Feathered fowl give us great joy for their beauty, antics, and delightful songs, so much so that we often want to attract them to our yards and gardens. The first things that come to mind might be planting elderberries or other alluring vegetation and building wooden birdhouses, but what about making a special birdhouse from the fruits of a plant you grew from seed? Gourds, which are often colorful and unusually shaped, are just right for this. One gourd in particular is especially great for birdhouse production, and this is the appropriately named “birdhouse gourd.”
There are many types of gourds in the cucurbit, or gourd, family, Cucurbitaceae, but our focus will be on the bottle gourds, Lagenaria spp. and specifically Lagenaria siceraria, which is also known as the white-flowered gourd or sometimes as calabash. Within the species, there is great diversity in gourd size — from 4 inches to 3 feet long — and in shape: round, spoon, coiled, bottle, and still other shapes. This is why it is important to buy seed for the particular cultivar you desire — in our case, the birdhouse gourd.
Growing your gourds
Gourds require a long growing season and resent transplanting. If possible, start each of the fairly large seeds indoors, in individual peat pots, three weeks before planting outdoors. Provide a warm soil temperature between 75 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and keep the soil evenly moist. Germination will take about one week.
Two plants can easily cover an area about 15 feet by 10 feet. Make sure you provide your plants with a sturdy support like a trellis. You may need to tie some of the stems to the cross pieces. Also, because of the quick growth, do not allow the plants to engulf any nearby shrubs you value. Some of the developing fruits will be fairly heavy and may require net bags or even foot panty hose for extra support.
Even though the vines are heat- and drought-tolerant, it is best to provide them with good soil moisture, particularly during fruit set. Plants also prefer full sun exposure on the foliage and plenty of organic matter worked into the soil.
Harvesting your gourds
Harvest these gourds in autumn when the smooth, greenish rind turns creamy brownish-white, and when the stem and leaves start to die and dry out. Cut off the fruits with hand pruners, making sure to leave a 4-inch portion of the stem attached. Handle the gourds with care to prevent bruising. Complete your harvest before the first frost.
Making a gourd birdhouse
Making your own gourd birdhouse is a fulfilling project anyone can participate in and enjoy. Keep in mind that it is important to handle undried gourds carefully, as they can break easily, and bruised areas can rot during the drying process.
After harvesting, the first step is to wash your gourds. Some people wash them in warm, soapy water and rinse with a strong solution of non-bleaching disinfectant. Other sources recommend washing the fruit in a mild solution of water containing 10-percent bleach to protect gourds from rot and fungal mold. To do this, soak gourds in the bleach solution for 15 minutes, rinse thoroughly, and then dry them with a soft cloth.
Store the gourds for five to six weeks in a well-ventilated room until they turn light brown or straw-colored and are light in weight. Hanging the gourds is best for maximum air circulation, as other curing and drying methods can take longer — from two to four months or more, depending on size of gourds. If desired, you can poke a small wire-sized hole in the blossom end of the gourd, which may speed up the internal drying time. Inspect drying gourds regularly, and discard any that are immature, soft, or rotting.
Your gourds are cured when thoroughly dry and hard shelled. If you shake the gourds and hear seeds rattling, they are ready to make into birdhouses.
But before this, your dried gourds should be washed in warm, soapy water again. Any tough stains or marks may need to be scrubbed with sandpaper. Rinse and dry thoroughly.
Now that all these steps have been taken and the gourds are fully dried, you are ready for drilling holes, etc. – put your craft skills to work!
The entry hole for your bird friends can vary in size, dependent on the size of gourd, though 1-inch-diameter seems pretty standard. Chickadees, swallows, and purple martins are a few of the bird species that will enjoy these homes. The diameter of entry hole you drill and height of birdhouse will help determine the species it will attract, so determine the species of bird you’d like hanging around, and research that species’ preference. Use a hole saw or drill bit of the appropriate size. You may wish to drill a small 1⁄8-inch or so hole under the entry hole to insert a perch for the birds to stand on. Drill two holes at the top of the gourd, one on each side, to insert the wire for hanging the birdhouse.
Next, use your fingers and a long knife or spoon to clean out any seeds and pulp that may have remained in the gourd. Save the seeds for planting and sharing for next year.
Now you can wax and polish, paint, or varnish your birdhouses, if desired. If you prefer to leave your gourd natural, it will last about one year. Weatherproof paint, etc., will provide a longer-lasting house, but remember to clean out the inside at the end of each nesting season.
Hang your gourd birdhouse in a suitable spot, ideally under some shelter protected from predators.
Then watch and wait, as you’ve grown and created a beautiful fixture assured to attract a beautiful creature or three.
If you’re looking for a woodworking project to attract bluebirds, we have easy DIY plans.
Jesse Vernon Trail is an author and former instructor of environment, horticulture, and natural history studies.