Judging by the number of calls coming into Hortline this year, Iowans must have grown a record number of gourds. That shouldn't be surprising since gourds are among our oldest and most useful domesticated plants. They vary from the luffa sponge used for bathing and cleaning to the long handled dipper gourds. They are used for everything from bottles to fishing floats, from seed containers to musical instruments.
Gourds must be fully mature in order to dry or cure successfully. Unfortunately, it's not always easy to tell a mature gourd from an immature gourd. Therefore, many gardeners harvest all gourds and toss the ones that begin to turn black and rot. With the earlier than normal frost much of Iowa experienced this year, we may have many more immature gourds than what we want. Curing is the gradual evaporation of water within the cells of the gourd. Since most gourds contain over 90% water, the curing process takes 4 to 5 weeks to several months, depending upon its type and size. During the curing process, the thin outer skin of the gourd dries and hardens. The fleshy, internal part of the gourd also dries during the curing process.
When the seeds rattle inside, the gourd is ready for transformation into whatever you desire. Using steel wool, copper pot scrubbers, and increasingly fine sandpaper, remove the outer skin revealing a smooth glossy finish. This can then be painted, burned, carved, drilled, stained or waxed. Gourds can be treated like wood and woodcarving sets are excellent tools to use. Use graph paper to help create designs and then transfer the design onto the gourd by placing carbon paper behind the completed design and tracing.
Another way to craft gourds is to cut into the hard outer layer to reveal the light colored inner corky layer below. This creates a color contrast that is very interesting. This inner layer can also be colored using wood stains, fabric dyes, or leather dyes to create almost any color gourd you desire. After painting or staining, a three color contrast can be created by cutting into the corky layer again to reveal the cream color.
Recently I've seen interesting Christmas crafts made from gourds including trees, wisemen, and santas. Your family may want to extend the carving season for jack-o lanterns to gourds for the upcoming holiday season.
This article originally appeared in the October 13, 1995 issue, p. 141.