Some of us in the higher elevations of the Catskills had frost this past week and the rest of you in the valley should be getting prepared for your turn! In general, the closer you are to the Hudson River, the later the average first frost in the fall. I was in the High Peaks area of the Adirondacks last weekend and they are already at almost peak fall color now. I think we will have peak color here the weekend of October 10.
This is the time of the year when decorative “harvest season” items such as ornamental ears of corn, bundled cornstalks and gourds are available in our own gardens as well as at roadside stands. Ornamental Gourds are ready to harvest when the stem begins to dry and turns brown or when the foliage turns brown. By now all the leaves have probably turned white or brown from mildew. That’s OK they are no longer needed. You can pinch off any new fruit that may still be forming because they are unlikely to ripen this late.
One rule of thumb is to harvest when the flesh of the gourd or pumpkin is too hard to pierce with your fingernail. This also applies to winter squash. Pumpkins that have already started to turn orange will usually continue to do so after harvest as long as some orange color is present. Winter squash such as acorn, butternut, buttercup, spaghetti and Hubbard should be harvested before a hard frost in order to store best. They will taste best and last longest if they are subjected to warm temperatures in the 70’s or even 80’s for two weeks. That is not going to happen outdoors, but if you have a warm attic, that might suffice. Eat the acorn squash first, since they will deteriorate quickest, followed by butternut, buttercup, spaghetti and Hubbard. Some of my “Beyfussinni” squash, which are a hybrid between spaghetti squash and zucchini have formed hard shells and I think they will serve pretty well as traditional spaghetti squash.
After harvesting, wash the fruit with warm, soapy water. Rinse in clear, warm water with a small amount of household bleach added. (one cup of bleach to one gallon of water) Or rinse with clear water, wipe dry with a dry cloth, and wipe
again with a cloth dampened in rubbing alcohol. Discard any diseased, bruised and immature fruit.
Place the ornamental gourds in a dry, warm, well-ventilated place. Small gourds can be stored in a mesh bag such as the type of bag that onions are sold in. Keep them in a dark place if possible to prevent the colors from fading. Check them and turn often as they dry and discard any that start to rot or get mushy. Curing takes from 1 to 6 months depending on many factors. To speed up the process make a small hole in the blossom end (the bottom, not the stem end) of the fruit. When the gourd is completely dry the seeds will rattle around inside like a Maruichi. I have had pretty good luck drying birdhouse gourds in a barely warm oven with the door slightly open. I first make an entrance hole using an electric drill with a bit designed to make doorknob holes. The gourds need to be turned often and checked frequently if you put them in the oven.
Once the gourd is dried it may be waxed, shellacked or painted. A high grade, transparent furniture or floor wax is preferred to shellac or varnish which will change the natural color. Periodic waxing will help to preserve the gourd. You can also sandpaper the outside of the gourd with a very fine sandpaper or steel wool to create a smooth surface.
Save the seed from the gourd to plant next year. Since many of the various types of gourds cross breed, the seeds will produce some interesting looking fruit next year. The seeds from birdhouse gourds seem to produce exactly the same gourds each year but that may be due to the fact that these are the only type I have grown! In fact I don’t plant them at all! I simply leave a few in the garden to rot and the seeds “volunteer” to grow the following season. I do the same thing for my favorite “Jack B Little” pumpkins.
If you did grow gourds this summer as well as winter squash, it might not be a good idea to save seed from the edible squash crops. Some types of gourds are somewhat toxic and if they cross breed with your winter squash, the offspring next year could be toxic as well!