Why grow gourds? The short answer is: Because they are easy and a good friend gave me a single gourd plant which has not reached the true leaf stage, in the spring of 1999. When I accepted that single plant, I had no idea how to grow gourds and what I was getting into. But by November, I had discovered that I had 100 gourds on one plant.
Before I discuss how to grow gourds, it’s important that you understand I’m talking about hard shell Apache Dipper gourds, not the colored ornamental gourds you see at the grocery store in October and November. These hard-shell gourds are used by crafters for projects such as gourd birdhouses, and perhaps some readers may have seen these as children, hanging on farm pumps for drinking dippers.
In fact, my first memory of a gourd is when I first went to my grandfather’s farm and there was a dipper gourd, which was used as a community drinking cup by everyone on the farm. A few years later, this gourd was replaced by a long-handled porcelain dipper which was, of course, the latest and most up-to-date utensil.
The Dipper Gourd
The small dipper gourd plant given to me was in a four-inch pot planted in a lightweight potting mix. Its roots had not yet extended to the walls of the container. Mother’s Day was fast approaching and my oldest son came home from California for that weekend and noticed my forlorn gourd plant sitting there next to my 4′ x 8′ raised tomato bed. He was pretty sure that if he didn’t get it planted that it would be dead. So he scooped out a small hole in the tomato bed and planted the Apache Dipper gourd plant. I discovered it the next week while I was watering the tomatoes.
By the end of May, the tomatoes in central Arizona are getting pretty stressed by the heat, even though they are about halfway through bearing. Traditionally, I have considered July 4th equivalent to a “killing frost” for tomatoes. That is, if they are not dead, they are pretty close to dead by then from the heat. This particular year, because the gourd plant was doing so well, I decided to remove the tomatoes a little early. Removing the tomato plants allowed the gourd plant to really take off. By the end of May, it had climbed the 12-foot mesquite tree and the desert willow that are adjacent to the tomato bed. By June 15, it was covering my 10′ x 12′ greenhouse. About the 4th of July, it made the 10-foot jump from the greenhouse to my shade house, which measures 20′ x 40′. I was all excited about this growth, but I was a little dismayed because there were not gourds on my plant. The plant had started blossoming as it climbed the mesquite tree and the desert willow, and showed no visible fruits until after July 4th.
I had been growing pumpkins for several years and knew that the first blossom on both pumpkins and cucumbers are male and suspected that was also the case with gourds. However, I continued to get disappointed by seeing few female flowers and few gourds. But after the 4th of July, things changed and the plant started setting fruit. It continued to march across my shade house as it set fruit and the gourds gained so much weight they started to hang down. I ended up with quite a few straight handled dip gourds.
Having a gourd vine covering my 10′ x 12′ greenhouse was no great loss because by that time I was not using the greenhouse. (I use the greenhouse from Thanksgiving until March for growing peppers and tomatoes (seedlings, that is.) However, covering the shade house was having an effect on my Christmas tree seedlings. I grow pinus elderica seedlings—as many as 10,000 a year in the shade house. It was obviously impossible to remove the gourd plant, so I removed the elderica seedlings and placed them in another shady location.
By the weekend before Thanksgiving, the gourd plant was showing lots of gourds. The Southwest Gourd Association show was that weekend, so I picked five that appeared to be ripe. All the advice said, wait until frost—which can be a long wait in Phoenix—but in inspecting the gourds, I saw that some of the stems were starting to dry. My conclusion was that no more energy was being put into the gourd and therefore harvesting it would be okay. I guess my observation was correct as none of the five gourds shrunk or cracked. I displayed three of them in the gourd show—and received a lot of comments about how they might shrink or crack. However, I did get a blue ribbon for the green class since I was the only entry.
By January, we still had not had a killing frost, but it was time to start using the shade house for my pine tree seedlings again. The plant had slowed down its growth and was showing signs of death. I spent an entire Saturday in January moving the vines and finding the gourds. At the end of that day, I had 95 gourds and by Sunday evening, I had most of them hung up under the rafters of my workshop. Word got around in the spring that I had gourds. My Samoan neighbors came over and selected what they needed for their singing, dancing, and music. They also paid me $5.00 apiece for them. By October, I had about 50 left, so I took them to the pumpkin farm and hung them up. All of them sold by the end of October.
Failure in the Second Year
Thinking I knew everything there was about how to grow gourds, I was so excited about raising 100 gourds from one plant that I told everybody about it. My friend thought it was pretty good too, so he offered me some bushel gourd seed. Altogether, there were 95 seeds; 90 of them germinated and I made it to the field with 85. The field that we planted them in was on rented ground and had some problems with both weeds and fertility. By July 1, I had lost most of the gourds. In fact, when it was time to harvest, we only harvested two bushel baskets of gourds and both of them were smaller than volleyballs. So now, in two years, I had the best and worst of gourd growing.
