Bottle Gourd (Calabash Gourd) Plant — A Growing & Caring Guide

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Bottle gourd, also known as calabash gourd and white-flowered gourd, is pretty versatile. You can grow it in many ways, as long as you give it a bit of care.

Once grown, you can use the sturdy bottle gourd fruit in many fun and practical ways.

Read on to find out how to grow and care for the bottle gourd.

What is a bottle gourd?

Bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) aka. calabash is a type of plant that produces versatile, edible fruit. The fruit grows on vines that spread out from the bottle gourd root, which dies at the end of the season.

These vines wrap around anything upright and seek the sun but can also crawl along the ground up to 150 feet away. Once the vines find enough sun, they sprout leaves and flowers that turn into bottle gourd fruit.

Depending on the bottle gourd type, the calabash fruit can look like a stick, bottle, snake or any other item.

The skin of a calabash bottle is strong enough for you to make other objects out of it, such as:

  • tools
  • kitchenware
  • smoking pipes
  • musical instruments
  • containers (water gourd)

Not to be outdone, the flesh of a bottle gourd is also versatile, with a nice taste and few calories. You can eat it raw, cook it or use it in recipes but also munch on the seeds too, which you can roast or dry.

Even those bottle gourds that don’t make it through the winter have a purpose as compost fodder. Don’t mistake a bottle gourd with the bottle gourd tree (Crescentia cujete), a related plant but not a vine.

What is the difference between squash and gourd?

Squash and gourd refer to the same plant, with there being some small differences based on their use. The first difference is the language of origin of their name. Squash is how the Native Americans called it but gourd comes from French; calabash is Spanish. You can pretty much use “gourd” and “squash” interchangeably or even say “bottle gourd squash“.

The second difference is in how people have come to use them. Squash has come to refer to the same plant used for food; gourd is when the plant is grown for some other use. That’s why squashes are plants with thinner skin that is more palatable while gourds have thick skin. That thick skin is sturdy and you can use dried and painted gourd skin for decoration but squash skin will rot fast.

The third difference is how you grow a squash versus a gourd, especially when it comes to seeds and flowers. Gourd seeds get started indoors while squash seeds get sown directly in the ground. They have similar flowers but squashes bloom during the day while gourds bloom at night.

Finally, gourds take twice as long to mature compared to squashes but also have a longer shelf life.

Where to grow bottle gourd?

A bottle gourd prefers USDA 10–12 zones and needs these conditions:

  • plenty of sun
  • rich soil
  • warm season without frost

You can grow gourds in cold climates too but you will need plenty of preparation and care. These gourds will also not be as big or as thick-skinned as their cousins grown in warmer areas. A greenhouse is a must if there’s a chance of sudden freezing.

If you give a bottle gourd tree ideal growing conditions, it will spread its vines that can grow as high as you let it. The planting spot should have enough vertical space for the vines but also be manageable.

Without access, you won’t be able to check up on and prune the vines or hand pollinate the flowers. Keeping vine growth under control makes the plant go to the sides, flower more, and yield more fruit.

How to germinate a squash gourd?

Start at least four weeks before the date when the last frost was last year. Take a paper towel, moisten and wring it so it’s soaked but not dripping. Fold and place the towel in a clear ziplock bag and put the seeds on top of the towel, giving each seed an inch of space. Lining them in rows gives the plants the most space and helps you avoid their roots tangling.

The next step is giving those seeds enough warmth throughout the day so they germinate. One neat trick is to place them on top of a monitor or TV set, since they often stay on the whole day. You can expect the seeds to germinate within 1–3 days but it’s normal if it takes up to 10 days; peek into the bag on occasion. Plant the seeds in a container as soon as they germinate or they will tangle up with other plants.

Once the seeds germinate, plant them in the ground with the pointy side up to help the plant break the soil. The bottle gourd seedling will use the pointy side of the seed to emerge faster and take in more sun. You should plant the seeds so they’re covered with soil only a little bit — not too deep and not too shallow.

How to plant bottle gourd?

Start at least four weeks before the date when the last frost was last year. Wait for the soil temperature to be at least 65 °F before planting, which will help them grow faster. Each plant should have at least 10 feet of space from other plants or the dense foliage might make them all sick.

