farmer with wheelbarrow full of bird house gourds
There are probably as many different methods for harvesting gourds as there are people raising them. And, the type you are growing, will determine when and how you harvest them. If you're growing the ornamental types, then you'll want these harvested at the height of their color and definitely before any frost. These are usually the 'cucurbits'. These little guys can't take the cold like their bigger counterparts, the hard shelled versions. They are grown for their aesthetic and artistic values and have to be tended to when they are ripe.
The larger hard shelled gourds, however, are not so susceptible to cold and can sit in the fields even through snow assuming they are done growing and curing. However, many are ready to get them in from the field as soon as they're done growing, and for some reason, we want to get them drying off as soon as possible, even though there's no hurry. In fact, one of the worst things that can happen to a gourd is to remove it from the vine TOO EARLY. The gourds just haven't had time to mature, and it really doesn't matter whether the gourds dry on a pallet or in the field.
When to pick...
In your digging for information as to when to pick gourds, you've probably heard a number of different things to do to harvest them. Something like "Let them sit on the vine until the first frost", or, "let them sit in the field until dry", etc. That's great if you live where there's frost. But, what if you live in the south like I do and there isn't any frost until late in the year, or maybe not at all if you live even further south. Well, here's what I've found that will work for EVERYBODY, regardless of where you live.
The best time to harvest gourds is when they're done growing and are curing. And how can you tell this? Simple! You can tell if a gourd is done growing by looking at its stem right next to the gourd. If it has started to shrivel, turn brown and dry, then the gourd is done growing and it can be harvested. The body of the gourd may still be green, but the dried stem means that the gourd is not receiving any more nutrients from the vine, is in the process of being 'hardened off', and may be harvested if you just feel the need to do so. To harvest, simply cut the stem very close to the vine away from the gourd using a sharp knife or trimming shears. Don't just twist it off. Leave as much of the stem on the gourd as possible. One reason for this is you may want to use the stem to hang them by to complete the drying process.
martin gourd growing on the vine at the gourd farm
To be honest, I used to be one of those people that just had to get those gourds out of the field as soon as the stems began to turn brown. As shown below, the gourds were still considerably 'green' and they had to be put on pallets to dry.
However, that thinking has changed. Now, I don't like to pick my gourds any earlier than necessary. In fact, I leave them right out in the patch and just let everything die down. Over the years, I've found that the best thing to do is ignore them. That means, don't bother with them until they are fully dried right on the vine. The vines and leaves turn brown and die and the gourds are left just sitting in the patch like a bunch of basketballs. They're very easy to see and I just walk around with a pair of pruning sheers and snip them off next to the vine and load them into my truck for transport back to my shop. That's it, nothing fancy. And NO, it does not hurt gourds to sit out in the field for a short time after growing. In fact, I've found that they actually dry better in the field than when I bunch them together on a pallet. And besides, I have the whole winter to turn them into martin gourds, so there's really no hurry since the birds don't return to my area until mid March.
man purchasing gourd and loading in pickup
However, I realize that not everyone is able to do it this way, so one thing that can be done, once the stems have turned brown, they can be cut and set aside to dry. They can be set outside on a pallet or two to dry.
The only important thing here is to keep them off the ground so they can get good air. Hopefully, it will rain every now and then, and much of the clinging debris will be removed before they have to be handled again. In fact, they should remain sitting on this pallet until fully dry. No, cold or rain will not bother them. In fact, the fluctuation in temperatures and humidity actually help in the drying process.
drying gourds on pallets
How you harvest your gourds is up to you and will depend on what type and how many you have. If you have ornamentals, then a simple hand basket will do the trick. If you grew martin house gourds and only have a few, then a simple lawn cart or wheel barrow may do the trick. But if you have a large crop, then you will probably have to use a truck or wagon of some sort to collect them all.
What ever the method, make sure they are not excessively bumped and bounced against themselves, especially if they are still green, or anything else that will damage their skins. The following are a few questions and answers that you might run into with your gourds.
My gourds have grown very large and I want to stop them at the size they're at.
Because I know martins like large gourds, I can't imagine stopping a gourd from growing as big as it will get, but if your gourds are extra large, and you think you may want to stop them at the size they're at, then this can be done. They can be cut off vine and set aside to dry.
