Growing Edible Gourds

The gourd family known as Cucurbitaceae is large and consists of about 975 species. Within this family are some of the most widely known edible plants in the world, including gourds, cucumbers, watermelon, squashes, cantaloupe, and pumpkins, collectively known as cucurbits. Most cucurbits are native to tropical areas and are sensitive to frost, but luckily, most gardeners in the United States can grow them as annuals. 

Cucurbits are often vining plants with spiral tendrils that help to anchor the stems. Most plants are also monoecious, which means separate male and female flowers grow on the same plant. The fruits called 'pepo' contain many flat seeds surrounded by a tough rind.

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Common Edible Gourds 

Pumpkins 

Pumpkins make me think of fall, pumpkin pie, and jack-o'-lanterns on Halloween! These cucurbits are easy and rewarding to grow, as they look lovely in the garden and can be used for many purposes in the kitchen and outdoors as decor.  Plant pumpkins in early summer when the soil is warm. They require about 85-120 days to mature, so some areas with cool summers may not experience a long enough growing season to harvest the pumpkins before the weather turns cool. Pumpkins require a lot of water, sunlight, nutrients and space to grow well. Give each plant a mound with a 3 foot diameter, spaced 5 feet from the next plant. Since these vines take up a lot of space, I recommend planting them at the edge of the garden, where they can ramble over the side, away from your other crops. Work aged manure or compost into the planting site to keep these heavy feeders satisfied.

Fertilize the plants every two weeks with a high nitrogen formula. As the flowers start to form, switch to a fertilizer with higher phosphorus and potassium to support fruit development. At this time, the plants will also need a lot of water, about an inch or two per week. Some varieties are susceptible to mildew, and wet foliage can cause the fungi to spread more easily. To keep the foliage dry, try using a soaker hose or drip line, which has the added benefit of reducing the rate of evaporation. Alternatively, water at the base of the plant in the morning, so the foliage has time to dry in the sun.

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The first flowers that appear are male with straight thin stems. The female flowers have a swollen base. To promote a studier vine, remove the female flowers at the beginning of the growing season. This will increase your yield, although the pumpkins will be smaller. To grow fewer, but larger pumpkins, only allow a few fruits to grow on each vine and remove the others. Once a few pumpkins form, you can also pinch off the fuzzy ends off the vines to encourage the plant to put more energy into growing fruit.  

As the fruits start to develop, gently rotate them every couple weeks to encourage a symmetrical shape. Also, slip a piece of cardboard underneath each pumpkin to keep it from rotting on damp soil. Harvest the pumpkins when the outside is hard and deep orange in color. The stem should be starting to shrivel as the plant dies back. Cut the stem to about 4 inches, and carry the pumpkin from the bottom and not by the stem, which can easily break off. 

Cantaloupes 

Cantaloupes are one of my favorite fruits and are packed with important nutrients such as vitamin A and vitamin C. They are easy to grow in areas with long, warm summers, although gardeners in the north can use tricks like row covers or black plastic to get a jumpstart on the growing season. Cantaloupes require full sun, lots of space, and well-drained, fertile soil. Plant the seeds directly in the garden when the soil temperature is 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit. Plant the seeds in mounds spaced 4 feet apart, or grow them up a trellis to save space. Mix well-rotted manure or compost into the soil to support the high nutritional needs of this crop. Mulch the soil with an organic material such as straw to suppress weeds and reduce water loss. 

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Cantaloupe plants need plenty of water to develop sweet, juicy fruits. Water them deeply with about 1-2 inches of water per week in the absence of rain. Reduce watering as the fruits grow because too much water dilutes the flavor and can cause cracking. Also, resist the urge to prune the vines, as evidence suggests removing foliage reduces the plant's energy and sweetness of the fruits. As the fruits form, raise them off the ground with pots or mulch. Allow only a few fruits to grow on a vine because fewer fruits ensures better flavor and sweetness.

Cantaloupes reach maturity around 35-45 days after flowering--that's about 85 total days of growing. Harvest the fruits when they have a creamy yellow color and rough outer netting. They should easily come off the vine by twisting; if not, wait a few more days before harvesting.

What Makes A Gourd Edible Vs Inedible?

Not all gourds are edible. Some contain toxic compounds called cucurbitacins, which the plant uses as a protective mechanism against certain predatory insects. These substances cause gastrointestinal distress symptoms in humans and should be avoided.

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 Author Jessica Mercer - Published 9-26-2023