The best strategy for planting a bottle gourd is making a small hill and planting at least 6–7 seeds per hill. When they get established, thin all but the 2–3 healthiest and strongest vines. In this way, you guarantee 2–3 healthy vines and hedge against problems and pests that can stunt growth. Be patient and don’t fiddle with the hill, as it can take anywhere from 5 days to 5 weeks before the seedlings emerge.

Be careful of disturbing the root ball when moving the plant from bag to container or to the ground. Gourd squash plants can’t grow if their root system gets damaged too much. That most often happens if you germinate the seeds for too long and their roots grow to the point of entangling. Trying to pick them apart at that point hurts the bottle squash plants’ chances of growing.

How to grow bottle gourd?

Gourds need a bit acidic soil that you’ve enriched and drained well. If the soil is warm, it will help the vines spread out quickly and start making gourds. After removing weeds and grasses, enrich the soil with compost and spread a light fabric to keep it warm. You can plant the gourd seeds into holes you cut in the fabric, which helps keep weeds down.

If you want to grow Chinese gourds (Luffa acutangula), give them their own corner of the garden to grow. The Chinese bottle gourd is also known as loofa or luffa. In ideal conditions, the bottle gourd plant you chose will produce flowers within 75 days.

Bottle gourd is an annual plant, which means you will have to go through this same script to grow a new plant each year.

How to fertilize a bottle gourd?

You should test the soil before planting the bottle gourd to see if it has all the needed nutrients. Use a balanced fertilizer, such as 10-10-10 at planting and when the vines start running. If you’re growing organic gourds, use composted mulch and animal manure instead. Grass clippings and even fish emulsion sprayed on the gourd plant work as fertilizer.

If the soil lacks phosphorus, the bottle gourd won’t fruit as well as it should. Use rock phosphate or bone meal and add about 1 pound of phosphorus per 1,000 square feet of soil. That comes out to 1–2 tablespoons of either of those two organic fertilizers per hill.
If the soil lacks potassium, the bottle gourd plant won’t make as many gourds as it could have. Aim to add 2 pounds of potassium per 1,000 square feet of soil. You can use potash, potassium nitrate or potassium magnesium sulfate. Lack of nitrogen and magnesium in the soil is most often not a problem; if it is, contact your vendor for help.

How to grow a bottle gourd indoors?

Use a wide and deep container with at least a 20-inch diameter to grow a bottle gourd indoors. Place it out of shade and where the plant gets at least 8 hours of sunlight each day. You can put up a trellis for the vine or let it climb to the roof. If grown on a terrace, let the vine wrap around the fence.

How to care for a bottle gourd?

Past germination, bottle squash plants don’t need much care and we could say they even thrive on the lack of it. As long as they have sun, water and open space, they will produce plenty of bottle gourds for you and your family. Roots of a sweet gourd will spread as much as the vines, so don’t dig around and instead do some light hoeing. If the hoe still isn’t enough to fight off the weeds and grasses, use tiny amounts of herbicides.

You can have a chain link fence, arbor or a trellis nearby for a bottle gourd plant and that should do it. You can also walk past the gourds once or twice a season and set them upright to give their necks a nice bend. In this way, they will maintain their shape without too much effort but you could go further in molding them. For example, if you let a gourd hang from the vine, you will get what’s known as “bottleneck gourd”.

How to prune a bottle gourd vine?

Prune the main vine until it’s got 15–20 leaf knuckles but prune the side shoots only when they have 6. When you prune the main vine, the plant thinks it’s in danger and speeds up the reproduction aka. flowering. You will notice side shoots (laterals) make female flowers while the main vine grows male ones. Laterals will in general make at least one female flower on each of the four leaf knuckles on them.

Past four leaf knuckles, the laterals will again start making male flowers so leave at least two more. As you prune the laterals, the bottle squash will branch out even more, creating more laterals. You can use the same principle to prune the laterals and they too will help you keep the male-female ratio. Pruning too much can make your bottle gourd vine produce too many female flowers and no pollen for them.

You should also prune the first bottle gourd fruits that grow on each knuckle to foster more fruits. In Japan, some bottle gourd growers can produce up to a 1,000 fruits on one vine using that trick.

How to cure a bottle gourd?

To cure a bottle squash, you will need two weeks, a bucket, and some water. Cut the hole in the top, measuring some 2–3 inches in diameter, and remove as much pulp and seeds as you can. Put the gourd in the bucket of water so it is completely under the water and let it sit in the sun for 2–3 days. Remove whatever softened pulp you can, put the gourd back in the bucket and again submerge it.

