before there was plastic there was gourds

For thousands of years indigenous cultures around the world have utilized gourds for water storage, dishes, dippers & cooking utensils, masks, hats, sponges, currency, all manner of music instruments, penis sheaths, cricket cages & bird houses, games, charms, pipes, flotation for gill nets, life preservers, & planters. Archaelogists have dated cultivation of bottle gourds in tropical Africa back as far as 40,000 BC. I met someone who had taken a world cultural history course taught from the context of gourds. The chinese are working on an AIDS cure extracted from trichosanthes anguina commonly known as snake gourd. Africans use their largest calabashes for small wash-tub like boats which they paddle around in to set their fishing nets. What a perfect example of the permaculture principle "multiple functions for the same element". It goes on & on & if you want to go with it, start growing them & soon you too will become a gourdhead. You might want to check out the American Gourd Society who if you join will send you an informative newsletter 4 times a year. (See address below)Joining is by the way very affordable.


There are two kinds of gourds. Ornamental or soft-shell gourds are cucurbita pepo (large yellow edible flowers.) This includes the varieties warty, canteen, crown of thorns, banana, spoon. These are the kinds you can find readily around Halloween & Thanksgiving time, in supermarkets, at roadside stands & farmer's markets. The curcurbita family as a whole is well known since it includes pumpkins & many kinds of squash. Some of these ornamental gourds will dry for keeping or craft, others just won't because the shell is too soft. I've done quite a bit of crafting with ornamentals (containers, rattles, parts for masks & gourd-marionettes) but you have to be very selective. Basically I squeeze the dried gourd fairly hard & if it cracks easily I don't use it. Or if I know I want to wood-burn a gourd I'll make certain by first cutting it open that its walls are thick enough &/or strong enough to handle the burning. Generally, though, in terms of durability, versatility & craftability, you're better off with hard-shell gourds.
Hard-shell gourds are lagenaria siceraria (smaller white flowers). Hard-shell varieties include Bushel, Indonesian Bottle, Birdhouse or Martin, Basketball, Trumpet, Maranka, Zucca, Dipper (long or short handled), & Sensai (small bottle). The lagenaria or hard-shelled are the premier crafting gourds. They're the big ones people make shekeres out of, & big bowls & long ladles. Sometimes you can find them at farmer's markets, but not as readily as the softshelled. I've seen lagenaria gourds whose walls (shells) are half an inch thick! They say in Africa there are lagenaria gourds big enough for a person to crawl inside of & sleep! People even make drums out of hard-shelled gourds. Many are suitable for carving, with shells dense & strong enough to treat much like wood: You can screw into them, hinge them, woodburn, drill holes, have all kinds of fun with a Dremel or similar high-speed crafting drill, cut them with a band saw or jigsaw, & sand them on a belt sander! I wouldn't suggest hammering a nail into a gourd, though.

seeds, planting, starting

every gourd has at least 100 seeds in it. plant the seed from a bottle gourd, get a vine full of bottle gourds, etc. ie they are "true to seed". (but see crossbreeding). if your gourd has frozen as many of ours do because of where we store them, then the germination rate of the gourd will be less, ie, only a small percentage of the seeds may germinate, maybe none (or maybe all). reliable seeds can be gotten from many growers. we often buy seeds from suzanne ashworth & from rocky ford. (see addresses below). one grower literally wears a sampling of seeds in damp papertowel wrapped in plastic wrap under his teeshirt for a week to see if they germinate before bothering to fill up his starter flats or pots. warmth & dark & moist is what seeds germinate in. the second they pop out they gotta be in light though, or they will straggle their way up to any available light & get skinny & scraggly. (this is true for just about all plant-starts).
In northern climates, getting a long enough growing season is the key to producing gourds that will mature & thicken enough on the vine so as to be usable for crafting. For the bigger gourds that usually means a minimum of 120 frost-free days. In Wisconsin, we start our seeds inside in late March or early April, soaking them overnight & then germinating them. (We also pray daily for the resources to build a greenhouse to extend our gourd-season further!) Gourds do not tolerate being root bound, so it is best to start them in larger containers, or if you start them in small containers, keep an eye on them & transplant them to larger containers if need be before it's time to transplant them into the ground.
We transplant them out after danger of frost is past (beginning of June here in Wisconsin) into raised beds well-prepared with manure or compost. They need good sun & a decent amount of water, but like squash they grow easily, "like weeds", like Jack & the Beanstalk's vine. One year we had a great harvest in an area whose soil was sort of sandy & pebbly, which gives me the impression they like good drainage. Don't grow gourds in the same place year after year, as it will deplete your soil of nutrients & encourage disease.


