Growing gourds in Brooklyn
March 8, 2011 5:28 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to grow hard-shell gourds (and maybe bamboo) on my Brooklyn deck, for making musical instruments. What varieties of plants should I grow? Where can I get seeds? What should I know about growing this stuff in containers, and preparing it after harvest? Is trying to grow bamboo to useful sizes out of the question?

Bonus question: can you think of any other plants that'll grow into interesting craft material in a single season? I've thought about loofahs but I don't know what I would do with a loofah after I grew it!

I have a west-facing deck with some southern exposure in Brooklyn, NY, about 80 square feet, fairly shaded by trees and buildings - maybe 4-6 hours direct sunlight in the summer. I've successfully grown peppers and okra there, and once a few stalks of corn by mistake.
posted by moonmilk to Home & Garden (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
For crafting, you can't hate some birdhouse gourds.
posted by Marky at 5:53 PM on March 8, 2011

Don't bother with seeds for bamboo. Find a donor plant, and any piece you can get with even a hint of a root should grow. In fact, often off pieces from upper portions of the plant, left undisturbed on the ground, will often root (much like broken off bits of cactus).

Please bear in mind that any plant that establishes outside your planter box will be almost impossible to exterminate, once established. I don't know what bamboo's temperature tolerance is [climate might make it an annual in your area?], but it is a menace here in the south. Its roots are *ridiculously* long & strong, so hard to pull, and it's like wire grass in its ability to isolate & recuperate from weed killers. Even a miniscule portions left behind will pop back up into living plants.

I believe it would take a while for it to gain the kind of girth you'd want for musical instruments. No idea how that would be affected by the growing conditions found in planters (anyone?). You might have better luck just asking people with stands of bamboo if they'd mind if you carted some off. Not everyone is expecting an inerradicable bamboo forest when they plant one cute lil' baby bamboo plant in their yard.
posted by Ys at 5:53 PM on March 8, 2011

I grow birdhouse gourds on a deck in a half wine barrel using bamboo poles to support vertical growth. The deck gets about 4.5 hours of direct summer sun, I generally get three dozen gourds ranging in size from kid's maraca to medium shekere. To grow bigger gourds, I'd need a lot more sun than my location currently provides. As far as preparation, I just leave the gourds on the vine until everything dries up in autumn and then cut the dry gourds down. Then again, I'm making birdhouses, not musical instruments so there's probably better ways of handling that.

Not all the gourds that come from a birdshouse vine will be perfect figure 8 shapes, most of them will grow into sort of club-with-a-bulbous-end shaped. You might want to also look into caveman and calabash gourds.

Bamboo grows quickly but its more of a quick spread vs thick stems. Thick stems come from both species selection and the age and size of the rhizome (by way of example, I have one 25+ year old bamboo clump that produces stems that are no more than 1/2" in diameter. That's just as big as that particular species grows). Being in NY, you probably should pick something cold-hardy as you'll be shocked just how heavy a full planter is when you try to drag it off your deck.
posted by jamaro at 6:20 PM on March 8, 2011

Gourds are pretty easy and non-picky. They'll also grow up and on things if you put them near fences or poles or whatever. (Which I like, you may not.) We kinda scatter seeds over mostly-done beds in the late summer and let them go gangbusters into the fall, but they're fine in pots too. I'm also of the school of "let them dry on the vine until they make interesting shakey noises" but we mostly use them for decorations or give them to neighborhood kids.

You might like swan neck gourds, people use them as shakers, as hollowed-out instruments of some sort, and as birdhouses. We also like to get a gourd mixture, such as this, and just see what surprises us. But we're scattering over a wider area and not going for any particular purpose other than "pretty and interesting." But if you have a couple extra pots and wanted to experiment with some more and different shapes for your crafts, a gourd mix would give you some variety and surprises.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:55 PM on March 8, 2011

There are lots of bamboo species that don't send out runners and, if you are growing in pots, this isn't such an issue anyway.

I don't know what's available where you are, but my local bamboo nursery has a wide range of varieties of clumping bamboo that can be grown in pots.

If you are trying to grow bamboo with large culms (not sure how big you need these to be for instruments), the challenge will be that large culms usually equals great height (eg Timor Black has 10cm culms, but grows to 12 metres), although my experience (we have Oldhami on two boundaries of our place) is that, once the plants are mature, large culms start growing from ground level quite frequently. You can hedge bamboo, so you could keep the height down without sacrificing the size of the culms.

Bamboo is an awesome thing to grow - in the summer it grows with astonishing speed as long as it is kept fertilised (our soil is poor).
posted by dg at 9:30 PM on March 8, 2011

Gourds are easy and fun to grow but it does take some time between planting and usable gourd. I usually grow birdhouse and maybe another variety that I can't think of offhand. I plant mine outside as seedlings usually in May/June and then leave them on the vine until they're brown and the vine is withering, usually early October. The vines will go crazy, easily reaching 50 feet and yes, they like to go up but they're not picky. If they aren't getting enough sun they won't fruit but if you can grow peppers you definitely have enough sun for gourds. They're okay in containers; the bigger the container, though, the happier they will be.

After harvest, the gourds have to dry for at least 6 months or up to a year, preferably in a warmish, dry place. I keep mine in the garage which is not really ideal; too damp. I have dried them in the house but they take up quite a lot of space - you can end up with MANY gourds rather quickly. Also, mold will grow on them as they dry: this is normal and even desirable, since it leaves gorgeous patterns on the skin but it is mold and probably not the healthiest thing to have growing in your living space.

Once they're really dry you can start to craft them. First, though, you have to scrub the waxy coating and the mold off them with a bleach solution, which is a royal pain. Soak them first, also a pain because they float. Once that's done, though, voila, you have awesome gourds! I make all kinds of random stuff with mine but, just for the sake of being thorough, do not, repeat, do not make them into candleholders unless you also make something out of a non flammable substance to actually hold the candle in the neck of the gourd. Learn from my mistake! They burn.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:19 AM on March 9, 2011

Bamboo comes in two basic types: clumpers and runners. If you inadvertently get a runner, you're in for a lifetime of hassle, but the clumpers are easily controlled and incredibly beautiful, some of them. Just be very sure before you buy.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 8:01 AM on March 9, 2011

Thanks for all the advice and suggestions! If I get a successful bamboo forest and calabash plantation going on my balcony, I'll post pictures here in the Fall!
posted by moonmilk at 8:23 PM on March 9, 2011

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