If you are looking for a long-term project to enthuse, enchant and educate children from summer into fall, purchase a packet of birdhouse gourd seeds.
For centuries gourds have captured the imagination and creativity of humans. It only takes one seed of the birdhouse gourd, Lagenaria siceraria, planted now to produce a 25-foot vine covered in flowers first and by fall a wheelbarrow full of large pear-shaped gourds. Cured gourds can be crafted into birdhouses for next spring’s nesting season.
Gourds need a hot sunny spacious spot to grow. Sow the seeds in mounds like squash and pumpkins, their next of kin, or directly in flat ground. Use a vertical structure like a fence, trellis, teepee or tree for vines to climb upward and keep fruits off the ground where they are susceptible to rot.
The Amish are bountiful gourd growers. They recommend preparing the soil well by digging a wheelbarrow full of composted manure into the ground under wherever gourd seeds are planted. This method self-fertilizes throughout the growing season. Otherwise, you will need to use an aromatic organic blend of fish emulsion and kelp fertilizer weekly.
Gourd seeds have a hard seed coat. Soaking seed 24 hours in warm water hastens germination. Plant seeds 1 inch deep, four to a hill or pairs of seeds 6 inches apart along a fence. Seeds sprout in 14 days and within a few weeks the vines take off rapidly with tendrils grabbing onto supports.
Water well at planting and continue to water thirsty gourds throughout the summer. Test soil moisture daily by poking finger into earth near each plant. Reduce watering when fall comes to harden off gourds.
When the vine reaches six feet tall, pinch the growing tip to shock the plant into growing lateral branches. The main vine produces only male flowers and pruning encourages the growth of females. If your goal is birdhouses, you must have female and male flowers on the vine.
Provide a hand lens so children can be on the lookout for the two kinds of flowers. Male flowers form first. The structure of the flowers provides clues to gender. The female flower comes with a miniature embryonic gourdlet below the base of the petals. Gourds are insect pollinated but young gardeners may help the process along by transferring pollen from the male stamens to the stigmas of the female flowers with an artist’s fine soft hair paintbrush.
Have children use a ballpoint or permanent marker pen to write their name on the skin of a young gourd. As the gourd grows so will the name.
Harvest time for gourds usually comes after the first frost but gourds may be ready to harvest before then. When gourd stems turn brown, they can be removed by making a clean cut leaving 2 inches of stem on the gourd. The stem acts like a chimney releasing moisture from inside the fruit as it cures.
Cure gourds atop a screen or palette or string them up to dry in the sun or in a dry well-ventilated shed. Gourds can take 6 months to dry. Dry gourds feel lightweight and when you shake them you hear the seeds inside.
The final step is to make the birdhouses. Soak gourds in soapy dishwater for 15 minutes and scrub with a copper scrubbing ball to remove mold and skin. Rinse and dry thoroughly.
Gourds attract cavity-nesting birds and the entrance hole size will determine whether nesters are wrens, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, bluebirds, woodpeckers or purple martins. For example, Carolina wrens need a hole size of 1.5 inches in diameter. Drill one entrance hole on the outermost face of the gourd. Remove and save the seeds from the inside for next year’s garden. Then drill two ¼-inch drainage holes in the bottom of the gourd. Drill a ¼-inch hole in the neck of the gourd to thread a wire for hanging.
As the gourd grows from seed to a vine with fruit, and fruit is transformed to a birdhouse with residents, children will have fledged in their capacity to sequence a series of changes to cultivate life in the garden.
Arlene Marturano is an educator, consultant, master gardener, and freelance writer. Read more of Arlene Marturano’s garden writings at suite101.com and www.scgardenlearning.com