How to Plant and Grow Ornamental and Hardshell Gourds

Most gardeners have had a go at growing zucchini (known as courgettes or marrows, where I’m from) or pumpkins at one point or another. But for some reason, I’ve found that far fewer people have tried their hand at growing ornamental gourds.

A group of winged ornamental gourds freshly harvested from the garden.

And there’s really no good reason for this! Gourds also come from the Cucurbitaceae family, so if you can grow one species, you should be able to grow them all.

These vegetables (and yes, they are veggies) are beautiful in their own unique lumpy-bumpy way, and nothing says fall like a beautiful bumper crop in the garden. In fact, they are so beautiful that many gardeners grow them purely as a decorative crop, just to spice up their plots in the fall, and add a touch of color to autumn holiday table settings and arrangements.

What’s more, they store easily in a cellar or cold room throughout the winter months, providing delicious and nutritious gourd-ness for your family all winter long.

And the fun doesn’t stop there! Certain varieties can also be dried and used for making a whole host of creative crafts, from musical instruments to birdhouses, providing fun for the whole family.

Here’s what to come in this article:

Read on to find out everything you need to know about growing gorgeous gourds!

Cultivation and History

Gourds refer to some of the fruits of some flowering plant species in the family Cucurbitaceae, notably Cucurbita and Lagenaria. They grow in USDA hardiness zones 3-10.

The earliest species of gourd, L. siceraria or the “bottle gourd”, is thought to originate from Southern Africa, although it seems from the DNA record that two distinct subspecies were developed in Africa and Asia. It is thought to have been cultivated as early as 13,000 BC.

American gourds are thought to have come from the Asian subspecies, and it is likely that it was among the first domesticated species in America.

Broadly speaking, there are two main groups of gourd – hard-shell (Lagenaria) and ornamental (Cucurbita).  There is also one other genus, Luffa, the sponge gourd.

Luffa aegyptiaca or loofa gourd hanging from the vine.
The loofa or Luffa is a seperate genus under the Cucurbitaceae family.

Hard-shell gourds include the speckled swan, bottle, dipper, penguin and powderhorn varieties, of which the bottle gourd is the most commonly cultivated. They produce beautiful, white flowers on their vines and either green or mottled fruits which come in a whole host of shapes and sizes.

A large hard shell bottle type gourd hanging from the vine. It's starting to turn from green to tan as part of the drying process.
A hard shell or bottle type gourd from the genus Lagenaria.

These are the kind that are typically dried after harvest, at which point they turn a soft tan color, although they are also edible when immature.

Once dried, they can be kept indefinitely and have been used for centuries for a range of creative crafts, from making musical instruments such as maracas, to more practical uses such as fashioning bottles, bowls, and even birdhouses. In fact, even the genus name Lagenaria comes from the Latin word for ‘bottle’ or ‘flask’.

Gourds in the genus Cucurbita showing wildly different colors and patterns.
The fruit for the gneus Cucurbita and species pepo are testment to the wild colors these type of gourds can be found in.

Cucurbita, on the other hand, is a genus of herbaceous vines in the gourd family which comprises 5 species known for their edible fruit. They go by the names squash, pumpkin, or gourd depending on their species, variety and location. They are closely related to pumpkins, winter squash, and summer squash, producing golden yellow blooms much like their close cousins.

Their blooms mature into a range of colourful fruits, producing visually stunning yellow, gold, green, orange, and white vegetables.

Gourds found in the Cucubita genus can generally be found as cutlivars of two different species; C. pepo and C. maxima.

Propagation

From Seed

Far and above the easiest way to grow gourds is to directly sow them into the ground.

To sow these plants outside, it’s important to sow them after the last average frost date once the weather starts to warm up.

Gourds are typically grown in hills to ensure that adequate nutrients are available for these nutrient-hungry vegetables to grow and to maximize airflow and minimize humidity (to prevent disease transmission).

The best way to accomplish this is to dig a deep hole approximately 1 foot deep  and refill with a mix of either aged manure or compost combined with the soil, finishing off with a mound on top.

