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Friday, September 20, 2013

Homes for the Birds..Growing Birdhouse Gourds


 Gourds are perfect for a children's garden. Kids love to watch how fast the vines grow and crawl around, and once the little gourds start to grow, their progress can become a daily watch. It has been years since I had success like the above picture. I still don't know what was so different about that year but my son certainly wasn't complaining. That following spring it seemed we had birdhouses and scolding wrens at every turn.

Early autumn is that time of the growing season when heat loving garden plants start winding down. If you had planted gourds, most likely they were of the following types: Gourds of the Lagenaria family are hard shelled and very fleshy (about 90% water), Cucurbita gourds are the smaller ornamental types and Luffa gourds are sponge gourds. If your goal was to make birdhouses out of the gourds, then the type you want are from the Lagenaria family, averaging 9" to 12" in diameter.

Gourds are heat and sun loving plants, so don't plant the seeds until nighttime temperatures don't go below 55 degrees. Here in zone 6 it is best to wait until after Memorial Day to plant. 
Either plant the seeds around poles as pictured, or plant in hills, 4 - 5 feet apart, with about 5 seeds per hill. Once the seeds are established, thin the plants to 2 - 3 plants per hill.

If you have the space, gourd vines will be happy to crawl and climb wherever they please. If you have limited space, give them a hand by gently training the vines to climb some kind of support such as a fence, trellis or as in the picture, an old ladder.

Wait for the vines to wither and turn brown before cutting off the gourds. If your area is hit by frost before you get your gourds harvested, the hard shell types will be alright but getting them in before a frost is best. The thinner skinned types and even the thick skinned gourds, if not fully mature, will begin to rot after exposed to even a light freeze.

Cut the gourd off the vine leaving a 2 to 3 inch stem. If the stem breaks off, the chances of spoilage are greater. Be gentle so as not to bruise them.

Make a weak bleach and water solution and wipe down the gourds to clean off the dirt and kill bacteria. A 5% dilution would be to figure 5 parts bleach to 95 parts water. An example would be to mix 5 TBSP bleach with 95 TBSP water (about 6 cups).

Place the gourds in a well-ventilated area. This is where you will need patience. Small gourds can dry in about a month, but the large ones need up to six months to fully dry out. Don't store them in a cellar or basement where it may be damp or insufficient air flow. An outdoor shed, barn or attic is ideal.
You'll know when they are fully dry by shaking them. If you hear the seeds rattling around inside, you'll know it is dry.
Don't try to hurry things along by thinking that if you cut a hole in the gourd and scoop out the insides, it'll help. This will most likely just cause it to rot.
As the gourds dry, you'll notice the outside layer will begin to change color and peel. Don't be in a hurry to scrape this off. Just leave them alone. You can turn them once in a while but as long as there is good air flow it's not that important. 

If you had planned on saving some of the seeds for next year's planting, cut off the bottom of one or two with a serrated knife. Shake out the seeds, pick off the messy parts the best you can, and spread them out on newspaper, racks or trays. Ideally the seed should be spread out on a screen or something with a mesh bottom. You want good air flow and ventilation. Be patient with the drying process as it'll take several weeks. You don't want to store them before completely dry as moisture will result in mold and the death of your seeds. Periodically check on the seeds and stir them around. As they dry you'll be able to remove more of the bits and pieces still clinging to the seeds. 

Bear in mind the location you plan on using to store your dried seeds. There are two methods you can use:  

Put them into a paper bag or envelope and store in a dark, cool, dry location away from heat and moisture. The bag needs to breathe so don't use plastic. If stored in a sealed plastic bag there is the risk of condensation from moisture and heat. Seeds stored properly have a good germination rate that will decrease at about 10% per year.

The other method of storage is refrigeration or freezer. This eliminates the three risks to seeds which are heat, air and the problem of condensation. The deterioration process is halted and seed can last for years with little drop in germination rates. Put the seeds in ziploc plastic bags or tightly sealed containers and store in your refrigerator or freezer till needed. In the late spring when you pull out those seeds, don't take more than you plan to plant at the time. You don't want the seeds defrosting and then putting those you don't need back into the cold. 

Keep in mind that only seeds from non-hybrid gourd varieties will produce plants true to the originals. Also, gourds cross-pollinate between different varieties of squash, so only plant one type if you are planning to save seeds.

In the early spring months the returning birds are scoping out areas for ideal nesting sites. By that time it is time to clean up and hang up the now dry gourds that hopefully weren't forgotten. Wrens, in particular, like a swaying birdhouse and most likely will check out several of these gourds before making a choice.

Your gourds have been drying for 5 - 6 months and if they made it through the winter without rotting they should look like this picture. They will be very light in weight, the seeds will rattle, and the outside appearance will look like dried, flaky mold spots. Just take a wire brush or sandpaper and brush this off until it is nice and smooth.

Take a serrated knife and cut out a hole about midway from the bottom with a diameter hole size of about 3/4 - 1 inch. Poke additional little holes or small slits into the bottom of the gourds for drainage. Using an ice pick, poke holes through the top near the stem so that you have two holes, one on each side. Now take a crochet hook and poke through both of these holes. Loop a length of about 12 inches of weatherproof cord rope around the hook and pull back through these holes. Now your cord rope is through the birdhouse and it is ready to hang. Be sure to hang these birdhouses at least five feet above the ground to be out of reach of nosy predators, such as cats.

It is difficult to clean these types of birdhouses after the season is over, so I don't even bother. Usually after one or two seasons, they either have fallen, have woodpecker holes in them, or they become a home to a mouse or a bees nest. I never cared since I try to have a fresh batch of gourds each spring.

Have fun!