Gourds as Organic Garden Birdhouses

Organic Garden for Birds
Now (spring) is the time to plant gourd seeds to use as alternate nesting places for your garden bird visitors. The gourds will be grown, cured and ready as birdhouses for the breeding season beginning next spring. They are fun to grow and will, almost inevitably attract the interest of the entire family and the gourds can be arranged to accommodate several bird species, just by varying the size of entrance hole.

What seeds to buy
You want bottle or birdhouse gourds (Latin: Lagenaria siceraria). These are the hard-skinned, white flowered variety. They are readily available and suppliers can easily be found by searching the Web for “birdhouse gourds” or offered in seed catalogues. Buy a pack of tomato food/fertilizer at the same time.

Growing the gourds as vines
These plants are really easy to grow. Germinate indoors in pots, cut-off bottoms of plastic soda-pop bottles that are about 15cm (6″) deep or whatever is handy. Use regular potting compost to give them a good start and plant outside when 12cm (5″) or so tall, much like tomatoes. Pay attention to the instructions on the seed packet. Plant out in well drained soil (add a little gravel if it seems necessary) and preferably against a fence in a sunny, south facing location. Although they can be grown along the ground they send out extensive shoots and it is more difficult to avoid the gourds rotting or growing with miss-shaped flattened bottoms – hence a fence is suggested to grow the vines upward and lift the fruit off the ground. If not a fence or wall be prepared to support them with stakes.

They will require lots of watering and regular feeding with the tomato food. They will need more than a tomato plant but do this by (slightly) increasing the feeding frequency rather than the strength of feed. These plants generate lots of foliage and large fruits. Once the vines are established vertically you can mulch the ground with black plastic sheeting (trash can or bin liners) to discourage weeds and reduce water evaporation. Water and feed through the one necessary hole they grow out of. That is all – tie them up and perhaps support the developing gourds if required. If the foliage over extends cut it back some but maintain leaves above the fruits on the same stem to suck up nutrients.

Your birdhouse gourds are ready for picking when their stems have turned brown and have dried out. Definitely take the gourds before the first autumnal frost by cutting them from the vine leaving as long a stem as you can remaining on the gourd. Do not keep damaged or bruised gourds because they will not keep and will most likely spoil during curing. Be gentle when picking, they are easily damaged at this stage.

Clean them up
Wash the birdhouse gourds in warm water and some dish washing liquid, just like doing the dishes. Allow them to thoroughly dry, outdoors on a sunny day is ideal. It is important that they are completely dried after their wash.

Curing your gourds
Now move the gourds to a dry shaded room such as a garden shed or other outhouse which is frost free throughout the process and string them up by the stems which you left on the gourds. They should not be touching each other. In a week or two the skin or shell of the gourds will have dried out.

Examine the curing gourds every few days. You are looking for those that decay, which should be discarded, and for the formation of mold on the shells. As long as the gourd shell remains hard the mold can be cleaned off with a rag and a little bleach. Do not keep a gourd that is softening, it will not recover. The curing process is lengthy, some months. When they are ready they will be noticeably light, have a tough, unyielding, hard skin and when shaken the seeds will be heard loose inside the shell.

From gourd to birdhouse
It is suggested that some fine abrasive or steel wool be used just to clean the shell up after the curing process. The gourds are now cured and without any further work will last a couple of seasons outside as a birds nesting container. Drill the correct sized hole in the side of the gourd to allow the desired species of bird entry to its nest or drill a small hole and enlarge. Drill a hole straight through both sides of the narrower top to allow the birdhouse to be slung from a tree branch or whatever is planned. Drill four or five small holes in the bottom at and near the lowest points to allow drainage. Further, the entire shell can be coated with polyurethane as waterproofing which will considerably extend the effective life of the birdhouse. Prior to the polyurethane, if desired, the shell can be painted and decorated in any way you wish, the birds will not mind, though au naturel seems most appropriate. No need to attach a perch outside the entrance hole, the birds do not need it and it increases their vulnerability to predators.

Empty the seeds and dry vegetable matter out of the gourd and keep the seeds for another crop of birdhouses next year, store them in a cool, dry place. It is an idea to replace some of the fibrous vegetable matter removed if it looks useful as nest material for your tenants.

Hole sizes by species for the entrance
For the Blue Tit and Coal Tit an entry hole of 25mm (1″) which will exclude the bigger Great Tit. Great Tit, Tree Sparrow and Pied Flycatcher 28mm (1.1″). House Sparrow and Nuthatch, 32mm (1.25″). For all the above birds the birdhouse gourd should be 13 – 15cm (5″ – 6″) diameter. For more information about species and sizes search “UK nest box plans” or “US nest box plans” online.

Positioning the birdhouse
Birds have much the same criteria as humans when setting up home – food, water and security. Place the birdhouse 2m (6.5′) or more high and under the cover of branches. This helps protect against cats, squirrels, some crows and predatory birds (although the Sparrowhawk is a low-level, fast attack raptor it does make a successful kill harder, they average one kill in ten attacks). Face the entry out of the prevailing weather and direct sunlight (generally facing north east). Place fresh food and water nearby on a regular basis and position with similar caution. Experience the pleasure of observing your efforts accepted, appreciated and successfully inhabited!
By Paul Rochford

5 comments to Gourds as Organic Garden Birdhouses

  • admin

    Shan, thanks very much for your comment.
    First, don’t “soak” the gourd in bleach just scrub it, not too violently, with a dilute bleach solution, 10% bleach is OK, and allow it to dry – repeat this process if you like. Do this before any artificial weatherproofing such as polyurethane. The bleach operates on mold and mildew just as it does in our homes and bathrooms.
    Secondly, yes, use a hole saw/cutter with the small drill bit in it’s center (centre if your a Brit!) and have someone hold the gourd steady as you gently drill through with the small center bit. Be patient, set your drill to a really slow speed. With your small hole drilled allow the larger, hole cutter part, come to bear and just score the surface of the gourd initially using almost no pressure on the drill until your hole is completely through the shell.
    When you use a conventional wood drill of large diameter (in your case 1.5″) you apply a quite enormous force to the dry, brittle and thin shell of the gourd. Remember to seal the cut edge of the hole you’ve cut with polyurethane as well (it’s not completely effective as a seal on the cut edge – but it helps).
    I’d love to know how you get on with that, Shan.
    Paul R.

  • Shan Rodgers

    I was told that you should soak them in a 10% bleach solution to keep them from mildewing or molding. Is that correct. Also, I tried my first one today and used a 1 1/2″ drill bit and split the gourd wide open. Any ideas on how to do that correctly. I thought maybe I should get a hole saw for my drill and try that. I have gourd birdhouses that other people have made and I thought it would be really easy. Maybe I should rethink that, or just try again.

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