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Gourd Times

Is this versatile fruit the black sheep of the cucurbitaceae family? Or the pumpkin's cute little cousin? You can see for yourself at this weekend's Artistic License Fair in Costa Mesa.

October 31, 1998|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Before steel utensils, plastic pitchers and glass bottles, there were gourds. With these durable, versatile fruits, our ancestors created eating utensils and dishes, water containers, storage vessels and even musical instruments.

Today, many of these same gourds are used to make pieces of art or as decorations for the holiday season.

Gourds are members of the cucurbitaceae family, which includes the pumpkin. There are three main types:

* Hard-shelled gourds, known as Lagenaria, are the variety that has been grown and dried throughout the ages on just about every continent.

* Ornamental gourds (Cucurbita pepo) can be found in the stores this time of year. Known for their dramatic colors and shapes, these are the gourds that adorn holiday baskets. Some ornamentals dry, but their shells are thinner than hard-shelled types.

* The third type of gourd is the luffa, from which luffa sponge is extracted.

Though we primarily use gourds as decoration in the U.S., they have a variety of functions in other countries, says San Juan Capistrano gourd artist Lynne Everett, whose gourd work can be found at the Artistic License Fair fine crafts show this weekend in Costa Mesa.

"In other countries, gourds are still used as food and water vessels, as instruments and for religious services," says Everett, who also teaches gourd-crafting classes.

Gourds are found all over the world, but Southern California is one of the best places to grow them, says Doug Welburn, co-owner of the Welburn Gourd Farm in Fallbrook, which grows about 100,000 gourds a year. The farm is open to the public and sells gourds through mail-order.

"Gourds are like squash," Welburn says. "They like hot weather and a lot of sun."

It's time to harvest gourds. Ornamental types can be used right away, but hard-shelled gourds must be cured for several months until dry and ready for use.

Many ornamental gourds can be found at the grocery store and farmers markets. Hard-shelled gourds are available through gourd suppliers.

When shopping for ornamental gourds for holiday decorations, look for ones that are firm, says Tom Baal, co-owner of the Tree Mover Tree and Gourd Farm in Palmdale, which provides mail-order dried gourds. "Never get a gourd that is mushy because this indicates rot," he says.

To keep ornamental gourds in good shape throughout the holiday season, Ball offers a few tips:

"Keep the gourds away from heat sources because this will dry them out and cause them to rot," he says. "To preserve them for special occasions, they can be refrigerated and removed a couple of days before."

To prolong the life of your gourds, dunk them in a mild bleach solution and wipe them dry. This will minimize the growth of mold, which is what causes gourds to rot.

Planting

Now is the time to choose seeds for spring planting. Keep the following in mind:

* For early planting, start gourd seed indoors in seed-starting mix in February. To soften the hard outer coating, soak overnight, but no longer, before planting.

Plant 1 inch deep and cover with plastic wrap until the seeds germinate. Then place seedlings in full sun until they have four true leaves (about four to six weeks). Then they can be planted outdoors.

* Gourds can be planted in March, April or May in a sunny, warm area. Plant them on a mound and allow them to sprawl, or to conserve space, grow on a trellis.

Many of the long gourds do much better when allowed to hang. If the gourd is a large, heavy variety, it will need a very sturdy trellis. Gourds require a lot of growing room, so give them space.

* Once plants are established, water frequently, but be careful not to wet the leaves unnecessarily.

* Fertilize at planting and once or twice during the growing season with a well-balanced fertilizer.

* Watch for pests such as cucumber beetle and mildew, but be cautious about how you treat them because hard-shell gourds are night bloomers and depend on night moths for pollination, says Welburn. He says to pollinate the gourds yourself if you're not getting fruit. Pollinate the female flowers with the male flowers, which have a longer stem.

Ornamental gourds are day bloomers and generally have no difficulty with fruiting.

* Gourds will produce vines and then fruit, which will grow throughout the summer. Don't harvest until late fall when the vines die back because green gourds will rot instead of drying.

* Use ornamental gourds as soon as you harvest. Hard-shelled gourds must be cured. This requires drying them in a well-ventilated spot outdoors and off the ground for about three months. A location with morning sun is best. The gourds will have dried by February or March. The seeds should rattle when you pick the gourd up.

* Many hard-shelled gourds develop a black mold on the skin while curing. Use a mild bleach solution to remove.

Sources:

* Lynne Everett can be reached at (949) 728-0269, or e-mail at rleverettocsouth.net

* The Artistic License Fair is today and Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. at Estancia Park, 1900 Adams Ave. Admission is free. (909) 371-6507.

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