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Birdhouse Gourds (Plants for Pollinators Part 3)

Gourds benefit a unique pollinator, and can help benefit all pollinators by helping you to manage pests without the use of pesticides that can harm the bees and butterflies. In this blog post, you will learn about the fascinating history of this plant, the ways it benefits pollinators, how to grow it, and how to make it into a birdhouse. This summer you can tour our farm, see our gourd vines in person, and paint your own gourd bird house. I will release the date of this event later this month. Space is limited. Join our mailing list by clicking here so that you will be the first to have access to purchase tickets.

You might get to see a beautiful double rainbow when you come to our farm this summer to take a birdhouse gourd painting class. There is always something interesting happening at the farm.

Gourds for the Pollinators

With white flowers that open at night, gourd plants in the genus Lagenaria provide their nectar as food to moths, an important and often neglected pollinator. Showy flowers that bloom during the day and attract colorful butterflies and buzzing bees seem to get all the attention. If you are planting a garden for the pollinators, please remember the less showy and famous pollinators, the moths, and include plants that feed them, such as the birdhouse gourds. You will delight in visiting your garden at night and seeing the moths flit among the white flowers, glowing in the moonlight. Researching "moon gardens" can lead you to many other plants you can use to feed the moths. Here at Sterling Organic Farm, we love growing birdhouse gourds for the many benefits they provide to our farm. Birdhouse gourds will creep along the ground of your vegetable or flower garden, shading out weeds with their wide leaves. They will also climb any available structure, such as a fence or tree, maximizing space in your yard through vertical gardening. All gourds in the Lagenaria genus are excellent nectar providers for moths. Gourds in the genus Lagenaria have hard shells, and range in size from 1-inch gourds used to make jewelry, to giant 3-foot diameter gourds used for making baskets. Read on to find out why the birdhouse gourd (also called the bottle gourd) is our favorite Lagenaria gourd.

Moths enjoy the white blooms of the birdhouse gourd. We use wood chips around our gourd plants to conserve moisture in the soil and to suppress weeds.

Gourds for the Birds

The houses made from gourds are a favorite for the purple martin, a ravenous eater of insects. It's quick and easy to turn a birdhouse gourd into a beautiful birdhouse, allowing you to provide many homes in your yard to attract a healthy population of purple martins. Purple martins can help to keep the insect levels in your garden or farm at a manageable level, so that you will not need to spray pesticides to get a good harvest, and can therefore help pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, that would be decimated by the use of insect-killing pesticides. Providing habitat to insect-eating birds is a part of promoting a balanced ecosystem, a vital tenant of sustainable living. Most of us remove dead trees from our yard, especially if they are near our house. The hollows of dead trees would provide the cavities that birds like the purple martin tend to nest in. Using birdhouse gourds to provide nesting sites for the purple martin is a safe and attractive way to help these birds.

Birdhouse gourds ripening on the vine at Sterling Organic Farm in Eastern Connecticut.

Making Bird Houses with Gourds - It's a Snap!

Forget about cutting wood and using a hammer and nail to construct a birdhouse. First, if you want your birdhouse to have the longest life, dip it in a wood preservative, such as one used to treat a wooden deck, and allow it to dry (this is optional, but will greatly extend the life of the birdhouse). Next, hold up your gourd at eye level and find the widest part of the gourd. Mark a spot on the widest part of the gourd with a pencil, to mark where you will cut the opening for the birds to fly through. You don't want this opening to point upwards or downwards, but rather straight out. Take a boxcutter or exacto knife to your gourd and cut a 2-inch diamater circle around the spot that you marked. If you are handy with power tools, you could also use a hole saw to cut this opening. Use chopsticks or something similar to pull the seeds and dried gourd guts out through this opening. You don't need to get everything out. The birds will finish cleaning up the gourd when they make their nests. Next, use your exacto knif to make several holes in the bottom of the gourd for moisture to drain out. Lastly, half an inch below the stem of the gourd, make two small holes on opposing sides. Pass a wire or nylon rope through these two holes. Use the wire or rope to hang your gourd from a tree branch, or other structure. You're done! Only two tools needed in this simple process. If you have an artistic or creative streak, you can paint your gourd any way that you like, except it is best to choose lighter colors so that the birds will not get too hot. There are many gorgeous examples of gourd art out there. If you are in Eastern CT, don't forget to subscribe to our newsletter to find out how to take our birdhouse gourd painting class.