Note that all hard-shell & all ornamentals cross vigorously among themselves. No crossing will occur however between a curcurbita & a lagenaria, - different species. If you are growing a particular variety & want it to be pure you have 2 options. 1. Separate it from other varieties by a quarter of a mile or 2. Tape all the flowers shut & hand-pollinate it. (Each vine probably produces 20-50 flowers.) Being the anarchists that we are we don't worry too much about crossbreeding , & even enjoy the random variability among them. One year for example we had dippers (shaped like an exclamation mark) crossed with maranka (shaped like a dinosaur skull, with deep ridges or veins). The result was a wide necked dipper whose bottom bulbous part had weird ridges. Crossing isn't a good idea if you are trying to preserve the heritage of a special heirloom seed, ie., you won't be able to do it.

the plant, the vine, trellising

For the first 2 months of growth the vine is the main feature of the plant. Careful gourd growers will treat their crops to regular doses of manure tea or some other kind of organic fertilizer. But you have to be careful you're not just encouraging growth of the vine (foliage). We recently read that one lageneria plant produced 450 feet of vine. We've also read of a grower in Japan who got as many as 500 gourds on one plant! This is because he trims the vines when they are about 8 feet long to encourage fruiting rather than foliage. Some growers will prune all but one fruit away so the plant will put all its energy into it, which will of course maximize its size & health. That's how those record pumpkin-growers do it. Unfortunately, we can't tell you this from direct experience because every year we swear we're gonna try these techniques but then every summer we're too busy with a zillion other things to prune at the proper time.
Gourds can be trellised to make a natural fence, or grown up the side of a house to create a shade covering (natural air conditioning). We've let the gourdplants use trees as trellises in some cases. Gourds are vigorous enough to set out starters in the wild back 40 acres in fact & forget about them till harvest time. It is also possible to erect a framework shelter & quickly grow the vines over it. Think trellis-sculpture. The idea of biotecture is not new & there is even a man in Germany, Rudolf Doernach, producing designs. One note of caution when using gourds to cover a dwelling the ceiling should be high enough to allow the gourds to hang down without bumping your head!

in the garden

We have not had much success with companion planting gourds with other species. Because the vines are so vigorous they tend to suffocate everthing in their path. The vines have little corkscrew tendrils that magically wrap themselves around anything they can get hold of, even grass & chipping paint. So be careful where you plant your gourds: give them lots of space, or be prepared to go out almost everyday in the middle of the growing season to "train" the vines away from anything you don't want them grabbing on to.

the fruiting

Gourds, the fruit of the gourd plant, begin forming on the vines in July, at least in our climate. Since the hard-shells need the longer season, ornamental gourds like warties & crown of thorns usually produce first. What to do while they grow? Nothing in particular other than maybe feeding them water & manure tea & trimming the vines (see above). At first you may have to weed but generally they are quite hardy plants, especially if you've started them well in advance indoors, & they will beat out the weeds. We even tried growing them in little mounds dug right in the quack grass one year & they did fine. Just watch them grow!

gourd training

Expert gourd trainers do things like tie knots in gourds, grow them into shapes inside containers, & wrap ropes around them. We've not tried this kind of thing yet, after a few unsuccessful attempts at tying knots (they broke) but it is possible, & jim story is the man to learn it from. He's very involved in the american gourd society (he sends us a xmas card every year, sweet man!) & there are often articles or pictures about his trained gourds.
As the season goes on, you may want to train the vines in a certain direction (like away from your tomatoes, or you car. And you may also want to lift certain vines up high where the gourds on them will be able to hang (ex., if you are growing longnecked dippers & want the necks to be straight rather than curved, you'll have to make sure they hang in the air, & with plenty of space). Also if a gourd sits on the ground while it's growing, chances are it will have a flat bottom (not necessarily undesirable) or it will rot if its sitting in moisture (definitely undesirable) you can lift if up onto something, or put cardboard under it, or even set up netting of some kind under it & lift it up so it's not touching the ground.


