Gourds make great birdhouses. They are strong, well-liked by the birds, and look really cool hanging outside in a tree or attached to a pole. They are also quite easy to make. The whole process can take a long time, often up to eight months from seed to finished birdhouse, but each step is fairly straightforward just with a lot of wait time in between. To successfully grow, dry, and finally make a gourd birdhouse you simply need the space to grow them, the patience to let them dry, and a bit of know how to finish them.
My family has been making gourd birdhouses for years now and this is our accumulated knowledge on every step of the process from growing the gourds all the way to finishing your birdhouse.
Steps To Making A Gourd Birdhouse
Gourds grow on long vines similar to pumpkins and squash. They can be grown trailing in a large garden or growing up a support such as a tree or strong trellis.
Gourds need to be spread out in an area with adequate ventilation or they can be left outdoors on the vine. You will get more patterns on gourds that have been brought in out of the weather. Gourds left out in the weather to dry will be easier to clean. Ideally, they should not be dried in living space since they naturally get moldy during this process.
Gourds can be cleaned completely down to the bare yellow skin or they can be left with the natural markings from the drying process. Soak in water and scrub. Finish with a mild bleach bath to sanitize.
Drill the entarance hole and drainage holes into the gourd using a standard drill.
- Decorate (optional)
Gourds lend themselves to numerous decorating methods including painting, wood burning, and caving.
To make sure your gourd looks great for as long as possible, finish with any outdoor water sealer. Using a UV protective sealer will protect the gourd best, especially if it is decorated.
To extend the life of your gourd, refinish as needed (every year or two) and bring your gourd indoors for the winter.
How To Grow Birdhouse Gourds
Birdhouse gourds are in the Cucurbitaceae family along with pumpkins and squash. Their growing habits and requirements are much the same as these close cousins of theirs too but I find them less susceptible to disease and pest then other plants in this family. They are really quite easy to grow.
Gourd vines can be grown from transplants or directly by seed. I live in Southern Ontario and always plant my seeds directly in the ground sometime after the last frost. Often I wait until early June to ensure frost will not hurt my seedlings. Around here, we usually have a guaranteed 5 months without frost which seems the perfect amount of time for the gourds to grow. Fully mature gourds can handle frost if left on the vines, but we usually harvest any gourds we wish to dry indoors around when last frost is expected. Any gourds we wish to leave outside to dry, we leave on the vine.
If there is a shorter growing season where you are, it may be necessary to start transplants indoors a few weeks before the last frost and/or use row covers/cold frames/cloches to get a head start on the season.
The Gourd vines are quite long and require lots of space. I grow most of my gourds at my parent’s farm where they can be left to sprawl as much as they like, but I have also had success growing gourds in my small backyard with a sturdy trellis.
At the farm where I have large open spaces to work with, we plant the seeds in rows about 6 inches (15 cm) apart and allow the vines to wander as they like. Early weeding is necessary but as they grow the garden becomes a thick carpet of green and the weeds are quite easily managed. The vines trail off about 10 or more feet from where they are planted. We have only had to water the gourds a few times a year when it gets very dry in mid-summer.
At my house, I grew three gourd vines on a sturdy metal trellis making sure to train them appropriately so they did not travel anywhere I didn’t want them to. The vines can be quite vigorous and need to be controlled in small spaces. They can be trimmed as necessary as they grow, making the process quite easy as long as you stay on top of it.
We have found birdhouse gourds to be very easy to care for. Ours have never experienced any serious pest or disease. After years of growing gourds, the only pest that we noticed were cucumber beetles but they never did enough damage to worry about. I had mildew on my vines, as I seem to get on any plant from the Cucurbitaceae family in my urban yard, but it did not affect my gourds. I still got to harvest large healthy gourds even though the vine looked very sad by the end of the season. Of course, there are methods (even organic ones) to deal with mildew but for me, I found it unnecessary.
How to Dry Birdhouse Gourds
Drying Gourds Indoors vs. Drying Gourds Outdoors
Gourds can either be dried indoors or outdoors. The main considerations for whether you want to dry indoors or outdoors are:
- the final look of your gourd: gourds dried indoors have much more elaborate patterns, while those dried outdoors are mostly plain yellow.
- the space available for drying: if dried in the garden they should be left on the vine and if dried indoors they should be spread out in a well-ventilated area that is away from living areas.