If you have a dried gourd, you are just a few steps away from having a bird house! Here I am with one of our 2019 crop of gourds at our farm.

A Fascinating History

Gourds go way back. While the dog was the first domesticated animal, the birdhouse gourd (also called the bottle gourd) was the first domesticated species of plant, according to research published in 2015 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (link here). The researchers thoroughly used a combination of both archeological evidence and DNA analysis of different strains of gourds from around the world to reconstruct the fascinatingly ancient and global history of this plant. Around 12,000 years ago, people in Africa were the first to perfect this amazing plant through breeding and domestication of wild gourds. They used the gourd as a container and for making musical instruments. Some of these gourds drifted across the Atlantic Ocean to Asia, carrying their seeds with them, which were then grown in Asia by people who found the gourds washing up on the shore. The cultivation of gourds then spread to Europe through people traveling and trading. People then carried the gourd across the Bering Strait around 11,000 years ago, and it was soon grown throughout the Americas. In ancient times, gourds were grown in four continents, and contributed to the development of agriculture. When you grow gourds, you are carrying on a very long tradition developed by your ancient ancestors.

How to Grow Gourds

If you just want for your gourd plants to grow flowers for the moths, you will only need for your gourd plants to grow for sixty days before they start producing flowers. You may start indoors in a sunny window and then transplant out, or direct sow anytime after the risk of frost is past. If you are just looking for flowers, you may also winter sow. Cultivation is the same as zinnias, except your should plant or transplant your gourd plants to three feet apart. These are great big sprawling vines, and they need lots of room! Click here to read my blog post about how to grow zinnias, and grow your gourds the same way.

If your goal is to make a birdhouse, you will need to make sure you give your gourds enough time. Hard-shelled Lagenaria gourds require a long time for the fruit to develop, at least 120 days. The plants are killed by the first touch of frost. This poses a challenge for us here with our relatively short seasons in Connecticut. We direct sowed the gourd seeds at the end of May, after our risk of frost was done, and the gourd plants were taken out by the first light frost on October 4. While this amount of growing time gave use a decent crop of gourds, producing about 50 gourds in a 30 foot by 6 foot area, I'm sure our harvest would have been even greater if we started the gourds indoors, and then planted out. This year I plan to start our gourds indoors in late April, then transplant out in late May.

Birdhouse gourd vines last season in early July.

Drying Your Gourds

Leave your gourds alone! They dry best when left out in the field on the vine, even in rain and snow. This is because most of the moisture in your gourds will evaporate out through the dead vine. As an over-thinker and over-achiever, I learned this lesson the hard way with my first ever crop of birdhouse gourds. As a college student, I was tending the organic garden at my college in May 2011 when the college groundskeeper gave me a fistful of birdhouse gourd seeds. I planted them out at the edge of the garden, where there was no irrigation, and they were generally neglected. The gourd vines grew all through the woods at the edge of the garden, even climbing forty feet up into the trees! I exhausted my legs and arms squatting to pickup over 200 gourds, loading them into a truck and then carrying them up a tall staircase to the loft of a big old tobacco barn. I set up two huge fans to blow onto the gourds. The fans, combined with the natural ventilation of the tobacco drying barn, seemed like they would provide the perfect conditions for my gourds to dry out and hardened. They rotted. Every single gourd rotted into a slimy, stinky mess, despite of, and in fact, because of, all of my efforts. Gourds are one of the few plants that truly thrive on neglect, and have valuable lessons to share with us over-doers. Sometimes less is more.

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