We harvest ours sometime after the first frost. The vines die off & expose many of the beauteous fruits, begging to be picked. Don't yank them off, better to cut an inch or so up the stem. Now note that some people do leave the gourds in the field over the winter. I've seen this produce nicely cured gourds whose outside skin peels right off with your fingers & you don't have to worry about finding space for storing them. There are a few reasons why we don't do this. one, we like to put all our garden beds to sleep for the winter by pulling up vines & weeds, adding manure if need be, & winter-mulching. Two, there is good chance that the seeds inside the gourd will freeze & lose their viability. Three, those borderline gourds (see "drying") that just barely mature might rot from the freezing & thawing that happens in fall (especially here in the midwest these days, where october & november bring anything from spring- to fall- to winter-type temperatures. Four, we can't wait! Harvesting the gourds, setting them all out together as if for a huge family photo is one of the greatest joys we have every year.


All too often someone will say to me, how the heck do you dry those things, mine always rot & i have to toss them." WAIT! DON'T TOSS THEM IF YOU DON'T KNOW THE FOLLOWING INFORMATION! A mature Lagenaria gourd will eventually harden suitably for keeping. How do you know if it's mature? If the gourd feels soft, it is definitely not mature, keep it for a while to look at, or toss it into the compost pile or to some pigs right away. Look at the stem: if it's green, chances are the gourd has not matured & will probably not dry properly. If it's brown or even just partly brown, there's a chance it will be a keeper.
Sometimes you won't know if a gourd is mature enough to dry until you try drying it. If it begins rotting, make sure just what it is that is rotting: the outer skin will rot, this is very normal. But if the whole gourd is rotting through & through (which you will know because you will be able to poke you finger through it or squeeze it & feel that it is mushy or soft), then it will never dry & you might as well feed the pigs again. Some people drill small holes in their gourds to aid in the drying. I've heard this working but have never tried it.
What to do about the rotting skin? Don't worry about it. Some people wipe down their gourds while they are drying, using a little soap or detergent in water & using a rag to wipe off the mold. This will have to be done several times over the course of the drying period. I never do this because I find it a waste of time & because my gourds aren't drying in a place where I eat or sleep, ie, where the mold might bother me. Where to dry? As in drying any thing, find a place that is cool & airy. If it's too hot they will dry too fast, if it's too moist they will rot or take forever to dry. Check them every week or so if you have time: Move them around to air them, & remove any that are rotted all the way through. Also check for anthracnose (see below) & remove any that may be infected quick before it spreads.
Some people scrape off the skin while the gourd is still green. this is much eaiser than doing it after the gourd & skin have dried but I don't recommend it. When we have done so 4 out of 5 gourds have then dried too quickly & shriveled up.


The last few years many growers have been hit by anthracnose, related to anthrax which occurs in cattle. It is a soil born fungus which will cause the gourds to rot before the dry hard. 1991 was our first growing season at Dreamtime Village & we were excited to grow as many gourds as we could. [We had previously grew gourds in 4'x4' bins in the city.] We grew a lot of gourds & harvested them. We came into the gourdshop after they had been drying there for 3 weeks & they had turned into black pulp blobs. We lost all but one or two gourds. But this is how we learned. Rotate the plants every year or 2 to different locations. Since the disease is transmitted by rain splashing the soil on the leaves, we are mulching with newspaper & cardboard. This will create a barrier between the soil & the leaves. Some of the more traditional growers use several sprayings of sulphur to combat it.
Vine borer can also be a problem sometimes. Rotation & small screen tents over newly transplanted starters usually eliminate this problem. Powdery mildew is sometimes common on the leaves though I have never seen that this affects gourd production & quality.

cleaning gourds

I soak gourds first, immersing them under water for an hour or so (som people put them in garbage bags full of water) with a heavy weight. Then I use a hand-held wire brush to scrape off the skin. You can also scrape with a butter knife, a spoon, or even your fingernails. It's pretty hard to mar the surface of a hard-shell gourd, they're so tough not even wire brushing will scratch them. Soft shell gourds are a bit more delicate to clean & scrape so be more careful.

crafting gourds

Once a gourd is cleaned, you can start thinking like one. this may sound corny but if you can get into a zen state of mind, ask the gourd what it would most like to turn into. often the shape alone will speak to you: I'd like to be a container, or I'd make a great stringed instrument, or even , don't touch me I'm perfect as I am. Personally, I like having lots of gourds (boxes upon boxes) to work with. That way I can work from a different angle, like, I'd like to make a mask, which of you would like to be the head, which would make good eyes, nose, etc. It's also nice to have more than one gourd to work with because there's always a chance your gourd is less sturdy than you thought & it will break as you work it.


