September 2002


Bird House Gourd – Lagenaria siceraria

Origin – The Americas


Want to attract Purple Martins or Tree Swallows with some low-income housing? How about making some spiffy bird feeders? If you're anything like me, you'd much rather invest your dollars in bird food rather than fancy digs.    

 Although this isn't the time of year to start anything that requires a long growing season in the northern areas, you'll be able to find these hard-shelled gourds at many farmers' markets. In addition to birdie gear, you can turn these gourds into baskets, dishes or planters (or anything else you might be able to dream up).

 For those you who want to cut to the chase, I've divided this month's article into two parts, "Growing Gourd Houses" and "Making Gourd Houses". Enjoy and let your creativity run wild. 



The Lagenaria gourd demands a long growing season. You can pre-start them indoors about four weeks prior to transplanting them outside. The seeds should be planted in individual containers such as peat pots so their roots won't be disturbed when moved outdoors. I like to use a heat mat to start these seeds but a sunny, southern-facing windowsill will do nicely.

 After the danger of frost is over, plant your peat pots in tilled soil that has some compost or fertilizer added. Position your plants so that they will have a trellis or fence for the vines to climb up onto. If you let them stay on the ground, the gourds that are produced will not be symmetrical in shape. One vine can produce up to 12 gourds.

 When the vines have established themselves, don't fertilize them or else you will leafy vines that don't produce gourds. Water frequently throughout the summer, especially in hot dry weather. However; when fall approaches, stop supplemental watering and allow the vines to wither and die as winter approaches.

 After the first frost, remove the gourds from the vines and place them in a warm, dry place, either on a screen or hang them. The air must circulate around them in order for proper drying. If a gourd begins to rot, become soft or shriveled, it should be thrown away. A small amount of mold is normal and will be dealt with in the next part. It can take up to six months to dry the gourds. They are ready when they are very light in weight and you can hear the seeds shake inside when you rattle it.   



Soak the gourd in a solution of cup bleach per gallon of water for thirty minutes. Scrub off any dirt, mold or mildew with a pot scrubber or steel wool pad. Rinse, towel dry and then air dry for another thirty minutes.

 Hang the gourd by making a 5/16" hole about an inch down from the top. Mark your entry hole about 4 to 6" from the bottom. For tree swallows, the ideal entry is 1 " across and 2 3/8" high. Violet-green swallows prefer an oval or diamond-shaped entry 3 " wide and 7/8" high. Purple Martins need a larger size entry diameter of 1 " to 2 1/8".  Always cut the entry hole exactly perpendicular to the vertical axis of the gourd when it is suspended (the outermost part of the curve, pointing neither upward or downward).

If you place the entry too high, rain will come in and drown the newly hatched chicks. Too low and the nestlings can fall out.    

 Add four to six drainage holes, approximately 5/16" on the bottom. Completely clean out the inside of the gourd. If the debris is stubborn, soak it in water for a few hours to soften it up. After drying, you can treat the gourd with a preservative by submerging it in a solution of one pound copper sulfate to five gallons warm water. Drain and let dry for several days.

 To create a white or colored background , sponge on one or two coats of exterior latex paint. Be very careful not to let any paint drip into the gourd or clog the drainage holes. Allow the gourd to dry thoroughly. Trace your design on to the gourd and paint with acrylic paints. Erase all tracing lines when done. Finish with a good coat of high-gloss spar urethane without allowing any inside the gourd or to clog up the drainage holes.