One of my favorite things about fall is seeing colorful and creative displays of pumpkins, squash, and gourds on the front steps of my family, friends, and neighbors. What’s not to love? They’re festive, practical, and economical (particularly if you grow your own) and the colors and textures bring a richness that encompass falls so well. I am always a little sad when they start to disappear as fall gives way to winter, but before you toss those gourds in the compost bin, consider saving a few seeds from your favorites to grow next year.
The biggest challenge to saving seed from members of the cucurbitaceae family is that these plants are highly likely to cross pollinate with other cucurbits of the same species growing nearby. When hybridization happens in pumpkins and winter squash, there is a possibility that the desired flavor and appearance of the original variety can be lost depending on which combination of squash genes pair up in each individual seed.
Decorative gourds, on the other hand, are a little bit of different story. Gourds tend to be unpalatable to begin with, and a high degree of variability in appearance is very much a desired trait, so the fact that a certain variety may have crossed with another variety growing nearby resulting in a less tasty or odd looking version of the original becomes less of a concern.
Now, if you are trying to maintain a pure line of seed for a specific variety or want to ensure that your gourds express a particular appearance, you will need to make sure that you are saving seed from an open pollinated variety (not a hybrid) and you will want to follow recommended practices for isolation and hand pollination to ensure that the seed you are saving will produce true to type, but if your only goal is to grow a variety of decorative gourds for your front steps in the fall or a Thanksgiving table setting, you can save seed from gourds without being too particular about what variety they are or what other varieties were grown nearby.
I’ve been doing this for a few years now with some really fun results. It all started when my husband purchased a bag of assorted gourds at the grocery store to add to our outdoor fall decor. There were a couple of really unique looking gourds in there, and on a whim I decided to cut into them and grab a few seeds on the way to the compost bin. Since then, I’ve been growing out a few plants each year and have continued to add to my collection whenever I find another interesting looking gourd.
Gourds are pretty easy to find this time of year. Check farmer’s markets, local pumpkin patches or apple orchards, grocery stores, garden centers, and even home decor and home improvement stores. Individual gourds are usually pretty inexpensive, and in some of the more commercial settings you can probably find a bag of assorted gourds for a pretty reasonable price. Thrifty gardeners might even have some luck asking neighbors or friends for their gourds at the end of the season.
To save gourd seed, you’ll need a cutting board, a sharp knife, a colander, and a paper towel or plate to spread the seeds out to dry.
Carefully cut the gourd in half lengthwise (properly cured gourds will be quite hard, and there often isn’t much to hold on to, so cut with care).
Scrape out the seeds. There are some distinguishing features, like a slight difference in size or shape of the seed, but for the most part, gourd seeds are pretty similar in appearance. If you want to keep the seeds separate, be sure to label the seeds and containers as you work (if you don’t know the name of the variety, jot down a description). If you’re up for an added element of surprise in the garden next year, create an assortment of gourd seed.
Separate the seeds from the membrane. Save only the seeds that are fully formed and mature, and rinse them off under running water to clean them up. After the seeds have been cleaned, put them in a glass of water. The viable seed will sink to the bottom, so skim off any seed that is floating and then strain out the viable seed.
Spread seeds out to dry on a paper towel or plate. Once fully dry, the seed can then be stored in an envelope or other appropriate storage container. Extra seed will remain viable for 5 years or more with proper storage conditions.
This would make a great seed saving project for kids (with a little assistance, of course) and perfect for anyone who has even a mild obsession with decorating with squash and gourds. Next spring, the seed can be started indoors up to 4 weeks before the last frost or directly sown in the garden once the soil was warmed up. Gourd plants will vine and sprawl just like their larger scale counterparts, but because the gourds themselves are smaller and lighter, they easily lend themselves to trellising and will not need extra support as the plants set fruit – a great option for small space gardeners who would like to grow (mini) pumpkins!
The only thing better than a beautiful fall display is a beautiful homegrown fall display!