Don’t be shy about adding compost, as these plants need a generous helping of nutrients to keep them happy.

Seeds should be sown 1-2 inches deep in groups of 4 seeds each, spacing in groups 5 feet apart in rows spaced 8 feet apart. Seedlings should then be thinned to 2 or 3 in each group once leaves develop.

A gourd seedling emerging from dark, rich garden dirt.

One top tip when sowing these seeds is to plant them edge-down. Planted this way, water will run down the sides of the seeds, thus reducing any risk of rotting. If you’re choosing to sow your seeds directly, be sure to check out the section below for more details on the best planting conditions.

You can also opt to start your seeds off early to make sure they get off to a flying start. However, the main disadvantage to this is that gourds have very delicate roots that are easily damaged during transplantation.

Gourd seedlings growing in peat pots in a planting tray.

A good way to avoid this is to grow them in peat pots, and, when the time comes to transplant them, plant the entire pot with the gourd plant inside of it.  The roots of the plant will have no problem working their way through the peat pot.

To do this, sow your seeds early to mid-April, either in a heated greenhouse or a propagator, set at 60-65°F (15-18°C) for best results. This will get help your gourds grow vigorously and be well established by the time it comes to plant them out.

A young gourd plant in dark, rich garden soil.

You can expect seeds sown in this way to germinate within one to two weeks.

If you don’t have the option of sowing in heated conditions, but still want to start your seeds off early, sowing can be delayed until early May. However, plants produced this way will be more about quality over quantity – in essence, they might not  be quite as bountiful as those sown earlier on, although they will still produce good fruit

Most gourds that grow to maturity are pollinated during this time. Sown this way, germination will also take longer, about 10 to 21 days.

Seeds should be sown edge down at approximately the same depth as the size of the seed.

Sow each seed into an individual 3½-inch pot half filled with a soilless multi-purpose compost mix, which can then be topped up with extra compost as needed to provide more stability and encourage root growth as the seedling grows.

Once the seeds are sown, water well with a fine spray.

Gourds want to put out deep stem roots, so as soon as your baby plants are well established but before they become root bound, be sure to transfer them into a larger container about 5 inches (13 centimeters), deep.

Transplanting

Seedlings should be planted out when they have developed 4 true leaves. To prepare them for the big move, be sure to harden them off for 1-2 weeks before planting, providing gradual exposure to gentle winds and colder temperatures outdoors.

Top down view of gourd seedlings in styrofoam cups.

Plant each seedling 1-2 inches (2.5-5 centimeters) deep, so that the bottom two leaves are sitting just above the soil surface.

If you have chosen to trellis (see below for more details about how to do this), plants can be spaced 18-24 inches (45-60 centimeters) apart.

Warted and smooth gourds growing on a trellis made of rope.

To help your baby plants out, it’s best to secure each one to a bamboo cane. This helps to prevent them from getting a kink in their stems, which can slow the plants’ growth or, worst case scenario, cause them to collapse and die.

Be sure to give your plants a light watering just after planting, and then once every 2-3 days for the first week.

How to Grow

No green thumb? No problem when it comes to these plants!

Regardless of how green fingered (or not) you happen to be, these plants are extremely easy going and easy growing, which means everyone is capable of giving them a go!

Orange and green bicolor gourds growing on a trellis

Gourds are sun-loving vegetables, and they thrive in sunny spots with good drainage.

One thing to know about these plants is that they are greedy, rapidly gobbling up nutrients in the soil. They therefore must be planted in rich soil that has had plenty of organic matter added to it.

This means that it’s a good idea to add a generous amount of compost or aged manure when planting. Adding a few handfuls of organic fertilizer before setting out your seedlings would not go amiss either.

However, if you do decide to give your gourds a helping hand, be sure not to use a high nitrogen fertilizer, as this will cause the leaves to bush out but will stunt the fruit’s growth.

Growing Tips

Although you can grow these vegetables on the ground, these plants will sprawl in every direction and take up a lot of space. If you’ve got a lot of space to spare and are planning to this, make sure to plant them 3-4 feet (90-120 centimeters) apart.