After two weeks of this method, you will be able to pull out almost all pulp and the skin will come off too. The gourd itself will have no noticeable odor. Put the gourd in a south-facing window for a few days or use our other drying ideas and it will become completely dry. Don’t throw away the lid from the hole you cut at the start, since it will still fit the gourd.

Don’t wash a bottle gourd as it’s curing, since that invites fungi of all sorts that won’t die to anything, not even bleach. Pat down wet spots dry with a towel because gourds that haven’t dried out completely will always rot. There is no way to cure an unripe bottle gourd, since they haven’t dried out completely. If the gourd’s skin is green, it is unripe and will last only as much as a pumpkin due to moisture, a few weeks at most.

How to polish a bottle squash?

Use rough sandpaper or steel wool with light touches on gourd skin to polish its hard, outer shell.

Take a soft cloth sprinkled with olive or canola oil and polish the cured gourd skin to give it a smooth finish. Don’t worry if the oil gathers in the creases of gourd skin; take a cloth and buff the gourd a few times. If you don’t plan on putting the gourd in your compost, you can spray it with shellac instead.

How to harvest and keep bottle gourd seeds?

For both dried and fresh gourds, you need to scoop out the pulp and separate it from the seeds. If you have a dried gourd, cut a hole in its skin and start scooping out the pulp. Keep only those seeds that show no signs of mold, mildew or a blotchy pattern. Put the seeds in an envelope and keep it sealed in a dark, dry place.

For fresh gourds, cut open a hole in the skin and use a saw if you must. Scoop out all the pulp, take out the seeds by hand and put them in a bowl of warm water. That will help you separate the seeds from the tiny pieces of pulp. Dry the seeds for two weeks on paper in a dark area, flipping them over 4–5 times and keep in an envelope.

How to protect a squash gourd from frost?

Frost is deadly to gourds but you can keep it at bay using:

  • straw
  • grass clippings
  • buckets
  • flower pots
  • sprinklers
  • blankets

If the frost does hit your gourds when you don’t expect it, pile up straw and grass clippings around them. That will be enough to bury and warm the plant but not crush or weigh it down. You can still expect the frost to claim its toll but most of your gourd plants will survive. If you have no straw or grass clipping, cover the gourds with buckets or flower pots to help them dodge the frost.

Put a sprinkler on a timer when you expect frost and let it spray the vines, leaves, and gourds all night. This will insulate the plant from the frost. Use a double layer of blankets over the gourds when the air temperature is lower than 50 degrees. The air between the blankets will insulate the plant as well as the sprinkler or bucket method.

What pests and diseases attack the bottle squash?

The bottle squash is a target of attack of several animals, with steady care being the best defense. The cucumber beetle, an orange and black beetle, is the most notorious gourd insect pest. It can overwinter in the soil and emerge to decimate gourd seedlings overnight; till to kill it. Stinkbugs, aphids, and corn earworms are also notorious for attacking squashes and gourds.

Mice, squirrels, and chipmunks love attacking gourds and digging into them for seeds. Deer will nibble on the vines and might go for a bite of the gourd too, which isn’t a problem if on occasion. Finally, a single groundhog can eat as much as 14 pounds of gourd vines and leaves a day, stunting the plants’ growth. A weak bleach solution sprayed on gourds can keep the nibblers at bay but it’s only a temporary solution.

Gourds are prone to diseases during cool, wet weather when water gathers on bunched up leaves. Once they appear, these diseases are nigh impossible to cure but do ask the vendor for guidance and help. The best option is prevention by spacing out the gourd plants to let the air move through the plants. A trellis or arbor is the best option for keeping a gourd plant dry and healthy.

How to pollinate a bottle gourd flower?

You have to find a male bottle gourd flower and transfer pollen from it to a female bottle gourd flower. Male flowers will have slender bulbs while female flowers will have bulky, big bulbs. Male flowers will also be satin-like and yellowish while female flowers are glossy. If you do the pollination right, the female flower will get yellowish and satin-like too.

Between 12–3 p.m., find a male and a female bottle squash flower that are about to bloom and gently tie them. Tying will prevent them from getting spoiled by insects or the pollen from wasting due to wind. Pick off the male flower and untie it, peeling the petals to reveal the pollen holder (stamen). Insert the peeled flower into the female bottle calabash flower as far as it goes.

