The hard-shelled bushel gourds I grew last season had been hanging up in my garage for several months before I noticed any significant changes. Then, practically overnight, they’d become lighter and covered with molds in shades of pink, gray, tan and black.
While this stage doesn’t look very appealing, the molds actually help to degrade and soften my gourds’ outer skins. This process makes removing that outer epidermis much easier.
And once I slough off that mess? I expose the gourd’s hard, golden shell—complete with intricate blotches and circular patterns the molds left behind.
Why Clean Them?
“A [cleaned] gourd is very similar to basswood,” says TeriLu Adler. An Indiana Artisan and owner of Purple Pig Studios Creative Arts, Adler has been working with gourds for more than 20 years. Once cleaned, gourds provide artists like Adler with hard, impermeable canvases.
She continues, “Because you don’t have to deal with [wood] grain and sap, gourds are perfect for things like wood-burning and cutting.”
Although not every crafter removes their gourds’ exterior skin, Adler thinks they should. “If you don’t [remove the epidermidis], it can slide off on its own in the future, and all your artwork would be lost.”
Exterior cleaning, interior preparation and even some gourd crafting techniques can pose health risks, if you aren’t careful. “Many people are very sensitive to that mold [on the gourd epidermis],” Adler notes. “That is one version of ‘gourd flu.’ They inhale that mold and it creates a respiratory issue for them.”
To mitigate your risk, wear a respirator or N95 mask while cleaning gourds and clean them outdoors. You might also want to wear goggles and gloves.
“I’m not that sensitive to gourds, but I do clean them underwater,” Adler says. “I bring them into the house and soak them in my kitchen sink. Some people will add bleach, but I’ve never thought I needed to.”
A dash of soap, a metal scrubby—and some degree of patience—are usually all it takes. (I scrubbed my gourds clean using small, circular motions.)
There are less labor-intensive ways to expose your gourds’ hard shells. For instance, Adler continues, “Some people bury them in potting soil and let them sit.”
She has been known to put her gourds and some water in black trash bags and place those on an asphalt driveway. “I’d let them bake for a day or two,” Adler says. “The point is just to get that skin to loosen, because sometimes it’s just almost impossible to remove.”
How easily the epidermis comes loose depends in part on the type of gourd you have. The way you store your drying gourds is another factor. “When I’ve grown them, I leave mine outside through the winter, because that freeze-and-thaw [cycle] loosens that epidermis and makes it easier to remove,” Adler says.
Adler has also tried “greenscraping” with mixed success. “Once their gourds are ripe, some people—instead of letting them sit outside all winter—they’ll take a butter knife and literally scrape that epidermis off,” she explains.
The benefit? Without that outer skin, the gourd won’t mold. “That’s how they have gourds that have no blemishes on them,” she continues. “I personally kind of like the mold patterns.”
Still, greenscaping can be risky. Greenscraped gourds can shrivel, crack or even collapse—particularly if they weren’t completely ripe or if they dry too quickly.
On the Inside
Planning to make baskets or bowls out of your gourds? That means cutting them open—and creating fine dust in the process. “That is the second kind of ‘gourd flu,’” Adler says. “People inhale that dust just like a woodworker, so they should always wear a respirator when cutting.”
Exposing a gourd’s dried seeds and pulp can further trigger respiratory responses. So can scraping and sanding the inside of the gourd. In addition to wearing protective gear, consider taking these activities outdoors.
Of course, unless you’re saving seed, it isn’t always necessary to remove your gourds’ guts. “A lot of people make them into birdhouses, and I can tell you from experience that birds don’t care what’s inside,” Adler says.
“So, I usually just cut a hole out for the birdhouse and let the birds clean up what they don’t want.”
Adler stored her cleaned gourds in airtight, plastic bins. “If your gourds are thin, the mice will go after them,” she warns.
But, if you can keep the mice away? Finished pieces—especially thick-walled, hard-shelled gourds—can last for decades.