- animals that may ruin your gourds: deer, squirrels, and other animals may nibble on gourds left out all winter.
We have found that we have a higher rate of rotted gourds with outdoor drying. Any gourds that were not fully mature are much more likely to rot when dried outdoors as opposed to indoors, but gourds that are not fully mature tend to be of much lower quality anyway. We like to have a mix of indoor dried and outdoor dried, because of the differing qualities of the two.
Drying Gourds Outdoors
Drying gourds outdoors is extremely easy: just leave them in the garden on the vine. You do not need to worry about turning them or fussing with them at all. The skin will get spotted, brown, and/or black and peel. This is all normal. Let them sit and check them every once in a while to collect any finished ones.
You will know when the gourds are dry when they are hard, lightweight, and the seeds are loose (you may need to wack the gourd on your hand to loosen them). This will take from 3 to 6 months.
In my yard, where there are lots of squirrels, I try to get to collect the gourds as early as possible. As soon as it starts to warm up the squirrels seem to start nibbling on the gourds.
Harvesting For Indoor Drying- When to Pick Gourds
When picking the gourds for indoor drying you are aiming to harvest them after they have fully matured. Delaying harvest as long as possible will give the best possible results.
Gourds are fully matured when they have lost their fuzziness and the vine has started to die back. The stem will have turned from green to brown. You may even see some small brown dots forming on the skins of the gourds. This means they are already starting to dry.
I find that the gourds are pretty forgiving so use your best judgment and relax knowing most gourds dry well even when picked a bit early.
How to Dry Gourds Indoors
Drying birdhouse gourds is quite easy and really comes down to having a well-ventilated space where the gourds can be spread out to dry. The drying process requires minimal work with just light monitoring of the gourds being sure to turn them occasionally to avoid rot on the spot where the gourd is sitting.
The process is very unpredictable with the length of time it will take, the stages of drying, and the end result. I have had some gourds dry completely within a month of harvesting while others took closer to six months. While drying, some gourds are overtaken with molds of various colors while others simply get a few brown spots. I love this about the gourds because it makes each dried gourd a unique natural work of art. The quality of the gourds also varies greatly with some being very thick and strong while others are thin, spongy, or brittle. And then there are also the few that fail to dry at all, rotting away instead. I have yet to find a way to predict which fresh gourds will be the best or which will rot.
The drying stage is definitely the grossest part of the whole process of making a gourd birdhouse since various colored and textured molds, as well as the occasional mushy mess, are part of the process. I recommend setting up your drying station away from your living space and out of the reach of children and pets. A heated garage is ideal but a well-ventilated basement works as well. Where ever it is, the temperature needs to stay above freezing and it needs to have a decent airflow.
To set up a gourd drying station you will need some sort of rack to place the gourds on that allows air flow all around them. I have used a homemade frame with wire fencing, a clothing rack, a bench, a wire shelving unit, and a pallet for this purpose. Be creative and you shouldn’t have to spend much money to set up your drying station. I like to use old blankets or cardboard under the gourds so that the gourds are not being damaged by the surface of the rack and for easy cleanup and rotation (sometimes the gourds get a bit of yucky on the racks and I like to change the cardboard or blanket under them).
Gourds can also be hanged to dry from rafters or racks. I haven’t tried this myself but it definitely ensures nice airflow and avoids the need to rotate the gourds.
The natural patterns that can be seen on many of my gourds are made from the various molds that grow on the gourd during the drying process. I know this sounds a bit gross and really it can be during the drying, but once the gourd is properly cleaned and finished it is well sanitized and sealed. Your gourd is left with the beautiful patterns from the molds but no live yucky spores. Try to remember this when you have a bunch of yucky gourds drying.
Be sure to monitor your gourds regularly. Inspect them at least weekly being sure to rotate them when needed and to discard any rotten ones. I lose about 10% to rot. If you are experiencing a much higher rate of rot consider changing your drying station to get better ventilation. Try adding fans, opening a window, or spreading out the gourds. Although this could also be a sign that you picked the gourds too early.
As I said earlier, the drying process takes anywhere from 1 to 6 months. Be patient. You will know they are ready when they are very light, feel hard like wood, and you can hear the seeds loose inside the gourd (they will rattle when you shake it but sometimes need a good wack on your hand to come loose
How To Clean Dried Gourds
Once the gourds are fully dried it is time to clean them up. Since the gourds have molds on them it is important to wear a mask for this part and it is best done outdoors.