Give light jolts to the male flower to shake off as much pollen as you can into the pollen receiver (stigma). Again tie up the female flower and cover it with nylon or some other clear cover for two days to save it from bugs. Mark the female flower with red tape on which you will write the date and type of pollination. You can also use a paintbrush to take up the pollen from the stamen and transfer it to the stigma.

How to water a squash gourd?

Water your gourd seeds at planting time to increase their chances of surviving. Give your bottle calabash plants a constant water supply and water the soil deeply 4–5 times a month. The soil should be damp at all times since that will help the gourds grow faster. Water your gourds early in the morning, so they can dry completely by nightfall.

Drip irrigation is the best way to water gourds; avoid any watering systems that spray or splash. Any way of watering that splashes or sprays the vine and the leaves with water invites fungus and mildew. Use a watering wand if you notice a dry patch of soil and direct the water to the roots. Rain works too — in Asia, bottle gourds thrive when planted before the start of the monsoon season.

How and where to store bottle calabash?

Right after harvest, wash the bottle gourds with warm water and soap and then pat them dry. You can place gourds on a piece of cardboard on the floor but make sure they aren’t touching. If you have a fan, you can use it to increase air circulation and help the drying process. Check up on gourds every few days and rotate them to help the drying.

Do not store bottle calabash in your home or garage because their odor can be overwhelming. Also, do not keep them in areas that are damp, cool, or unheated, since that invites fungi. Do not place them on a table or a shelf because they won’t get enough air circulation unless you flip them daily. You should put gourds up in the air, such as by hanging them on strings, to get enough air circulation and curb fungus.

Do not keep bottle gourds stored in direct sunlight, since it can fade their natural skin color. Handle them with care or you will bruise and dent their skin. When a gourd starts showing signs of decay, it’s gone so throw it out right away or the rot will spread to other gourds. Mold is not a problem for stored gourds but you can use rubbing alcohol on the gourd’s skin if it bothers you.

When and how to harvest a gourd calabash?

You can harvest a bottle gourd after the stem turns brown and before the first frost comes around. If gourds remain on the stem when the frost hits, they might rot and then spread the rot to other gourds. Still, harvesting them too soon will keep too much moisture and may lead to them rotting in storage. Tap a gourd skin with your fingernail and when it sounds like tapping rock or glass is when it’s perfect.

Use sharp gardening shears that you’ve disinfected with rubbing alcohol to harvest gourds. Leave a few inches of the stem intact, since that will make the gourd dry instead of rot. Wash harvested gourds with soapy water, let them dry and wipe the skin with rubbing alcohol.

Can bottle gourds just stay on the vine?

Yes, you can keep bottle gourds in the field and they will do just fine unless severe frost hits. It usually takes 100–180 days for bottle gourds to ripen; if you can’t estimate if they’re ripe, leave them be. Long spells of freezing will hurt the gourds but if you’re in a warm area, you can pick them up all ripe at your leisure.

Can you change the gourd shape?

Yes, you can change gourd shape in many cheap and simple ways. You can use anything solid and make the gourd grow into it or around it to change the gourd’s shape.

For example, you can have the gourd grow inside a bottle or vase and then break it open for harvesting. Put a broomstick on the ground and have the stems grow around them or tie the stems into knots for a novel gourd shape.

Remember the snake shape we mentioned at the very start? You can make it yourself by using strings or rope, which can also give gourds ridges and quirks. Expect a few gourds to break or die because of your experiments but keep at it and you’ll learn the nuances.
How to decorate a bottle gourd?

Use any of the following to decorate a cured bottle gourd:

  • leather dyes
  • ink dyes
  • oil-based paints
  • wax

Wood burning tools also work for decorating cured bottle gourds but you have to be gentle. Keep in mind the gourd skin is not as tough as wood; holding the tool too long will poke a hole in the gourd.

You can also carve a gourd, glue it up or use inlays. When you’re done, you can hang the gourd outside; after curing, it will be quite sturdy.

Conclusion

In this guide, you’ve learned that:

  • Bottle squash needs little care when it’s planted
  • You can prune the bottle gourd vine to encourage male or female flowers
  • Keep harvested bottle gourds in a dry, warm place

 Holding a bottle gourd that you’ve grown, cared for, and decorated yourself is magical. It’s so simple yet satisfying to get not just one but tens or hundreds of gourds of all shapes and sizes. Now that you know the ins and outs of gourd care, get out there, and have fun.

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