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Gourds: alternatives to summer squash

June 14, 2018

In my garden, I've given up on growing yellow squash, zucchini, and pattypan squash (collectively known as "summer squashes" of the species Cucurbita pepo) for three reasons:


  1. They take up too much space. Summer squash grows as a bush that can reach 4 feet in diameter. My raised beds are only 3 feet by 5 feet, so a single summer squash plant is overwhelming. Being bushy, they do not vine, so they cannot be trellised to save space.

  2. They're susceptible to squash vine borer. Summer squash have hollow stems that squash vine borer larvae burrow into, cutting off the plant's vascular system, and causing it to wilt and die. According to Cornell University, vine borer is only a problem in smaller gardens and not an issue in larger farming operations for "unknown reasons." Which might explain point #3...

  3. They're inexpensive at the grocery store. Yellow squash and zucchini are widely available and affordable at the grocery store. I can often find pattypan squash at the farmers market. In general, I prefer use my limited gardening space to save money by growing pricier, harder-to-find veggies.


The diversity of Cucurbitaceae offers plenty of alternatives to summer squash. As the name suggests, this botanical family includes cucumbers as well as summer and winter squashes, melons, and gourds.


My fascination with edible gourds began because of a cookbook: My Bombay Kitchen by Niloufer Ichaporia King. A James Beard Foundation award winner, this cookbook author shares her recipes for bitter gourd, bottle gourd, ridge gourd, snake gourd, and sponge gourd. My gourd knowledge was further expanded by The Chinese Kitchen Garden by Wendy Kiang-Spray. Author and DC gardener, she grows bitter melon, bottle gourd, fuzzy melon, luffa gourds (angled and smooth), and winter melon. As you can tell already, different names are used for the same gourd when described in different cultural contexts, and that doesn't even include the names in Gujarati and Hindi, Mandarin and Cantonese (respectively) that the book authors also use in sharing their families' stories as connected to food. Since Latin is the language of botanists, that's how I'm going to list them here:



Note: all links in the above list are to Kitazawa Seed Company, a Japanese-American company which offers an outstanding selection of vegetable seeds with Asian origins.


Since native bugs co-evolved to feed on native plants, then non-native gourds should be more resistant to our native squash vine borer. Indeed, I have found this to be true and my past crops of T. cucumerina (my favorite!), L. acutangula, and L. siceraria were unaffected by vine borer.


This year, I was given some M. charantia seeds to try and I entirely failed to get them to germinate. I later read in Wendy Kiang-Spray's book that M. charantia seeds can take up to a month to germinate and that they are susceptible to rot in soil that is too cold. So I decided to try again with Taiwan white bitter melon, which is said to taste less bitter than green types. I've eaten green bitter melon at Chinese restaurants and it is truly bitter. And I'm pleased to say that the white bitter melon has germinated successfully.


I wasn't planning to grow L. siceraria (birdhouse gourd) again this year, but then I found a few volunteers in my garden, so I will accept this gift from Nature. The seeds were from rotten gourds that I had composted back in the fall of 2016 after a failed attempt to cure them for crafting. I didn't know it at the time, but yes, they're edible when harvested young. I guess the early May heatwave and all the rain finally softened those tough seed coats, allowing them to germinate. Because the seed coats were still attached to the emerging seedlings, I was able to identify them. 


I've seen many of these gourds in the produce section of international grocery stores, where I like to shop a few times a year to stock up on non-perishable items like whole spices and dried beans. It would be more costly to drive out to the suburbs (where most of my favorite international groceries are located) regularly for fresh gourds, which is why I think it's a better idea to grow them at home.  


As I previously stated, getting gourd seeds to germinate can be tricky. I learned a lot about germinating gourd seeds from the video below. Since these gourds originate from tropical parts of the world, they need warmth (use a heating mat...or a DVR player, as the video author cleverly suggests) and moisture (soak the seeds overnight, use damp paper towels to germinate them before transferring to soil). I was always hesitant to nick the tough seed coat, afraid that I would end up damaging the seed, but the video makes it look so easy.



Once your seedlings have started, there's no stopping them until frost. Gourds love sultry DC summers! The vining plants are heavily productive and require a sturdy trellis with large holes so that the developing fruits can hang freely. Ever seen cucumbers grown on a chain-link fence become strangled in the middle and bulging at the ends? Chain-link has 2-inch holes, too small to grow most cucurbits without risking deformity. 


An arched trellis is a beautiful, elegant solution. YouTube gardening videos made me want to get a couple cattle panels, but then I found out I'd have to drive out to Upper Marlboro to get them...and they're enormous, making them difficult to transport or store when not in use. My husband and I managed to fit 4 remesh panels inside of our small but mighty Fiat by carefully rolling them up and securing them with bungee cords. We installed them as 2 arched trellises, using t-posts for support and zip-ties to secure them. Note: wear gloves and protective clothing when transporting and installing all this metal wire to avoid injury. For safety reasons, this is a two-person task.


Here's what one of the arched trellises looks like at the top, made of two remesh panels joined with zip-ties. I tried to photograph the trellis against a cloudy sky so that it would be more visible. The greenery in the background is my grape vine growing on the back fence and a neighbor's bushes several doors down.


The gourds I've planted are not yet large enough to start climbing, but I know I won't have to wait very long. I also intend to use these trellises to grow yardlong beans and 'Lemon' cucumbers.


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