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'Tis the season for decorative gourds, Lancaster County

Gourds

Gourds are vegetables that are too bitter to eat but are perfect for drying and decorating.

A few years ago, Karen Hartman decided to try something new and grow her own gourds. She planted her seeds in a sunny spot and months later harvested enough to cover the picnic table and benches at her Rapho Township home.

Hartman spread them out to dry and waited. The gourds soon erupted with black spots, so she threw them away.

If only she knew then that those ugly black spots are a normal part of the process when curing gourds.

Hartman’s most recent gourd harvests have survived the ugly stage. When the gourds are dry and she wipes the black spots away, she paints some of them with quilt patterns and adds holes to turn them birdhouses. She painted a snake-shaped gourd to look like a venomous copperhead. She also painted an apple-shaped gourd red and sent it with her husband to his office, where it won a contest for the biggest “apple.”

Gourds are vegetables that are too bitter to eat but are perfect for drying and decorating. While people thousands of years ago may have used gourds as containers, musical instruments and fishing floats, today it’s more common to paint them and craft them into a birdhouse, a scarecrow or maybe a snowman.


What is a gourd?

Gourds are part of the cucurbitaceae family. This plant family includes edible vegetables such as squash, pumpkin, cucumber and many kinds of melons. It also has gourds: non-edible fruits with hard shells.

Their hard shells make them perfect for drying and keeping. Through the years, gourds have been used as dippers, bowls or storage containers.

Remains of gourds were found in Egyptian tombs from 2200 B.C. One species of thick-skinned bottle gourds native to Africa has been found in places as far away as Asia, Mexico, Peru, Kentucky and Florida, and were used for thousands of years before the rise of pottery, according to anthropologists and biologists with Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution.


Growing gourds

Bottle gourds and many other varieties are grown at farms throughout Lancaster County. At one farm in Kinzers, piles of washed gourds fill big wire bins. Some have a hole in the front and a coat of matte white paint and are sold as birdhouses for purple martins. Others sport knit caps and drawn-on eyelashes to become snowmen. And some have a coat of paint and a shiny sealant so they can remain outdoors for months.

At Stoltzfus Gourd and Pumpkin Farm on Landisville Road in East Hempfield Township, wooden bins are filled with miniature gourds in orange, yellow, green and white. Inside a barn are bin after bin of dried gourds.

While the farm’s pumpkins need to be harvested quickly, the gourds are a crop that can wait, says Levi Stoltzfus. They can even be harvested in the spring. The drying, washing and birdhouse-making comes later, when there’s time.

He and his wife Linda have grown gourds for two decades — goose gourds, apple gourds, cannonball gourds, warty gourds and spinner gourds just 2 inches long.

Some bargain gourds are left unwashed. Others are washed. Many are tinted with wood stain.

“You can use leather dye, acrylic paint,” Linda Stoltzfus says. Some customers add designs with wood burning tools or carve the gourds. Others like to keep things simple and don’t alter gourds’ natural finish.

“They really go well with primitive decorating,” she says.

They couple recently handed the business over to their son Sam and his wife Sadie Mae.

“We do plan on growing some more next year,” Sam Stoltzfus says.

In the meantime, they have mesh bags of gourds drying on the back wall of the barn, waiting for next fall.