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Here we are, the last of October, and the garden is winding down fast, at least around the Sutter farm.

Seems like last week I was picking tomatoes, and this week, I am pulling the plants. It looks like we are going to have a little more good weather, but we are on borrowed time, so keep an eye on the weather if you haven't harvested all the frost sensitive crops. The weather has been great for any cole crops still in the garden. I did not get many out this year, and now I wish I had.

Of course, if you have gourds, they are still hanging in there. There are probably as many different methods for harvesting and storing gourds as there are varieties of gourds and people raising them.

Here are some general guidelines you can consider if you are growing the larger hard-shelled gourds that are popular for crafts and birdhouses:

Most growers agree you can leave gourds on the vine to dry, even after a hard freeze. Many commercial growers leave the gourds in the field to cure well into the cold weather. When you harvest them depends on if the gourds are fully ripened. Although frost will not hurt mature fruits, it will damage green fruits, but these will tend to rot instead of dry anyway.

The best way to tell if a gourd is ready to harvest is by look and feel. The vine will begin to die, either from "old age" or from weather, like frost. The skin of the gourd will turn light brown or tan and become hard.

An unripe gourd is bright green and feels fleshy.

When harvesting, it is best to cut gourds from the vine rather than pulling or twisting them away. Use sharp pruners so you can make a nice, clean cut right up next to the vine so you have at least 2 inches of stem left on the gourd. This little bit of stem will help the evaporation of water and speed the drying process. Gourds are about 80-90 percent water. When they dry, moisture escapes through the porous skin and the stem.

It is a good idea to gently clean the gourds with a soft cloth to remove dirt and then wipe them down with a diluted bleach solution — 2 tablespoons bleach to 1 gallon of water or some sort of disinfectant. This process removes bacteria and helps to prevent rotting.

Dry the gourds in an area with good air circulation; this is a must. This can be inside or outside, the garage or the hay loft are excellent choices. Spread the gourds in a single layer on newspaper or cardboard, and do not let them touch each other. Check on them occasionally, turning them and removing any that are starting to rot.

Now comes the hard part — waiting.

While the outside of a gourd dries rather quickly, it typically takes several months for the inside to cure. Some larger gourds can take up to six months.

The gourds are dry when they are lightweight and the seeds rattle when you shake them. If mold or a crust forms on them, don't worry, that is normal. After they have completely dried, wash them in warm soapy water with a steel wool pad. This will remove the residue, although the mold will leave behind interesting patterns.

By the time the gourds are ready, it will be winter and you can decorate them while you dream of planting next spring's garden.

Happy gardening!

Peter Sutter is a lifelong gardening enthusiast and a participant in the MU Extension's Callaway County Master Gardener program. Gardening questions can be sent to [email protected]

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