However, please note. If the gourd hasn't had enough time to harden off, there is a good chance it could rot. Near the end of the growing cycle, gourds stop growing in size and they begin the hardening process that creates their hard shells. I've learned over the years that it just isn't good to cut gourds early. If at all possible, they should be left on the vine until full maturity so the plant fruit can fully mature and harden. Large 12" and 13" gourds are loved by the purple martins.
I live in the Northern part of the country and frost comes early. Do I need to worry?
No! Frost does not affect mature Lagenaria gourds. A hard frost simply means that the vines are done growing for the year. Often, the leaves may die, but the vines will still deliver 'hardening off' nutrients to the gourds for some time later. The gourds themselves, will not be affected at all. In fact, professional growers recommend leaving them in the field for curing.
If your gourds are not done growing and you are surprised by a very early frost, then there is a good chance that those gourds will not make it. The gourds are immature and, just like any other fruit, could be affected by the cold. Regardless, there isn't much that can be done about an extremely early frost because picking the gourds before their time is just as bad as the extreme cold.
Will it hurt to handle my gourds by the stems?
Not as long as you're careful. The stems are very strong and very capable of handling the weight of the gourd. Remember, that's how the gourd hangs when it's growing. Now that doesn't mean that they can be mishandled. One mistake and a stem could come loose. You don't want to drop them. Ever see a pumpkin that was dropped? If they're still green and heavy, pick them up by the stem, but then support them with your other hand when moving them. The last thing you want to do is accidentally drop a large beautiful gourd.
My gourds seem to have tender skins and they bruise easily. How should I handle them?
Green gourds have very tender skins and should be handled with care. Try to not bang or bump them together any more than absolutely necessary. Their skin bruises very easily at this stage and if bruised too severely, they might not make it through the drying process without getting infected and rotting. Washing them in a weak bleach solution of 2 cups chlorine bleach and 5 gallons of water may help. Because their skins are so sensitive, use a soft bristled brush to remove any excess field debris. (Another reason for leaving them right in the field to cure).
I'm going to make birdhouses with my gourds. Can I do all the drilling, hole cutting and cleaning BEFORE putting them up to dry?
NO! NEVER cut into a gourd unless it is fully dried! Although tender, the skin is a protective device that protects the gourd while growing and later, drying. Every scratch, mark or bruise that breaks that skin would just be inviting infection into your gourd. Cutting a large hole would simply be inviting trouble and probably render the gourd useless. Besides, the gourds are very mushy at this stage and it would be a very messy job to clean it out.
I've picked all the usable gourds I want from my patch. What in the world do I do with the rest of the smaller gourds and vines?
That depends on what you plan to do with that area. If it's going to sit there idle until next year, then don't do anything with the leftovers. The vines will simply dry up and rot. The smaller gourds however could be dried and given to someone with some artistic intentions and let them see what they can do with them. There are many artists that would love to get hold of a bunch of small gourds to work with. Also, the smaller gourds could be used for bluebird or wren houses. If you don't want to go through this trouble, then the little ones can be smashed and left to rot along with the vines, otherwise, they will dry right there in the field and you'll have a bunch of small dried gourds come spring. When spring arrives, simply turn everything into the soil so it's used as mulch for your new crop.
I have to travel a long way to get my gourds home. Will it hurt to put them in my truck transport them home?
Not at all. That's how I bring mine home. I simply load them into the back of my truck and I'm on my way. Just a few things. Assuming we are talking about 'green' gourds, make sure they are not free to 'roll around'. This can be accomplished by making sure you have a full load or maybe adding a few cardboard boxes to take up some of the space. Add some gourds in them to hold them down, and just drive carefully until you get them where you're going.
Another thing you can do is to 'pack them' so to speak with some straw. When you've picked all the gourds and put them in the truck, add some straw in between the gourds so they can't roll around and get banged up.
Of course this only applies to green gourds. If your gourds are fully dry, then there's no need for all this care. Simply pile them into your truck and away you go. Be careful though. Wind from driving down the road will quickly blow a dry gourd out of your truck box and when they hit the hard road at a high speed... well, let's just say it's a shame to waste a good gourd this way.