Whether you plan to create birdhouses, vases, bowls or even jewelry, birdhouse gourds are a versatile craft medium which can be grown right in your own backyard.
Because of their longer growing season requirements, the seeds need to be started late April/early May. Fresh seed is important as birdhouse gourd seeds do not stay viable for much longer than a year. Germination takes about one to two weeks and nicking the hard seed shell and then soaking it helps. Use potting containers from which the seedlings can be easily removed without disturbing the roots when transplanting. The container must be large enough to prevent stunting the plants. If using a jiffy pot it must be cut in order to safely remove the plant as the pots do not rot fast enough for the rapid growth of the seedlings.
When all danger of frost is past, transplant into rich, well-drained and generously manured soil, preferably in a sheltered spot. The plants will need extra water in average years and can benefit from fertilizer if the soil is not rich. I have found that the south side of pallets set upright to create a fence worked well, giving a place for the vines to climb, although this is not a necessity. I put fruit sitting on the ground in an upright position, placing some straw underneath to establish a barrier against the soil to create a more uniform and unblemished base. Make sure there is extra vine looped near so that as the fruit grows it will not become restricted to stand upright by the vine rooting into the soil past the fruit.
Not all fruit that sets will grow into gourds – many seem to get reabsorbed while in the early growth stages. The key to usable gourds is ripe fruit, as unripe fruit will collapse, shrivel or rot during the drying process. Mid-to late season, when the first fruits are well established and growing, remove all further blooms (both male and female), and trim the ends of all the vines to encourage faster growth and maturity. In areas with longer growing seasons this won’t be beneficial, and would only decrease the yield potential.
Leave the gourds on the vines until you can no longer protect them from frost. After removing the gourds, place them in a cool, dry location. They will take two to seven months to completely dry and make sure air can get all around them, moving them occasionally. Don’t be alarmed with the mould that will eventually cover the gourds as this is necessary to draw out the moisture through the shell.
To prepare the mouldy gourds for use, fill a large plastic pail or tub with warm water and add about 1/4 cup of chlorine per gallon of water. Immerse the gourds, adding weight to the top to keep them submerged as most will float. Soak until the mould is easily scrubbed off. (This could take from a few hours to several days.) A plastic mesh scrubber works well but don’t use the brass ones as they will cause scratches that will be visible when dry. Thin-fleshed gourds may dent but will become hardened once dried. After the mould is removed, drain and rinse well, making sure to allow the waterlogged ones to drain from where the water entered. Once again, place them in an airy spot to completely dry.
Once dry, the gourds are ready to create with. Birdhouses are one choice, and be sure to remove the seeds and debris from the entry hole. Whenever cutting or cleaning out the interior of the gourds, protect yourself from the dust as it can be quite irritating. If paint or varnish are used, make sure they are exterior- use products and expect the outside to peel after a season if the interior isn’t sealed as well.
Bowls and vases are other ideas. Thick gourds can be carved more deeply, but all can be stained, painted or burned with a wood-burning tool. Water- based stains work well, and when finished with shoe polish or wax, will mimic the look of leather. Acrylic, water-or oil-based paints followed with wax or varnish can also be used. Decoupage or ink are additional options. For the occasional crack, use regular wood glue, layering some on the inside if required to reinforce the seam. For vases, mix small pebbles or sand with glue and place in the bottom to act as ballast. Embellish with beads, string, braiding, cones, feathers, shells, etc. Get creative!
– Fern Reimer writes from Teulon, Manitoba