams and jellies, or even specially flavored as a stand-alone product. Zuccas disappeared from commercial cultivation in the 1950s, but an interest in heirloom crops has led to their resurgence in home and heritage demonstration gardens.

Early this spring while shopping for garden seeds, my son spotted a packet that he absolutely had to have – snake gourds. Turns out, they’re a cultivar of the Zucca. The seeds were a little tricky to start -- I had to nick the seed coat and soak them in water for 24 hours before planting. We ended up with one seedling surviving long enough to plant in our garden. And one was enough!

It grew like crazy and covered its trellis and the ground around it. My son excitedly tells everyone how he's growing snake gourds, and I must say, they are quite impressive. Not a hundred pounds like some Zucca gourds, but big enough for my five-year-old son to be quite proud of his gardening accomplishments.

The luffa group are known as sponge gourds. They require the longest growing season of all the gourds. Unlike the other groups, after this type of gourd is dried, the useful part is the interior, not the shell. The shell is discarded, and the interior is used as a sponge. You’ve probably seen luffa sponges for sale alongside other bath and shower products.

Generally speaking, all gourds have similar cultural requirements. They are warm season crops, so they should be planted after the soil has warmed and all danger of frost has passed. They all require a growing season of at least one hundred days, so starting seeds indoors is usually a good idea, even a necessity.

Gourds are vigorous growers and need plenty of water during the growing season. Fertilizer will encourage growth but choose one with lower nitrogen than phosphorus and potassium if possible. Too much nitrogen will encourage lots of leaves and vine to grow but may reduce the amount of fruiting.

Gourds are ready for harvest when their stems are dry and brown. For best quality, harvest gourds before frost, although gourds that are mature with a hard shell will survive a light frost. After harvesting, wash gourds with soap and water, then wipe them down with rubbing alcohol.

Luffa gourds are harvested when their shell is brown and dry and need no further drying. In fact, they are typically soaked in water after harvesting to remove the outer shell, exposing the sponge inside.

Completely drying gourds can take up to six months or more. Choose a location that ideally is warm with good air circulation. Damp cold locations encourage decay. Check the gourds often, and wipe off any mold that may develop on the surface with a 10 percent bleach solution. Discard any gourds that develop soft spots, as they are probably decaying rather than drying.

I have grown the three different types of gourds at one time or another. They all tended to take a while to get going in the garden, but once they did, the yields were typically high. The challenge in the fall was finding somewhere to dry them out for later use in craft projects.

If you haven't grown gourds in your garden, consider planting some next spring. Tuck them in a corner where they have a fence or trellis to climb or even the compost pile! By the time fall returns you'll have plenty of gourds for all sorts of decorating and crafts.

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Jennifer Schultz Nelson shares practical ideas and information to bring out the gardener in everyone in her blog at www.groundedandgrowing.co.

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