A few years ago, my maker friend, Mary Stone, grew squash vines loaded with pear-shaped gourds in her backyard vegetable garden. An idea was percolating in her head. She wanted to use the gourds to make birdhouses to give as hostess gifts to some friends.
Birdhouse, swan, and wide-bottle gourds, collectively known as bottle gourds, are all members of the squash family (Lagenaria siceraria) and were originally cultivated for their container shapes. Once dried, or cured, their shells became hard and were used as bowls, vases, rattles, pipes, and birdhouses. The first time I saw birdhouse gourds, they were strung across a Mennonite farm in Cerulean, Kentucky. Cured and painted by children, the white “martin houses” were used to attract purple martins, a small, darting bird known for its penchant for insects.
Mary’s version of the birdhouse gourd was quite different. The coloration of hers was GORGEOUS. There was no way this birdhouse, with a finish that looked like spalted wood, was going outside!
After her first batch of cured and varnished gourds, Mary made many more, sans holes, for decorative purposes. I have used my collection to grace the fireplace mantle on Thanksgiving Day for years.
One summer, inspired by Mary, I grew bottle gourds in my backyard. I thought I had purchased seeds for pear-shaped gourds, but instead got this lovely bottle-shaped squash.
As instructed by Mary, I harvested the gourds before the first frost and allowed them to dry on a baker’s rack in my screened-in porch. Surprisingly none of them collapsed from rot. Mary dried her crop, over a six-month period, on a rack in her garage. You will know they are fully cured when you can hear the seeds inside rattle when shaken. Think maracas. They will mottle as they dry creating beautiful and desirable markings on the outside.
One afternoon, Mary came over to show me how to prep and varnish them. She used a steel wool pad to lightly sand off the few rough spots on the surface. Then she sanded off some of the black mottlings, but not all of them. With her artist’s eye, she determined how much mottling to preserve and how much to erase.
She then rinsed them with water. We allowed them to dry for about thirty minutes before varnishing.
We tied strings on the stems of each and set up a drying rack.
Mary brushed on the varnish,
and hung them outside to dry. After about an hour, I applied a second layer of varnish.
Here is a before and after photo of the varnished gourds. I love how the varnish brings out the mottling.
Here is my collection of bottle gourds. They are a pleasure to own and behold.
To make a birdhouse, Mary drilled a 1.5-inch entrance hole into the base of the gourd’s neck, two drainage holes on the bottom, and two tiny holes at the top used to run a wire for hanging purposes.
Meanwhile, the Thanksgiving holiday is upon us!
Here are some tried and true recipes to cook for your guests while they visit. The desserts, named for family and friends, are heavenly. May I suggest a Seventies breakfast favorite, Mom’s Monkey Bread, for a crowd-pleasing sweet treat?
If you are feeding people dinner on the evenings before and after Thanksgiving, consider these crowd pleasers. The Buffalo Chicken Chili is the most popular entrée on the blog and is a quick and easy one-pot meal to make. Bruce’s Gumbo is the most deliciously flavored “stew” you will ever eat. Yes, I speak in superlatives. Be sure to save the turkey carcass to make broth for the gumbo. If you want to sit around the dinner table and listen to people say, “This is good,” try this Italian favorite, Baked Ziti with Eggplant. Some people eliminate the eggplant and add ground beef. Either way, I love the way it drips with mozzarella.
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