How to grow gourds and profit from them

What you need to know:

  • If farmers give a bottle gourd tree ideal growing conditions, it will spread its vines that can grow as high as it can. The planting spot should have enough vertical space for the vines but also be manageable.

Scientifically bottle gourd is known as Lagenaria siceraria belonging to the cucumber family. This creeping plant is also known as calabash. This non-food plant is grown in Uganda mainly for cultural use.

Background

No one knows about the origin of the plant though experts believe it is mainly grown by farmers in Asia especially India for lucrative crafts business. In Africa people grow them on small scale but not focused as a business initiative.

In a UK based blog publication Evergreen seed, it is noted that the fast-growing annual crop, comes in several shapes and can reach up to three feet in length.

Also called the bottle gourd, the mature calabash fruit often represents a bottle, in both appearance and function.

Bottle gourd is a type of plant that produces versatile fruits. The fruit grows on vines that spread out from the bottle gourd root.

These vines wrap around anything upright and seek the sun but can also crawl along the ground up to 150 feet away.

Once the vines find enough sun, they sprout leaves and flowers that turn into bottle gourd fruit. Depending on the bottle gourd type, the calabash fruit can look like a stick, bottle, snake or any other item.

Farmer perspective

In Uganda, not many farmers are growing the calabash but a few of them in Rakai District have taken it on as business initiative.

 Godfrey Kigoja, a farmer growing calabash on his five-acre land in Rakai, says he saw an opportunity in growing the plant for commercialisation because of its art and craft demand in the country.

He initially invested Shs1.5m in starting his farm two years ago and now he is able to harvest more than 5,000 fruits selling each at Shs2,000.

It takes four months for it to mature but the challenge according to Kigoja is that it is labour intensive.

In a year, Kigoja is able to plant calabash twice and to know it is mature, the leaves turn golden brown.

Agronomy

A bottle gourd prefers a place where there is plenty of sun, rich soil and warm season without frost.

Farmers can grow gourds in cold regions such as Kabale but will need plenty of preparation and care.

These gourds will also not be as big or as thick-skinned as their cousins grown in warmer areas. A greenhouse is a must if there is a chance of sudden freezing.

If farmers give a bottle gourd tree ideal growing conditions, it will spread its vines that can grow as high as it can.

The planting spot should have enough vertical space for the vines but also be manageable.

How to raise seedlings

Farmers grow the seedlings in beds using processed seeds. Planting the seeds by lining them in rows gives the plants the most space and helps prevent their roots from tangling.

The seeds raised in seed beds must be potted and watered and within one to three days they will germinate.

Once the seeds germinate, plant them in the ground with the pointy side up to help the plant breakthrough the soil.

The bottle gourd seedling will use the pointy side of the seed to emerge faster and take in more sun.

You should plant the seeds so they are covered with soil only a little bit, not too deep and not too shallow.

How to plant bottle gourd

It is important to plant in a  soil temperature of at least 65 °F which will help them grow faster.

Each plant should have at least 10 feet of space from other plants or the dense foliage might spread disease easily.

The best strategy for planting a bottle gourd is making a small hill and planting at least six to seven seeds per hill. When they get established, thin all but the two to three healthiest and strongest vines. In this way, you guarantee two to three healthy vines and hedge against problems and pests that can stunt growth.

Be careful of disturbing the root ball when moving the plant from bag to container or to the ground. Gourd squash plants cannot grow if their root system gets damaged too much.

Gourds need a bit acidic soil that has been enriched and drained well. If the soil is warm, it will help the vines spread out quickly and start making gourds.

After removing weeds and grasses, enrich the soil with compost and spread a light fabric to keep it warm. You can plant the gourd seeds into holes you cut in the fabric, which helps keep weeds down.

If a farmer is growing organic gourds, use composted mulch and animal manure instead. Grass clippings and even fish emulsion sprayed on the gourd plant work as fertiliser.

How to care for a bottle gourd

After germination, the plants do not need much care and we could say they even thrive on the lack of it.

As long as they have sun, water and open space, they will produce plenty of bottle gourds for the famer.

Roots will spread as much as the vines, so do not dig around and instead do some light hoeing. If the hoe still is not enough to fight off the weeds and grasses, use tiny amounts of herbicides. It is important to carry out pruning for new branches to shoot.

How to cure a bottle gourd

One will need to do it within two weeks in a bucket and some water. Cut the hole on the top, measuring two to three inches in diametre and remove as much pulp and seeds as you can.

Put the gourd in the bucket of water so it is completely under the water and let it sit in the sun for two or three days.

Remove whatever softened pulp you can, put the gourd back in the bucket and again submerge it.

After two weeks of this method, you will be able to pull out almost all pulp and the skin will come off too.

Do not wash a bottle gourd as it is curing, since that invites fungi of all sorts that will not die to anything, not even bleach. Pat down wet spots dry with a towel because gourds that have not dried out completely will always rot.

Pests and diseases

The bottle gourd is a target of attack of several animals, with steady care being the best defence.

The cucumber beetle, an orange and black beetle, is the most notorious gourd insect pest.

It can hibernate in the soil and emerge to decimate gourd seedlings overnight if not destroyed through spraying with chemicals.

Stinkbugs, aphids and corn earworms are also notorious for attacking squashes and gourds.

Mice, squirrels and chipmunks love attacking gourds and digging into them for seeds. Deer will nibble on the vines and might go for a bite of the gourd too, which isn’t a problem if on occasion.

Gourds are prone to diseases during cool, wet weather when water gathers on bunched up leaves.

Once they appear, these diseases are near impossible to cure but do ask the agronomist for guidance and help.

The diseases include, powdery mildew which affects the leaves leaf spot, scab, anthracnose, gummy stem blight also known as black rot or alligator skin, fusarium wilt, phytophthora blight, septoria leaf spot and cucumber mosaic virus among others

The best option is prevention by spacing out the gourd plants to let the air move through the plants. A trellis is the best option for keeping a gourd plant dry and healthy.

Polishing

Use rough sandpaper or steel wool with light touches on gourd skin to polish its hard, outer shell.

Take a soft cloth sprinkled with olive or canola oil and polish the cured gourd skin to give it a smooth finish.  Do not worry if the oil gathers in the creases of gourd skin; take a cloth and buff the gourd a few times. If you do not plan on putting the gourd in your compost, you can spray it with shellac instead.

Harvesting

For both dried and fresh gourds farmers need to scoop out the pulp and separate it from the seeds. If you have a dried gourd, cut a hole in its skin and start scooping out the pulp. Keep only those seeds that show no signs of mold, mildew or a blotchy pattern. Put the seeds in an envelope and keep it sealed in a dark, dry place. For fresh gourds, cut open a hole in the skin and use a saw if you must. Scoop out all the pulp, take out the seeds by hand and put them in a bowl of warm water. That will help you separate the seeds from the tiny pieces of pulp.

Dry the seeds for two weeks on paper in a dark area, flipping them over four to five times and keep in an envelope. You can remove the gourds using a sharp knife or by plucking manually after detecting that they are ready for harvesting.

Use sharp gardening shears that you have disinfected with rubbing alcohol to harvest gourds.  Leave a few inches of the stem intact, since that will make the gourd dry instead of rot. Wash harvested gourds with soapy water, let them dry and wipe the skin with rubbing alcohol.

Uses of a gourd

It is used as craft for decoration, for storing seed in villages, as musical instrument, kitchenware, smoking pipes and water containers among others.

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