The Antes Garden - February 2016
While 2015 ended with eerily warm weather, temperatures became more winter-like in early January. The long-range predictions are still calling for a warmer and wetter winter than usual here in the Goschenhoppen region as a consequence of an unusually strong El Niño weather pattern in the Pacific basin. Hopefully that same effect will help alleviate the extended drought that has plagued California and the Pacific Northwest, causing extensive damage to agricultural production in some of the country’s most productive vegetable growing areas.
Interestingly, the diary of Daniel Royer of Sumneytown from early January more than a century ago (1907) notes, “Our winters get milder each year. There is no sleighing yet because of no snowfall. O, what winters we used to have in the old days. Snow as high as the fence; we used to walk on top of the crust. Yes, Nature has changed.” Daniel Royer was 72 years old that winter. Some 25 of his diaries for the period from 1880 to his death in 1911 have been preserved and the corresponding week from those diaries is printed each week in Town and Country. It is a fascinating look back in time in the Upper Perkiomen Valley and his comments underscore the thought that nostalgia for a selectively remembered past is always with us.
Winter is when there is often more time available to complete small tasks that get set aside in busier periods. Repairing tools and equipment, making new implements and household items, tasks that can be accomplished indoors while storms rage outside. One of those tasks is cleaning and scrapping the dried gourds harvested in previous years. Many of the larger hard-shelled gourds require eight months or more of drying before they can be fashioned into many useful products around the home and garden.
Gourds are members of the Cucurbitaceae family that also includes pumpkins, squashes, and cucumbers. The gourds are found in the genera Lagenaria and Cucurbita. Those that we generally find most useful are the Lagenaria siceraria, the bottle gourds, and subspecies of them. Gourds are one of the oldest domesticated plants, subspecies of Lagenaria siceraria having been found in archaeological sites dating from 13,000 – 15,000 years ago in Asia, Africa, and South America. As in so many of the plants we might have found in an early Pennsylvania Dutch kitchen garden, gourds were included on Charlemagne’s extensive listing of recommended plants for his Germanic subjects.
In the Antes’ kitchen garden we generally grow climbing plants, including various types of gourds, along the lower, or eastern, perimeter fence. There they get plenty of sunlight and a long stretch of fence to climb on, sometimes continuing along the intersecting northern and southern sections of oak palings. This past year we grew Scarlet Runner Beans and Pennsylvania Dutch Red Lima Beans along that fence but several gourd plants volunteered their services as well, echoes of the previous year’s crop. Hidden within the extensive detritus of the bean vines and the various perennials along that border were three very nice bottle gourds, an unexpected harvest.
If the long-necked varieties, bottle and dipper gourds, are grown on a fence or trellis and the fruits (gourds) are allowed to hang vertically they will develop long, straight necks. If grown on the ground the necks will usually be somewhat contorted. If other than a long, straight neck is desired the developing gourd can be trained into the desired curvature by frequent bending or through use of constraints that direct the growth. The Chinese developed molding of bottle gourds into an art, producing elaborately configured vessels by constraining the developing fruits within two part molds complete with raised and incised designs that were replicated in the shape and surface texture of the resulting gourds. During the Revolutionary War American soldiers created small rectangular boxes for powder and other necessaries by molding gourds within small boxes of the shape desired.
The smaller and more varied form gourds have been long used as children’s toys and rattles, and for various musical instruments. As in all hard-shelled gourds the fruits, when harvested, are left to dry in a shaded, airy spot until the shell has hardened and the internal pulp has separated form the shell and the seeds rattle when the gourd is shaken. At that point the gourd can be cut and worked into the desired implement. If used as a rattle they are normally left whole and after completely drying are covered with a finish to protect them from moisture. The shells can be polished or carved, have designs scratched or burned into their surfaces, or finished in any number of ways. If used for food preparation they can simply have all the loose material on the inside and outside surfaces scraped off and the shell polished to the degree desired. By judiciously cutting and shaping the bowls and necks of dried gourds you can create dippers, ladles, spoons, bowls, cups, saucers, funnels and any number of utilitarian and decorative containers. Dippers were not left to sit in liquids as that would soon soften and eventually dissolve the gourd material. While not indestructible, they are very durable and with proper care can provide service for many years, all at a cost of only the effort to produce them.
Next month it will be time to think about starting this year’s garden plants that aren’t directly seed into the garden. In the meantime we continue to look for members and friends to get the garden going again in the spring and keeping it productive and pleasant throughout the year. May your winter be warm and dry!