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desert gardening basics
June, 2013, Page 122
Photo courtesy of nativeseeds.org
DESERT GARDENING 101
Hard-shelled gourds (
) have been grown as a domesticated crop for thousands of years in the desert Southwest. Native peoples fashioned the dried fruits into canteens, water dippers, storage containers, dishes, musical instruments and items of spiritual significance. Common names of gourd varieties—Hopi rattle, O’odham dipper and Tarahumara canteen—describe where the gourd originated and how its natural shape was used.
Gourd plants are a fun summer crop. They thrive in heat, do not require much oversight and are not fussy about soil. And it is ultimately entertaining to poke around in the vines to uncover goofy-looking gourd shapes.
Two caveats: They are thirsty plants and the heavy vines—depending on variety—grow 25 to 100 feet long. Take advantage of their natural climbing tendency by planting near sturdy fencing, trellises or trees. Their vigorous tendrils curl onto everything within reach.
Choosing Varieties, Sowing and Watering
Gourds require up to 120 days to mature. They can be planted any time after soil warms, from late spring to mid-July or so, as long as they are planted in time to mature before your area’s first hard frost.
Soak seeds overnight to enhance germination. Sow in full sun about 1 to 1½ inches deep, allowing 3 to 6 feet of space between plants. Maintain consistent moisture until germination. Layer several inches of mulch to maintain soil moisture.
As seedlings sprout and grow, keep well watered, but be careful not to overwater if plants wilt in the afternoon heat. Like other vining summer crops—such as cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and squash—water loss (transpiration) from their big leaves in the heat of day may outpace the amount of water that roots can absorb. If foliage is wilted in the afternoon, wait until morning to see if plants perk up. If still wilted, apply water. Soak to a depth of 10 to 12 inches with each application. Depending on weather and soil type, a deep soaking every seven to 10 days, combined with a protective mulch layer, will be sufficient.
Pollinating, Harvesting and Curing
The white flowers of hard-shelled gourds open around sunset and close near sunrise. Male flowers appear on the main vines; female flowers appear days later on side branches. Identify females by the teeny gourds at their base, which grow in size after pollination. If moth pollinators are not active and gourds are not developing, try hand pollination. Use a Q-tip or small artist’s brush to dab pollen from male flowers and transfer it to females. Pollen is most viable within a few hours of opening, so hand pollinate early to improve chances of success.
When cold weather arrives in fall, it blackens and kills the foliage. At the same time, mature gourds on the vine begin to cure (dry). After stems turn brown, cut gourds from the vine, leaving several inches of stem attached. Set gourds (or hang them by their stems) where they will receive good air circulation and about 60 percent shade, such as beneath a tree.
It is natural for gourds to be covered with flaky or waxy skin and dark moldy spots. Drying outside helps exfoliate that skin layer. Gourds need anywhere from several months to one year to dry completely. When tan in color and lightweight, and when seeds rattle as you shake it, the gourd has finished drying. Scrub off any leftover skin as needed with warm soapy water and a brush.
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