Success in the Third Year
The third year, I decided to grow 10 acres of gourds alongside our 28 acres of pumpkins. I planted five pounds of each of the following seeds: bushel basket, dippers, speckled swan and big apple. We planted in June, which was a little late, but that’s the date we planted the pumpkins. By October, we had a huge crop of gourds. Between November 19 and November 15, we picked 20,800 green gourds and moved them to the pumpkin farm so they would be available for the third annual Southwest Gourd Association show. We sorted those that were dry (which were several hundred) and left the others in cotton trailers to dry. The remainder of the gourds—about 50,000—were still lying on the fields in rows drying out.
It seems like I have more gourds than I can ever dispose of. However, my friend also had that problem the first year he grew gourds. The second year he did not plant, feeling he would have enough gourds to last at least two years. By the fall of the second year, when his new crop should have been coming in, he found himself sold out of gourds. My plan is to start planting again in March and April and to have gourds available for the crafters on a year-round basis.
I found gourds easy to grow, prolific and profitable. They are even more profitable if you can get involved in making crafts, which is beyond my ability. I have talked with several crafters who have agreed to do craft classes at our farm starting in February. Every day I am amazed at the number of people who stop by the farm to inquire about our gourds. As I write this, our sole method of advertising has been a 30-foot cotton trailer filled with gourds with one word on it in 18-inch high letters by eight-feet long. That word is “gourds.” We are fortunate that traffic on our street is busy—about 26,000 cars per day and climbing. Thus, a lot of people see our signs.
The biggest drawback to gourds is the curing time. The gourds are probably the only vegetable to have a one-year time frame from planting to sales. Actually, we sped that up some by sorting off the dry gourds early, however, it is labor intensive and not at all profitable. By April, we think that all of our gourds will be dry and hopefully, we will have most of them on display at the pumpkin farm. This will work right in with our peaches that come out in mid-May, apples in June and sweet corn and tomatoes in the second half of May and most of June.
If you chose to grow your own seed, in order to keep the seed true you must grow it in isolation. If you grow different varieties side by side, they will cross-pollinate and therefore your next crop may or may not look like the gourds you got the seed from. Basically, that means that they lose their unique shape. Thus, if you are going to use your own seed, you need to grow only one kind of gourd and put it in isolation or learn a method of isolating the blossom so that they cannot be cross-pollinated.
I have grown gourds in three different kinds of soil. One was a very high organic soil, basically compost and some sand. That was my first adventure in growing gourds in my 4′ x 8′ tomato bed. My second adventure was in a heavy clay soil, which resulted in a crop failure. I do not think the soil was entirely responsible, I think competition from weeds had something to do with it. My third soil type was a sandy loam, which resulted in a gigantic crop. My experience leads me to believe that just about any soil with moderate fertility will work for gourds. I am certain any recommendation given for pumpkins could work for gourds.
When discussing how to grow gourds, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention gourds are not something you want to start growing in your backyard unless you have a huge backyard. Under field conditions, try planting gourds six feet apart in a row and six feet between rows. Some of the more vigorous vines were probably too close, but for the less vigorous ones, it was about right. Early in the season, the 6×6 space allowed enough room for the gourds to get going. Near the end, they were climbing over each other and to some extent shading each other out. It seems like the spacing we chose gave us a good yield.
One thing you should know when learning how to grow gourds is that gourds are not something you can grow in a short season. Our season in Arizona is about 270 days, of which we used about 150 days. Earlier planting is preferable, as long as the soil is warm enough to get rapid germination. This year we will try to move up to late April on the San Simon farm. In the Phoenix area, we will probably plant them in March. Our last frost-free day in Phoenix area is the end of February; in San Simon, it is around the first of April.
In Arizona, supplemental irrigation is always required. We use flood irrigation, which for a heavy rooting plant like a gourd or pumpkin is an ideal method. The disadvantage is that it results in a lot of moisture in the soil which can increase mildew or rot on the gourds. All of the gourds that I have grown have been pretty much disease free, except for Italian eatables which seem to have the same diseases that pumpkins have. All plants are affected by high temperatures—by high, I mean over 100 degrees—and gourds are not an exception. All the gourds and pumpkins seem to fare better in high temperatures than many other plants.
I hope this guide to how to grow gourds inspires you to start planting gourds of your own!
Originally published in 2002 and regularly vetted for accuracy.