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The best known and most versatile of gourds are the hard-shelled gourds (Lagenaria siceraria), so named because their shells dry to a hard surface that can be treated for many different uses. These familiar, durable gourds are used around the world to make everything from containers and utensils to water dippers, smoking pipes, musical instruments, and works of art.
Transforming a gourd into a graceful ornament is easier than many gardeners imagine. Each of the surface treatments described below requires little skill; only a few basic hand tools and some supplies, available from a craft or hardware store, are necessary. Before applying any surface treatment, be certain that the gourd is properly cured.
Make a leaf bowl by cutting a leaf design out of the gourd with a handsaw. Scrape out the pulp, and sand the soft interior to a smooth finish, then cover it with a decoupage of leaf designs cut from decorative tissue paper. Stain both the inside and outside surfaces before varnishing the whole bowl.
Apply delicate gold patterns to gourds with a pen that produces a fine, opaque line for maximum coverage and control. For added effect, glue gold-colored cord around the rim.
Create a burnished look to your gourd by first darkening it with black shoe dye, then covering it with gold shoe polish. As a final touch, add black leather trim and gold beads.
Make a simple pitcher by staining a gourd with white shoe polish, which highlights the natural patterns on the gourd's surface. Then glue nylon cord around the top rim and the bottom, leaving enough between the top and bottom to form a handle. The cord at the bottom acts as a base.
Make a pitcher from two gourds: a bottle and a dipper, trimmed with a crafting knife and hand sawn to fit together. File and sand any rough edges, glue the parts together and fill in any remaining seam with putty. Create a coppery surface using an acrylic metallic paint rubbed with black shoe polish.
Decorate gourds with marking pens. This allows for flexibility, free-form design, and many color choices. Unfortunately marking pens, even permanent kinds, will fade over time.
If you're growing your own gourds, let the vines climb on trellises, and position the fruits so they can hang unobstructed. Trellised vines are not only attractive, but they produce straighter and cleaner fruits than vines grown on the ground. Be sure the trellis is sturdy, especially in windy areas, since an individual plant can vine up to 40 feet.
Some of the heavier basket-type gourds may need to be supported with a sling; old pantyhose are an inexpensive means of support.
In cool climates, snipping off late-setting fruits will redirect the plant's energy to maturing the first few fruits before frost.
Harvest hard-shelled gourds only after they mature on the vine. They are ready when the stem and tendril next to the gourd have browned, and the gourd's skin has begun to turn an ivory color and feels firm. Cut off the gourds, leaving at least 2 inches of stem on the fruit.
To learn about growing and using the many different kinds of ornamental gourds, consult Gourds in Your Garden: A Guidebook for Home Gardeners, by Ginger Summit (Hillway Press, 1998; $20); and The Complete Book of Gourd Craft, by Ginger Summit and Jim Widess (Lane Books, 1996; $27).