With some ingenuity, gourds can become unique decorations

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WHAT CHARACTERS: These gourds show how a bit of paint and creativity can transform gourds into decorative objects.

photo courtesy of Ruth Nix

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Gourds may look like odd, lumpy vegetables, but to some people, they present a world of decorative possibilities.

Ruth Nix, of Camden, Ark., can turn the humble veggies into works of art. She got her start some four years ago, after seeing her first display of painted gourds at a craft show.

She brought home a few and painted them. But she wasn't ready to stop.

'I had to search out more gourds,' she says.

She's still at it. In the right hands, gourds can become characters, animals, a beautiful scenery or even a humorous message. Nix's gourds became doctors, nurses, clowns and more.

Sometimes, one cracks.

'I usually save the pieces for a hat or something,' she says.

With a saw, even broken pieces can accommodate a gourd decorator's imagination.

Get growing

Some gourd decorators find their hard little canvases as close as a garden or field.

'They can raise a lot in a small patch,' Nix says.

But it is a slow process. Nix gets hers from other gourd growers. The American Gourd Society's Web site lists numerous sites for buying either seeds or gourds that are already cured and hard.

Growing gourds involves more than just dropping a few seeds into the ground and then going out a few weeks later to harvest the crop. If planted in wet or cold ground, seeds may rot instead of germinating. It's all right to start growing them indoors and then transplant them when the soil warms up. Depending on the variety, gourds need 100 to 180 days to reach maturity.

Insect pests are a threat to crops, as is frost. A light frost won't hurt gourds if the shell has hardened, but it may affect their color.

When stems get dry and turn brown, the gourds are ready to be picked.

Gourd types

Different types of gourds grow in different shapes. Because gourds belong to the cucumber family, they are likely to be cross-pollinated. A gardener who raises gourds one year and saves seeds for next year's crop should expect quite a mixture of shapes, sizes and colors. The new crop may not resemble what the gardener raised the previous year.

Cucurbita gourds are colorful and ornamental. They might show up on the dinner table as a centerpiece because they look so pretty in autumn arrangements. Luffas, which need a longer growing season, have a tough, fibrous interior and make good sponges. Then there is the lagenaria, or birdhouse, group. Nix paints characters on their bottle and dipper shapes.

A new gourd popular in recent years is the apple gourd, once known as African Squares. Standing 8 inches tall and 8 inches across at the widest point, the apple gourd is larger than an apple. It looks like the fruit, though, and it offers new opportunities to creative craftsmen.

Preparing a gourd

After picking a gourd, the gardener must clean it with soap and water, and then dry it well.

Nix says the total curing time for a gourd may last a year. Because it takes so long, she always has some in three stages.

The first stage allows the skin to harden and the outside color to set. This takes about a week. The gourds must be arranged in a single layer - not touching each other - in a dark, well-ventilated area. The vegetables need room for air circulation. The grower should check them daily and throw out any that show signs of decay or mold.

The second stage is for internal drying and may take a month to more than six months, depending on the type and size of the vegetable. The gourds must have time to fully harden.

When gourds are completely dry, Nix cleans them with bleach to remove any mold. Some artists also smooth and polish them with very fine steel wool or sandpaper. The shell should then be treated with rubbing alcohol and left to dry.

Now, the gourds are ready to be painted. Once that's done, the finishing touch is a sealer. After the sealer is applied, Nix says, gourds will 'last about forever.'