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Drying Gourds for Folk Art, Fall Decor, and Christmas Ornaments

Published by Ismael Perlin

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Harvest season features color in abundance: the dark lime and blazing orange of pumpkins, hearty reds from maple and gold from oak, the wampum purples of Indian corn. For some, however, autumn hasn’t come until a brimming basket of gourds takes center stage as a folk art dining room table decoration.

Fall may fade quickly, but the vibrant colors and bubbly textures of decorative gourds need not. Properly dried, preserved and finished, gourds can retain their decorative quality for several years. Since one can work the surface of dried gourds like wood, and sanded, carved and painted, the longevity of dried gourds provides the inspired plenty of time to turn gourds into folk art.

Most of the gourds in the bins at the market are already dried; many are coated with shellac, polyurethane, or rubbed to a gleaming finish with paste wax. You can enjoy them as is. They require no further preservation or finishing.


Folk artists, however, will be inspired to embellish the intriguingly shaped fruit, and so may need to take the drying process a step further. Green thumbs may have grown their own gourd gardens from seed, and local markets sometimes offer fresh gourds rather than dried. Everyone can arrange, carve or paint his way to a collection of gourd folk art, but one may begin to work with the fruit at different stages.

Harvest and Wash the Gourd

Horticultural experts note that the harvest of a gourd for drying needs to be properly timed. The fruit must be fully mature. One can judge its maturity by the state of the stem: if the stem is shriveled and fading to brown, the fruit is ready for harvest. To assure that you do no damage to the body of the fruit, leave at least two inches of the stem intact when snipping or cutting the fruit off the vine.

During the washing process, treat the fruit gently. Bruises cause discoloration and invite premature decay.

Bring your gourds to the sink. Bath them in warm soapy water; rinse them off in plain water. Spray them down with a disinfectant. Well-diluted bleach does as good a job as any of the commercial spray products. Pat your gourds dry with cloth towels.

How to Dry and Preserve Gourds

Once the gourds are clean and towel dried, the gourd preservation process has two more steps. For step one, find a dark, warm, dry space large enough to hold your collection. Darkness is crucial to maximize color intensity.

Fan the gourds out on some newspaper so that none touch- circulating air will expedite drying and minimize the formation of mold. Once per day, give the gourds a spin and fresh newspaper if it appears damp. Any fruit that seems to be rotting should be weeded out and composted.

In six to ten days, your gourds will be dry. Gradually, their surfaces will harden and the natural colors will finalize.

Step two requires more patience. To begin this final drying phase, clean the fruit with disinfectant – again, diluted bleach is fine. Towel them dry thoroughly, but gently. Change your newspapers, and return the collection to their dark, warm, dry space. They will live there for at least a month.

Finishing a Gourd

After roughly a month of the second phase of the gourd drying process, your little beauties are ready for display as is, or to be finished in a variety of ways. Some people buff them out with paste wax; others prefer shellac, varnish or polyurethane. The finish you choose will affect the color of the gourd, so choose your finish as you might during a woodworking project.

You need not be constrained to the colors, textures and patterns provided by nature, however. Before applying a final finish, many folk art workers grind, sand, or carve gourds using any of the tools appropriate for small woodcarving projects.

Acrylic paints work beautifully on dried gourds. Go ahead – paint that roly-poly yellow one into a red and white folk art Santa! Given the enormous range of shapes for small gourds, and their receptivity to glue and paint, carving, and a matte or gloss coat, the folk art possibilities presented by gourds are limited only by your imagination. If you like decoupage, break out the Mod Podge and paper; beaders, feel free to use the gourd as a form and glue some on. High quality colored pencils work beautifully, too.

Christmas Ornaments and other Folk Art Ideas for Gourds

Once the crafter becomes comfortable with tools and techniques for shaping and painting the gourd, it is time for some imagination. Libraries, craft stores and numerous blogs contain some incredible creative ideas for gourd folk art, such as:

  • bowls, vases and cornucopia for dried flower bouquets
  • fall décor, natural centerpiece and table decoration ideas
  • painting folk art figurines, such as penguins and swans
  • organic wedding decorations
  • drums, maracas and rattles
  • Purple Martin bird houses and bird feeders
  • dippers, ladles, scoops and drinking gourds
  • winter décor, folk art Santas and other folk art Christmas ornaments

Although in the US we commonly associate gourds with the harvest season, in the Andes, gourds have made amazing Christmas folk art ornaments for centuries. The intricately carved, lushly colored, handcrafted, organic folk art Christmas ornaments made from gourds by artists in Peru are becoming increasingly popular and imitated by crafters all over the world.

Shaped like eggs, rockets, apples or pears; whether warty, fluked, dimpled or hooked, properly dried and coated ornamental gourds add baskets of folk art fun to winter and fall décor.

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