A cluster of orange gourds growing on the vine.

Another easy and space-saving way to grow gourds is to trellis them, training their stems up wires or over a framework. This is great both for space saving and for protecting your gourds from insects and keeping them clean.

Trellising also ensures that your gourds will grow into an evenly round shape, rather than flat on one side as they will grow on the floor.

Gourds are natural climbers, and don’t require any training. The main consideration for trellising is weight. For heavier varieties, two sturdy posts with an upper and lower wire and garden twine woven between will support them. For smaller types, a wire cage (much like a larger version of a tomato cage) will suffice. You could also choose to place them near a sturdy structure that they can (and inevitably will!) climb up, such as a fence.
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Cultivars to Select

‘Daisy’

This one is a classic mix of cultivars found in Halloween, fall harvest, and Thanksgiving displays.

Coloruful harveted daisy gourd, top down view of nine specimens.

‘Daisy’

It includes colorful gourds in shades of orange, white, yellow, and green and porduces loads of small fruit measuring 2-inches by 3-inches.

Buy seed at Burpee.

‘Turks Turban’

‘Turks’Turban’ is another classic that’s popular during the fall for onamental uses but is also edible with squash like flavor.

Turk's Turban Gourd. close up.

‘Turks Turban’

This large, brighly colored variety has very flattened fruit with purple, orange, white, and green banding. The fruit measures 8 to 10-inches across and 4-5 inches in height.

You can find seed at True Leaf Market.

‘Birdhouse’

The ‘birhouse’ gourd is the most well-kown variety available for making birdhouses, martin-houses, and for other uses in crafting. This one has to be included in any recommended cultivar list.

A green-tan birdhouse gourd to the left that's been freshly harvested and second tan-brown one to the right that has had a hole cut in it to make it into a birdhouse.

‘Birdhouse’

Allow the fruit to mature as much as possible on the vine.

Seed packets are available from Eden Brothers.

Maintenance

These plants are often said to “thrive on neglect”, meaning they are very low maintenance plants.

As previously mentioned, it is not advisable to give your plants too much extra fertilizer, as this can be detrimental to their development.

The main thing that is really recommended is to cut the vines back once they reach 10 feet. This encourages the growth of side stems, where the female blossoms (which produce fruit) grow, therefore ensuring a bumper crop.

A cucurbita gourd female flower with a small fruit at the base fo the flowers.
A female gourd flower from the species cucurbita. Notice the little fruit forming at the base of the flower?

Gourds also produce male blossoms, which grow on the main stem, but these do not produce fruit. Cutting back the main stem therefore discourages the growth of these male blossoms.

Conversely, if you are aiming for a specific number of fruits per plant, or for fewer but bigger gourds, you can pinch or cut any remaining blooms and gourds from the vines once you have reached your desired number.

A male gourd flower in a garden.
The male flowers lack the small fruit at the base of the petals.

The best way to do this is by clipping them near the vine and discarding them. This will force the plant to put all its energy into the remaining vines and fruits.

Gourds are not especially greedy for water, although young plants especially will benefit from a light watering once a week whilst they’re getting established. Water about 1 inch per week, being sure to water at the base of the plant and never on the leaves, which damages the plant. This should be more than sufficient unless you happen to have an unusually dry spell.

Managing Pests and Disease

Other farily hardy, gourds can be attacked by various pests and disease. Since almost all fruit-producting vines with the name “gourd” belong to the Cucurbitaceae family, they all can be afflicted by many of the same insects and diesease that afflict squash and pumpkins.

Pests

Pests can include:

  • Aphids (various species)
  • Cucumber beetles (various species)
  • Cut worms
  • Pickleworms
  • Spider mites (various species)
  • Squash beetles
  • Squash bugs
  • Squash vine borer
  • Whitefly

The main thing to remember here is that any plant that belongs to the cucurbits family (i.e. gourds, squash, pumpkins, and so on) requires pollinators to be able to produce their fruit.

This means that any pesticides should be used very sparingly (or preferably not at all) to avoid interfering with pollinators.

