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Gourd martin houses
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Lagenaria siceraria

Hard-shelled gourds (Lagenaria siceraria) have been cultivated by humans for a very, very long time. So long in fact that no definitely wild gourd has ever been found in nature. Plant geographers are unsure of this plant's original homeland (though they suspect it's Africa), its wild progenitors or exactly how long humans have been growing it.

Gourds are used worldwide - from highland New Guinea to the Peruvian Amazon. Indians in the Illinois River valley were growing them 7,000 years ago. Mammoths were eating them in Florida 10,000 years ago. And while they have no definite proof plant geographers believe they've been cultivated by our species for a minimum of thirty thousand years - making it by far the oldest cultivated plant on earth.

Varieties of Gourds

Every culture has had different specific uses for gourds and as a result a bewildering assortment of gourd shapes and varieties have been selected. From the long, thin snake gourds to "caveman clubs" to bushel basket, bottle, rattle and apple gourds humans have been modifying this versatile and extremely malleable plant through the long millennia of our association with it. But despite the variety of different shapes the plant itself remained basically unchanged.

Uses of Gourds

Long before pottery appeared humans were using gourds to transport liquids, store seeds, house birds, and as fishing floats. Until the 20th century gourds marked the passage of our lives - they held the water that washed us clean at birth, sustained us with their utility through our lives, and accompanied us on our journey into the great unknown at death. They've been used as plates, cups, spoons, bowls, offerings to the dead, ritual rattles, and ornaments of all kinds.

The rise of plastic in the 20th century seemed to doom gourds to a position of irrelevance in the modern world. Plastic was cheaper, easier to obtain, unbreakable and, most importantly, modern. All across America (and the world for that matter) the familiar crop of gourds on the back fence or the privy disappeared to be replaced by plastic utensils.

But within the last thirty years gourds and gourd growing have experienced a renaissance. Craftsmen, artisans, gardeners, hobbyists and bird lovers have all discovered the satisfaction and fun of growing gourds. There are now organizations devoted to it and contests and exhibitions, crafts shows and gourd guilds have all sprung up as people have rediscovered this oldest of cultivated plants.

Growing Gourds

Growing gourds is ridiculously easy - if it weren't this wouldn't be the oldest cultivated plant on earth. Easier to grow than tomatoes and more satisfying than sunflowers all gourds need are light, water and soil. Gourds are an open pollinated crop which means that you can replant the seed from the previous year's crop and get the same harvest, provided no one is growing a different variety within a quarter of a mile of your gourds.

Assuming you don't already have a supply of seed on hand it can be purchased at any plant nursery. As for planting, well, just pick your spot and scatter the seed. It's best to bury it when planting but even this isn't necessary. Several Indian tribes believed that it would bring misfortune on those who actually planted gourd seed so they would "lose" seed in the appropriate spot where they wished gourds to appear. You can plant it (or "lose" it) in the fall (seeds will overwinter) or the spring - although spring is the preferred season and the first of May the optimum time. Just make sure you plant it next to something the vine can climb on - a fence, a trellis or a low growing bush. Once it's planted just wait. The seeds should germinate in a week or so and then grow (almost) like Jack's beanstalk. When the delicate white flowers appear your gourds are on the way.

Gourds are dioecious - that is they have male and female flowers. It's the female flowers that produce the gourds but it's the male flowers that appear first - often preceding the female flowers by several weeks.. So if you don't immediately see a crop of baby gourds appearing on your vines be patient. In southern Illinois they begin to arrive toward the end of June or early July which is about the same time that their pollinators begin to appear in numbers - a large, night-flying hawkmoth.

Once the gourd begins swelling on the vine be patient and handle it as little as possible. If the skin is nicked at this tender stage the scar made will persist to maturity. Some people use this technique to decorate their gourds on the vine. However if you wish a smooth, blemish-free fruit try to avoid injury to the babies.

To maximize the size of your finished crop limit the number of gourds per vine to just two or three fruits by removing any extras that appear. Also water your gourds liberally since growing gourds is a lot like growing water balloons - the more water they receive during the growing season the larger the resulting fruits will be.

Harvesting and Curing Gourds

Your gourds will quit growing in September or October, depending on the weather. Cooler nights signal the plants to begin maturing their seed. When the gourd's stem turns from green to brown you'll know it's time to harvest your crop. Leave an inch or two of stem and snip the gourd from the vine and set it in a cool, dry place to cure. Alternatively you can leave them on the vine to cure through the fall and early winter but if you do you'll probably lose a few to wind damage. Whichever method you use your gourds will take several months to cure so, again, be patient. When the gourds are light and the seeds can be heard rattling around inside the gourds are ready for your attention.

There are as many uses and ways of dealing with cured gourds as there are gourd growers. For more information on techniques and uses visit specialized internet gourd sites or your library. Here we'll deal with the relatively simple (and traditional) method of converting your cured gourd into a birdhouse.

Making a Gourd Bird House

To do this just pencil a circle of the appropriate diameter on the side of the gourd and, using a sharp paring knife, cut out the circle. Then remove the seed mass from the interior. (This is best done outdoors to avoid the highly irritating interior dust). Save the largest seeds from your thickest shelled gourds and plant them next season. Using the point of your knife drill a few small holes for drainage in the bottom of your cleaned gourd, and you're in business - you've made a birdhouse.

Hang them around your yard (and your neighbors' if they're willing) 7 to 12 feet high and watch the birds set up housekeeping. For Purple Martins, hang them in clusters within fifty feet of your house and about fifteen feet from the ground. At the end of the season, just throw them away, since you've, hopefully, got another crop drying by then.

Optimal Bird House Hole Sizes

While any given species will occupy a cavity with the "wrong" sized hole, the dimensions given here will be more likely to be occupied than one with random diameters. Do not add a perch outside the entry as our native species don't require it, and adding one only makes them more attractive to alien species like English Sparrows and Starlings.

1"       House Wren
1 1/8" Bewick's Wren, Chickadee
1 1/4" Titmice, Nuthatches
1 3/8" Carolina Wren
1 1/2" Bluebird, Tree Swallow
1 3/4" Hairy Woodpecker
2"       House Finch
2 1/2" Flicker, Purple Martin

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The information on this page is tailored to Southern Illinois, Southwest Indiana, Western Kentucky, and Southeast Missouri

Copyright © 2003 Jim Jung
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