It’s hard to believe that something as large as a dried bushel gourd starts with a seed as small as a fingernail. Sometimes called “bushel basket” gourds or just “basket” gourds, they’re surprisingly easy to grow. Best of all, once dried, they’re as sturdy and long-lasting as wood—and they can be fashioned into all kinds of useful objects.
Unlike the thin-skinned luffas I usually grow, bushel gourds have thicker walls and contain more water. Of course, that also means they take several more months to dry.
Still, if you’ve been curious to give hard-shelled gourds a try in your own garden, it’s not too late.
Hard shells like the bushel gourd take their sweet time to mature. So, you’re best off starting their seeds indoors in a sunny spot or under grow lights.
(And even if you have a long growing season, you still might want to start these seeds early to give them as much growing time as possible.)
To soften up their tough coats, soak the gourd seeds in water for about 12 hours before you plant. Use peat pots or make your own pots, so that when it is time to plant seedlings outside, you’ll be able to pop the whole thing in the ground. (This enables you to plant your seedlings without disturbing their delicate root systems.)
After the danger of frost has passed and soil temperatures are in the 65- to 70-degree range, you can safely plant your gourd seedlings. Choose a spot that gets at least six hours of full sun per day. For best results, your soil should be rich and well-draining.
(Since mine’s not the best, I like to mix in a few shovelfuls of finished compost and worm castings before I plant. This adds nutrients, mitigates pH problems, and improves my soil texture, too.)
Remove any weeds by hand and then mound up the soil where you intend to plant. Include no more than two to three seedlings per mound.
I also surround the gourd section of my garden with marigolds. These naturally deter some insect pests while attracting beneficial insects and all-important pollinators.
If your garden isn’t already fenced in, you’ll want to add a little protective fencing around your squash plants—especially while they’re still young and becoming established. And, unless you have lots of room for them to run, you may also want to install some trellising so that your vines will have something sturdy to latch onto.
Make sure your plants get at least an inch of water per week. To help stave off disease, don’t water your plants’ leaves. I water each of my planted gourd mounds by hand, pouring water directly around the vines at the soil level—and well below the leaves.
Despite these precautions, you still may have problems with powdery mildew, bacterial wilt and other diseases. Insect infestations and poor air circulation around your plants can make these problems worse. That’s why it’s important to examine your vines every day for signs of squash vine borers, cucumber beetles and their eggs.
I remove any I see by hand and peek under leaves for their eggs while I’m at it.
Also, at the first sign of disease, you may be able to salvage the situation by removing any affected leaves before the problem spreads. (Although I had some powdery mildew on last year’s crop, I cut away bad leaves and let conditions dry a bit before watering again. That helped.)
One of the most important tasks to complete? When your plants’ primary vines reach the eight- to 10-foot mark, snip off their ends. This causes them put on lateral branches—and female flowers. Once pollinated, these female flowers set fruit. These tiny fruits, ultimately, become big bushel gourds.
Factors like soil quality, weather conditions and season length will influence the finished size and weight of your gourds. And the kind and amount of support your gourds get can affect their final shape.
For instance, a bushel gourd growing directly on the ground can develop a flat spot, while another, suspended from a trellis, may turn out nearly round. As your gourds grow larger, you can provide extra support with scraps of old T-shirt or pantyhose as needed.
Once vines have died back, either leave your gourds in the field to dry over the winter or hang them inside a barn or other outbuilding. We’ll show you how to clean up dried bushel gourds in a future post.