Curing and cleaning gourds for craftwork is easy if you follow a few basic steps. Whether you want to make a birdhouse, a painted Santa Claus, a container, or etch one with a wood-burning pattern, all gourds require proper curing. Gourds usually will be fully cured (dried) by the next summer following harvest and sometimes as early as Christmas.
Proper curing of a gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) actually begins with growing the gourd. Gourds are in the curcurbit (squash) family, and like winter squash they store better if properly handled in the field. Gourds will develop a flat spot where they grow against the soil, and it is not always easy to prevent. Sometimes you can rotate them a little (vine and all) while they are growing, but be careful not to break the stem. Leave them growing on the vine until frost has nipped the leaves and the vines begin to die back. Gourds may rot if they are not cured 2 to 3 weeks in the field on the vines after frost has killed the leaves. Cut the gourds from the vine, leaving at least an inch of stem attached.
I prefer to store gourds up off the ground on a pallet with plenty of air circulation between them to prevent rot. Some folks advocate leaving them outside all winter, saying the freeze and thaw cycles helps cure the gourds. I have not found that to make a difference but I do think winter temperature ranges could affect curing and seed viability. The biggest thing that makes a difference for me in craftwork is the thickness of the gourd shell or rind. Some of the gourds I have cured have a hard shell no more than 1/8 inch thick, while the ones I prefer have been closer to 3/16 inch or more in shell thickness. The thinner the shell, the more likely a gourd will develop a soft spot that breaks or rots. Unfortunately I know of no way to determine shell thickness in green gourds.
You will know when the gourd has dried enough… it will be hard, very light in weight and if shaken hard, the seeds inside will loosen from the pulp and rattle. At this point, the gourd will have a very nasty looking mold covering the exterior. I generally scrape off the mold with the flat edge of a knife, and then use water and a Scotch-Brite® pad to clean it thoroughly. I avoid using any steel wool pads as they always seem to leave metal particles no matter how well I rinse. The moldy surface material will clog your sink unless you have a disposal and keep it cleaned out as you work. I clean my gourds outside with the garden hose. During curing, some folks wash the exterior mold off weekly with a 10% bleach solution, hoping to avoid a mottled surface color.
Cutting a gourd
Pulp lining the inside
Pulp and seeds
Once you have cleaned off the mold and the gourd has dried, you are ready to cut the gourd for use. A simple bored hole may be enough for a birdhouse, and a Santa may not need any cutting. For the gourd work I do, I need an opening so I can use the gourds as decorative containers. The hard shell is difficult to cut. I have used a Japanese pull saw, and also a rotary cutter in a hand-held dremel-like tool.
Once you have an opening into the gourd, you may extract the pulp and seeds. The pulp will adhere to the interior walls but it will pull away easily. It is difficult to clean the interior is when you only have a small access opening, so try some tools with a long handle. I have used clay sculpting tools (wooden handles with metal loops on the ends) with some (tedious) success. If I have only a small opening, I usually soak the interior overnight before cleaning out the pulp. If I want to save the pulp for making gourd paper sculptures, I dump the wet pulp through a kitchen strainer as I’m cleaning the gourd interior. If you want to save the seeds, soak the pulp and seeds and let them dry thoroughly in a single layer. Otherwise they tend to germinate before they dry.
In my experience with saving gourd seeds, I use the same criteria as for any seed saving. If the gourd has a thin wall that breaks out or rots, I see no reason to save those seeds to reproduce. Do bear in mind that gourds will cross-pollinate and unless you know for sure your gourds came from an isolated patch, the seeds you save may not produce gourds like the gourds you have.
Now that you have a cleaned and cured gourd, it is time to make something from it. For my own craft projects, all my gourds are painted. After cleaning and drying, I sand the shell and then add a primer. I have used leather dyes as well as paints; it is all a matter of personal preferences. Sometimes it may be months before the gourd itself suggests to me how it should be finished for use. However, once a gourd is cured and cleaned, it can be stored indefinitely without deterioration if it is kept dry before finishing.
Gourds, thin one broken
Primed gourds, ready to craft
For general and/or exterior use, the life of the gourd depends on how it is finished for use. There are gourds in museums that are thousands of years old; historically they were used for water or dry food and grain storage.
Photo Credits: All photos are copyright by the author, all rights reserved.
About Darius Van d'Rhys
I have a 'growing my own food' obsession that comes from my overlapping interests in cooking, nutrition and gardening. I am also a "teacher", a writer, a builder… and a craftsperson and... and… and many other things, LOL. In fact, I guess I am a generalist, and a Seeker.
I live in the southern Appalachian Mountains on a hillside with a creek in front, and drive a 15 year old truck I lovingly call “My Farmer’s Ferrari.”