I use exacto pen-knives, with standard blades. When I cut open a gourd, as in making one into a container with lid, I score with the knife first, then go around that score line over & over until the blade starts to go all the way through with relative ease. If you force it, you might break it.
If you've got a fancy jeweler's retractable blade, you're lucky, try it. With some projects I cut gourds open with a regular table band saw. I've also carefully steadied a gourd in a vice between rags or foam rubber, & then cut into it with a coping saw. Be daring, creative, try different things. It's nice to keep a "junk" gourd around to try out things like cutting & woodburning on, just to see what works.


I feel that the moment a gourd is cut open is a sacred moment. I think to myself, no one has ever ever seen the inside of this gourd before, & what's inside has never never been exposed to the world outside ever before. A strange musty smell will reach your nose as you pull the part open & look inside. (By the way, watch out, gourd dust is nasty, even toxic to breathe. Wear a dust mask &/or do gourdcraft in a well-ventilated area.). Sometimes the seed casing & seeds will coagulate into one ball so you can simply pull it out & in those cases sometimes the surface inside will be clean. Otherwise, you can scrape out the inside out with a spoon or even your fingers, & if you want it real smooth use a brush bit for a dremel or sand paper or steel wool. SAVE YOUR SEEDS! Plant them the next year, IF it turns out to be a desirable gourd. (Desirable is a subjective term here in terms of aesthetics, objective in terms of is it a solid gourd with strong thick walls, was it mature enough to dry well, etc. Also, do the seeds look good & healthy enough to keep?) Throw out or compost the rest, or... [I am in the process of making a book-object using some fine silky "sheets" of the inner casing of a gourd, with gourd pieces for the cover.]


Regular wood carvers can work on gourds, as well as linoleum cutters, but with either you've got to have a very steady hand because of course you're not working on a flat surface so it's eay to slip. You'll have to gauge carefuly the thickness of your gourd; if you're working with an unopened one you'll just have to guess how thick the shell really is. I've worked them as thin as 1/8th inch & have been lucky enough to obtain & craft gourds with almost 1/2 inch thick shells.


I haven't met anyone who has tried woddburning gourds & not enjoyed it, even gotten addicted to it. The more expensive woodburners burn hotter & might be too hot for gourds, ie., burn right through them when you were just trying to make a surface design. If you've finished your gourd before woddburning, you might have to bear breathing the burning wax or varnish, yuck, so think about these things ahead of time.


Under certain circumstances you ight want to finish your gourd before, for example, carving it. If you carved first & finished later, the finishing medium might get in the grooves. Then again, if you say waxed a gourd, then your woodcutter or woodburner might slip more easily as you work. it's a trade-off, ifgure it out for yourself. Be experimental: that's how I learned almost everything I know a bout gourdcraft. Try shoe wax, beeswax, turtle (car)wax, varnish, linseed oil. Try acrylic paints, oil paints, one guy at the American Gourd Show beautifully colored his gourds with Crayola markers which he then varnished over.

gourd music

Mother Nature in her great foresight & ingenuity thought to store within most fruits & vegetables the seeds for their offspring. Most of these get eaten or tossed by all but the pitifully small minority of us who are hip to seed-saving, but most gourds are spared this fate by their inedibility. All the better for people like us who are prone to rattle, strike or blow anything which looks like it might make sound. Most gourds make natural shakers so long as at least some of the seeds inside come loose from the inner walls. So these most basic gourd instruments are naturally made but of course one could ornament them & call them hand-made. For a sharper or greater variety of sound, however, you can cut a gourd open, clean out the insides & replace with dried beans, seeds, pebbles, beads, etc. And since you've cut it open you might want to add a handle if your gourd doesn't form a natural one.

