Despite what your older brother told you, "gourd head" is not a compliment. When gourds are mature, they are hard skinned with a few seeds rattling around inside. Certainly no compliment there. However, gourds are attractive to use as decorations throughout autumn. By caring for gourds properly, they can last several months.
Two commonly grown gourd groups are ornamental gourds and utility gourds. Ornamental gourds have extremely variable shapes, textures and colors of orange, yellow, white and green. Ornamentals include nest egg, crown-of-thorns and turk's turban gourds.
Utility gourds have a hard thick shell and include dipper, bottle and trumpet gourds. Utility gourds are very durable and have been used throughout history for bowls, dippers, birdhouses and musical instruments.
Gourds will last longer if they are mature when harvested and kept dry. Ornamental gourds can be harvested once their stem turns brown and the tendrils next to the stem dry. Utility gourds usually take longer to mature and are left on the vine as long as possible or until frost kills the vine.
Ornamental gourds will develop a hard, glossy, brightly colored shell. Utility gourds develop hard shells and may begin to change from green to lighter, slightly yellow shades. The stem should be very tough and necks on long handled types should be stiff. Harvest with 1 to 2 inches of stem attached.
Handle gourds as carefully as possible. Bruises, scratches and punctures can result in deterioration. After harvest, wash gourds in a one-quart water to a half cup bleach solution.
Cure in a 75-degree dry room on racks. After curing, ornamental gourds can be rubbed with a water base wax to brighten the colors.
Utility gourds may take four to six weeks of curing in order to dry completely. Before decorating make sure the gourd is thoroughly dry. If the gourds are to be painted, the skin should be removed and a coat of shellac should be applied first, so the skin does not absorb the paint.
Luffa gourds are often used as bath sponges and are harvested after a hard frost. To remove the outer skin of the luffa, two luffas can be rubbed together (sorry no genie will appear to wash your back) or soak luffas in water for a few days until the outer covering can be peeled off. Thoroughly rinse to remove any remaining pulp or seeds. To get a whiter color, luffas can be soaked in bleach or hydrogen peroxide or hung in the sun.
Pumpkins are closely related to gourds and therefore require similar care. Pumpkins can be harvested whenever they have a deep solid, usually orange color, and the rind is hard. Harvest before heavy frosts. Be sure to leave 3 to 4 inches of stem attached.
Pumpkins without stems, not fully mature, injured or subjected to heavy frost do not keep well. Pumpkins that are decorated by paint and not carved will last longer. Store pumpkins in a dry place at 50 to 55 degrees F before use.
About the Author Sandra Mason is a unit-based horticulture educator with University of Illinois Extension. She provides leadership and expertise in horticulture and environmental programs in Champaign County. Mason uses her expertise in ornamental horticulture to educate the public through workshops and other educational programs including the Master Gardener's Program. Mason appears on a call-in program on a monthly basis for the WILL radio program, Focus 580 and is a regular panelist on the WILL television program, Illinois Gardener. It airs Thursdays at 7pm. In addition, she writes the weekly Homeowner's Column.