Garden Q&A

Question: How do I cure birdhouse gourds for future use?

- Jenna Gross
Answer: Birdhouse or bottle gourds, Lagenaria siceraria, take quite a while to cure. Because they are long-maturing fruits, let's hope you started yours early enough in the season - that is, May or even April.

Gourds can be harvested when they are definitely ripe - when the stem and tendrils next to the gourd are completely brown and the gourd is quite firm at the base of the stem. It may have begun to lose color and weight as the drying process begins (gourds have high water content, which is why the curing process is long).

But you may leave the gourds on the vine through the winter if you wish, though it's best to elevate them a little to keep them out of mud and moisture. (Freezing will render immature seeds nonviable.) Trellised gourds should be harvested, since the vines will deteriorate over winter and the gourds may fall.

Give harvested gourds plenty of ventilation, and rotate them periodically. I once visited Gay Hill Gourd Farm in central Texas, where zillions of gourds are placed on outdoor wire-mesh platforms. Even in Texas, where planting and maturation happen weeks ahead of our situation, the gourds are allowed to dry for a season.

Never try to hasten the process by puncturing the gourds - bacteria will enter and rot will set in. If a gourd does develop soft spots, get rid of it so that others will not be affected.

As long as the gourd remains firm, all is well. Discoloration or a fuzzy mold is OK if the shell is firm. Determining that a gourd is finally dry enough to work is tricky. It will be much lighter than when picked. You may be able to hear the seeds rattle inside, but some seeds remain in a dried lump of pulp, which will thud, not rattle. When tapped, the gourd will sound hollow. If in doubt, wait.

The 1998 book Gourds in Your Garden by Ginger Summit has full information on every aspect of gourd culture. The American Gourd Society has info at www.americangourdsociety.com.

Q: We live in Havertown. We grew cucumbers from seed, and some of them tasted bitter. What causes that condition, and what can be done to prevent it?

- Lew and Sue Nestle
A: Hot, dry weather, particularly later in the season (that is, August through October this year), can produce bitterness. Likewise, less-than-ideal soil. Remedies: Water cucumbers well in dry periods, and mulch to conserve moisture. If the soil is poor, fertilize when the plants are about six weeks old.


Send questions to Michael Martin Mills, The Inquirer, Box 41705, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101 or gardenqanda@earthlink.net. Please include locale.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/michaelmartinmills.

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