Another way to make a shaker is to string beads or seeds on the outside of the gourd using macrame type knots to create sort of a net of string & beads around the gourd body. Traditionally from Africa, these "shekeres" are held in one hand by the neck while the other hand lightly lifts the bottom with some fancy wrist work. Players also hit the bottom to accent the beat with a good thwack which resonates out the top if the neck has been cut. The first one I made (with plastic "pony" beads) is so loud it keeps up with electric bass, full drum set & saxophone.

Many varieties of gourds have a bulbous body & a thin neck. If you trellis them the neck will grow straight, on the ground it will usually curve. If you've had it up to here with the limitations of western music instruments & you start looking around for new ideas, gourds offer plenty. Stick a mouthpiece (brass or reed) on the (cut-open) end of a gourd neck & chances are you've got yourself a gourd wind instrument. Don't worry about being able to play a dylan song on it, just cut or wood-burn fingerholes wherever your fingertips touch comfortably - We call this tuning approach "hand-print intonation."

other ideas

Glue things to your gourds. Try seeds from inside them, or beads or feathers, you name it. Glue pieces of gourds onto gourds. Try cutting into a gourd all the way, making deisngs with negative space. Glue, hinge or attach more than one gourd together with leather. Drill holes & hang things from the gourds. We once made a gourd marionette with loops of wire attaching gourds to each other for moveable limbs. A man at the gourd show made his wife a gourd bra. Think big if you want. We'd love to build a shelter out of gourds some day! Take books out of the library for ideas. Look at what indigenous peoples from Africa, Japan, the Americas & other places have done. Go to the American Gourd Show in Mt. Gilead by all means, you'll be so full of ideas after a day there you'll become a gourd fanatic for certain. Subscribe to the AGS. Come visit us at Dreamtime & we'll share photos, special gourd issues of "Experimental Musical Instruments" magazine, our back issues of The Gourd, etc.


P.O. Box 274
Mt. Gilead, OH 43338-0274
(They publish THE GOURD (newsletter) which comes free with a membership in the AGS. The newsletter not only has cute & informative articles about gourd growing & craft but has classified listings in the back of people who have seeds for sale, dried gourds for sale, crafted grouds, etc. The society also sponsors the American Gourd Show which takes place the first 3-day weekend of every October in Mt. Gilead, OHIO, somewhere between Cincinnati & Cleveland.)

Rt. 1 Box 73
Wrens, GA 30833
[The largest single gourd-grower in the country, she grows 80 acres of gourds. She doesn't have a catalogue or price list. You simply describe what you want & send her $. For ex., I wrote once saying I wanted a gourd suitable for carving, of a 14-inch diameter, shaped like this (i drew a picture) & i sent her $10. i figured if she needed more $ she'd let me know & if it was too much she'd maybe send me 2 gourds. i guess it was just right because 4 days later i received the perfect gourd in the mail, well packaged & sent by UPS.]

5007 Del Rio Rd.
Sacremento, CA 95822-2514
(our favorite seed source)

Ohio State University Factsheet: "Growing and Curing Gourds in the Home Garden"with additional links to factsheets about cucurbitas & related pests & diseases.

ADDENDUM: A Letter to "The Gourd" that they never printed:

