Hardshell and luffa gourds take a long time -- from 100 to as much as 150 days from germination to maturity. 120 days is a good ballpark. Look at that on the calendar: if you plant germinated seeds on May 15, 120 days is Sept 15. Of course, nature has its own agenda, so the sooner you get started, the better. Ornamental gourds require a shorter season to reach maturity, about 90 days.
Choosing a location
Choose a well-drained location that gets full sun for most of the day. Prepare your garden soil as soon as you can work it in the Spring. Gourds like a soil pH around 6-6.5, slightly acidic. Use crushed limestone or lime to raise pH (reduce acidity); ammonium sulfate to lower pH (reduce alkalinity). Ask your Agricultural Extension Agent about whats typical in your area. Broadcast a general purpose 5-10-10 fertilizer according to package instructions. Be careful that fertilizer pellets are not in contact with seeds or seedlings.
Starting seeds indoors
Your seeds wont do much in soils below about 55 degrees; its too cool for them to grow, but its not too cold for fungus to damage or destroy them. Using seeds treated with a fungicide is a good idea in the North. Youll also get a head start by pre-germinating your seeds. Putting your seeds in the freezer for a few days can improve germination. Then soak them overnight, and put them between damp paper towels. Keep the towels damp, but dont drown the seeds. They need air. You should get sprouts in a few days, but some varieties, like banana gourds, and bushels, can take several weeks. You can speed those up by carefully scratching the seed coat with coarse sandpaper. Start your seeds a week or two before your usual last frost. Then plant 2 or 3 seeds to a hill, with hills 6 or 8 feet (2 long steps) apart. Whats a hill? Just mound up the soil to make a hill about 4 inches above the garden level with a dished area a foot or so across. That keeps your seedlings from drowning in heavy Spring rains, but gives a place to water in dry spells. If you prefer to plant in rows, plant a few seeds 4 feet apart with rows 8 feet apart.
Starting plants indoors
If youre going to the trouble or pre-sprouting, you might as well start even earlier, and plant your germinated seeds in a good potting soil in 4 inch pots, and set them in a window sill, under grow lamps, in a cold frame, etc. In that case, you can start 3 or 4 weeks before your last frost date. Its important to use large enough pots to avoid disturbing the roots when you transplant.
Extending your growing season
Another way to speed plant growth in the Spring is to warm the soil, using black plastic mulch, and to protect plants from frosts by using hot caps, or "wall o water". (Now available from Gourd Central). Gardeners in our area use plastic milk jugs with bottoms removed. Just put em over your seedlings when frost threatens. Really good growers get ahead of the rest of us by as much as a month, and that shows in the Fall in big, healthy, thick-shelled gourds.
ŠJohn J. McClintock 1996
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