Many of my finished birdhouses incorporate the natural patterns in the art yet for others I want the plain yellow gourd as my canvas. Depending on your final goals the prep work varies.
Natural Patterns Left In Tack
If you want to preserve the patterns from the mold, start the prep stage with a dry rub. I like to use exfoliating gloves for this step but any rough sponge/cloth will work. Outside and with your mask on, simply rub the mold off each gourd. As they come clean you begin to see the patterns on the gourd more clearly. Be careful not to scrub too hard since you do not want to remove all the markings from the molds just the fuzziness of the mold. The gourd has a skin that can be rubbed off and with it will come all those beautiful patterns.
Next, give the gourd a bleach bath (1 part bleach to 10 parts water). This makes sure that there are no live spores on the gourd. Again be careful. As the gourd gets wet the skin becomes more fragile and easy to rub off, so try not to soak the gourd for too long or scrub vigorously while it is wet
Bare Skin Yellow Gourd
To remove all the mold markings simply scrub the gourd with some dish soap and let sit for about 10 minutes in a tub of water. Since the gourds float I lay a wet cloth over the exposed side so that the whole gourd is getting soaked. Use a rough sponge and rub off the skin. If there are a few stubborn spots let it soak for 10 more minutes and scrub again. You can use steel wool cautiously being for very stubborn spots. The black spots can be very tough to remove but most others easily come off.
I like to finish with a quick bleach bath (1 part bleach to 10 parts water) to sanitize and fully clean the gourd.
Sanding Dried Gourds
Whether you have scrubbed all the skin and markings off the gourd or left the gourd natural it is advisable to sand it. Sanding allows you to smooth out any imperfections in the gourd and also make it look it’s best.
I like to start with a rough sandpaper around 150ppm and end with a smooth one around 220ppm. I find this leaves me with a very nice smooth gourd without too much work. When sanding a gourd that is left natural it is important to be careful to not sand too much. You do not want to mess up the patterns. I like to use the sanding as a way to modify the pattern slightly, removing anything I don’t like.
If the gourd has any divets that will be painted over you can fill them in with some wood filler and sand smooth.
At this point, I give my gourds a final bleach bath (1 part bleach to 10 parts water) just to be sure all the mold is dead and to remove any of the dust from sanding.
How to Drill A Gourd Birdhouse
From gourd to gourd the thickness and hardness can vary quite a bit making each one unique to drill. Some feel almost like cork with the drill bit easily going through the gourd. While others are like a very hard wood and require a strong steady hand to get the drill bit to go through. All and all though, it is quite easy to drill a birdhouse gourd.
I use a regular twist bit and a hole saw bit. I drill two holes near the top with the twist bit to add a wire hanger and three or more holes on the bottom for drainage. I then drill a larger hole with the hole saw on one side of my gourd for the birds to enter. I usually make a hole 1 1/2 inches to 2 inches in diameter but this is really a personal choice. Different birds have different preferences so if you hope to attract a certain bird you will need to make the hole the appropriate size. Some birds even like two holes and others like to have a perch.
Make sure to hold the drill bit tightly to the gourd as you drill as occasionally the drill bit will catch some of the insides of the gourd and pull. A tight grip makes this very unlikely to be a problem.
How To Decorate A Birdhouse Gourd
You can get as fancy or simple as you would like when decorating your gourd. Gourds work great with a wide variety of methods. The limit is your imagination.
Some gourd decorating techniques that work well are:
- acrylic painting
- spray painting
- pyrography (wood burning)
How To Seal Birdhouse Gourds
To finish your birdhouse gourd it is important to use a high-quality outdoor sealer. My favorite choice is Varathane Clear Gloss Spar Urethane Spray Paint. It leaves the gourds well protected, shiny and beautiful, and it is really easy to apply.
After Care For Gourd Birdhouses
A high-quality gourd can easily last ten plus years with some simple care. I compare gourd birdhouses to any outdoor wooden decoration, it will need to be resealed every year or two and it will last best if brought indoors for the winter. Keeping the birdhouse out of the sun also goes a long way in preserving it but for many yards, this is not a practical suggestion.