Dear Gourd:
Printed in your Fall 94 issue were a letter from an Ernest Lee of Minneapolis and a photo he sent of a gourd person hanging in a tower. We are the artists who erected that tower; it was on the Minneapolis College of Art & Design (MCAD) campus, & was done in conjunction with a McKnight foundation grant I received from Intermedia Arts in the winter of 1992-3.
In May '94 we thinned some young elms off a property down here in southwest Wisconsin, & drove them up to the Twin Cities where we constructed a 24-ft tower with the saplings, rope & nails. Before the three sides of the tower were tied into place, we prepared a large circle mound (planting bed) to line its perimeter. The ground we had to work with was so hardpan we had to hack it loose with a pickaxe! Of course we added much peat & sheep manure before planting a variety of soft & hard shell gourdplants we had started indoors back in February, as well as honeysuckles, cannas, & trumpet vines. Inside the tower we hung the human-sized "gourddess" I had made from eight dried hardshell gourds, the mask-like head adorned with locust pod hair. We drove a sign into the ground: "The First Appearance of Our Lady of the Gourd & Her Fertility." After just one hard day's work we were done & had to drive back home to work on our own gardens!
Five months later we returned to perform a unique harvest ritual entitled "The Reappearance of Our Lady of the Gourd & Her Fertility." Luckily the tower was still intact, & the gourds had done pretty nicely despite our absence, the questionable soil, & lack of real warm weather. They weren't abundantly fruitful, but there was the first cannonball we'd ever grown, and the first decent snake gourd crop we'd ever produced here in the uppermidwest, & some 2-3 foot mamoratas. Half of these I actually harvested as the last part of the performance ritual, climbing the tower to cut them down, dressed in a gold & purple hooded robe.
The first two parts of the performance are about the dark primordial chaos from which being arises. In the beginning I am a worm slithering in slimy nothingness, while torchbearers danced around the tower, summoning up the gourd deities. Then I become a seed groping to learn what I would grow into. I "change my skin" (costumes) & try on different "faces" (painted three-dimensional masks I had made out of gourds).
I dance with the "gourddess" hanging inside the tower; my elation leads me to cut the strings holding her up in it, & I dance & twirl with her before the audience amidst colored lights, smoke & fire provided by light engineer Patrick Mullins & pyrotechnician Steve Rife. Loud strange music previously recorded by myself & my partner Miekal And & adorned with live sounds from Miekal, helps set the underworldly tones throughout the piece. My interaction with the Gourddess gets out of hand: I lose myself, sit on top of her till her limbs break, offer her parts to audience members, & finally I don her white robe & become her! In the last part, our six year old son Liaizon Wakest, dressed in gold with a silver umbrella, appears through the smoke & takes the harvested gourds from me, carries them with utmost care into the audience as final offerings.
The themes & evolution of the performance were inspired by a book I've been wanting to share with readers of The Gourd for a long time now: Myth & Meaning in Early Taoism by N.J. Girardot (University of California Press). This book focusses on the gourd as the primary symbol of the universe in early Chinese mythology, especially as it represents "chaosmos" - the order inherent in chaos. Scholarly, humurous, cosmological, & etymological, the book likens the gourd to the cosmic egg (Humpty Dumpty!), the primordial soup, original nature.

Here is one of my favorite passages from Girardot's book:

Suspended from its umbilical stalk and coming to ripeness in the sun, the gourd must be prematurely separated from the vine, before the fruit has had a chance to harden & hollow itself, to allow rot to consume its flesh & seeds. After it has developed a brittle protecting shell & its withered epidermis has taken on a scaly, leprous appearance, it is only when its "cavernous belly" is punctured, cut, carved, bored, or broken that the ten thousand embryonic offspring are subject to premature disease, corruption, & death. Granting the kind of poetic & religious license that was so meaningful & dear to the Taoist saints who carried a suspended bottle gourd from a staffa as an emblem of their holiness, it may be said that the gourd, because of its emptiness, harbors the sacred powers of hibernation & longevity. Lagenaria seeds, in fact have been shown experimentally to retain germination viability after six years of floating in salt water within the gourd container. The bottle gourd overcomes a permanent uncontrolled or undifferentiated chaos in the world by returning temporarily to the original "ordered chaos" of buoyant emptiness that existed at the beginnings of all life. A gourd, in this sense, is the botanical equivaalent of the Chinese sacred tortoise whose hard shell mimics the cosmological structure of the universe & whose life is protected & extended by its yearly retreat into the formless mud of the earth.
Within the cultural sphere it is the cut & carved ornamental emptiness of the gourd that is the basis for the creation of the utensils of the civilizational order. Suspended, uncarved, & whole, the gourd is the Taoist model for mystical unity & naturalness; when carved, its utility is the model for the foundational arts of human civilization. The point of civilization, it may be said, is to be "out of its gourd"; the concern of Taoism, to be within the empty paradise of the uncarved gourd.
Besides performing, my partner Miekal and I make musical instruments & masks out of gourds, paint, carve & woodburn them, & of course grow them. Someday we'd like to build a house out of gourds! But first we need a greenhouse so we can lengthen our season & grow bigger ones! We continue to spread the seeds of gourd love wherever we go, & always look forward to our copy of The Gourd in the mail. We give out Lena Braswell's, Suzanne Ashworth's, & AGS addresses so regularly ( to people who call for gourd info) that we have them posted on our wall! Interested gourd enthusiastics in or travelling through our region are welcome to call & pay us a visit.
A Temporary Gourddess,
Elizabeth Was