Biological controls should be used first as part of an Intergrated Pest Management (IPM) program.

Insectidial soaps and oils as well as oragnic pyrethrum are the safestest organic insecticides to use around beneficial insects and other organisms.

Other organic control measures may include biopesticides like Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and spinosad.

One of the most destructive pests of gourds is the cucumber beetle.

Close up of a yellow and black spotted cucumber beetle crawling along a pine needle.
One of several species of cucumber beetle that attack cucurbits, the spotted cucumber beetle (Diabrotica undecimpunctata).

You’ll know if you are under attack by this beetle if you start to see small holes and wilting yellow leaves, and your fruits become stunted and turn yellow.

To avoid heartbreak and loss to the cucumber beetle, try covering your plants with row covers, to prevent this bothersome beetle from jumping from plant to plant.

Applying wood ash to the base of your plants is also an effective deterrent, as they really dislike the high concentration of nitrogen in this ash. Another great deterrent is diatomaceous earth, which you can sprinkle at the base of your plants every couple of weeks.

Diatomaceous earth is also great at deterring another troublesome beetle, the squash bug, which will make holes in your plants.

Diease

An unfortunate knock on effect of the cucumber beetle (and other sucking insects) is that it often brings with it bacterial wilt disease, carried along with the beetle as it goes munching from plant to plant.

A gourd vine infected by bacterial wilt that is slowly dying.
Cucurbit vine dying from bacterial wilt.

There’s no real cure for wilt, although one top tip is to rotate your crops and not to plant in the same spot two years in a row, to minimize the risk of disease.

Other diseases that affect gourds include:

Fungal

  • Alternaria Leaf Spot
  • Anthracnose
  • Bacterial Wilt
  • Cercospora Leaf Spot
  • Downy Mildew
  • Gummy Stem Blight
  • Fusarium Wilt
  • Powdery Mildew

Viral

  • Cucumber mosaic virus (CMV)
  • Watermelon mosaic virus (WMV)

Physiological

  • Blossom-End Rot

Various organic treatments may include applications of copper sulfate or application of biofungicides such as Bacillus amyloliquefaciens, Bacillus subtilis, Trichoderma harzianum, or Streptomyces lydicus.

Harvesting

Patience is the name of the game with these plants. Generally speaking, it’s nearly impossible to leave a gourd on the vine too long, but removing them too early will make them shrivel and rot.

A group of colorful ornamental gourds that have been harvested and placed in a woode crate.

Instead, you should try to resist the temptation of picking your goodies too early, leaving them on the vine until the stems and tendrils begin to brown. This will typically be around 100-180 days after planting.

A good indication that they are ripe for the picking is that your gourds will be lightweight, which indicates that the water inside is evaporating and the pulp is drying.

Storage

One of the best things about these fruit is how well they store.

Close up photo of various decorative gourds and pumpkins being stored in plastic mesh bag.

Provided you have a well ventilated, dry space, such as an attic, garage or barn between 55-61°F, these vegetables will take between one and six months to dry completely.

If you are planning to use your gourds as instruments or for other crafts, you will know they are fully dry and good to go once you can hear the rattling of dry seeds inside.

Get Going with Growing Gourds

Oh my gourd-ness! If you ask me, it’s safe to say there’s gourd reason to get going with growing this gorgeous fall crop.

Have you had any experience growing this gorgeous fall crop? Let me know what your favorite thing about this beautiful vegetable is in the comments section below!

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy:

© Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photos via Burpee, True Leaf Market, and Eden Brothers. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.

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About Natasha Foote

With a passion for soil health and growing trees, Natasha Foote is a biologist who was hit with a serious case of green fingers, and decided to swap sterile laboratories for getting her hands dirty in the soil. Formerly a farmer and researcher working with the agroforestry project Mazi Farm in Greece, when she wasn't working on the farm, she was busy studying soil biology under the microscope. Now, you can find her in the south of France where, in between enjoying all the fresh peaches, plums, apricots, and cherries that the area has to offer, she's working on various agricultural projects whilst writing about all things green.

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