This is the time of year pumpkins take center stage.
But if there were a Robin to the pumpkin's Batman, it would certainly be the gourd.
Gourds are as much a part of autumn as their big orange cousin. And, in some cases, even more so because gourds are often displayed well into November, long after pumpkins have become pie.
Gourds come in bright colors, some sporting warts, stripes, bi-colors and even wings. But these welcome decorations are only part of the picture.
Gourds are also used as spoons, bowls, musical instruments, art, dolls and sponges.
Harvested this time of year, gourds are easy to grow as long as you're the adventurous type.
"They are the wild child of the vegetable world. Think of it as a cucumber with an attitude," said Judi Fleming, a gourd grower in North Carolina and president of the American Gourd Society's North Carolina chapter. "If I give you a handful of gourd seeds, that's enough for half of an acre. The vines can grow at least 100 feet and in all directions."
In the United States, there are three main types of gourds, according to the American Gourd Society. Ornamental or cucurbita are the brightly colored gourds often displayed this time of year. Hard-shell or lagenaria are popular with artists and crafters, who make them into birdhouses, masks, baskets and more. Vegetable sponges or luffas are gourds with a fibrous interior and are used as sponges.
Brad Milton, owner of Brad's Produce in Churchville, said he raises about six varieties of ornamental gourds, including goose, apple and spoon gourds, with winged and warted being the most popular.
"They keep adding different varieties and different aspects to the gourd," said Milton. "A lot of people take them home and decorate with them. The little kids really like gourds because they are just their size."
Gourds in America can be traced back 10,000 years to when prehistoric people brought them from Asia, according to information from the American Gourd Society. Research shows the bottle gourd, used as a container and not a food crop, is the earliest known domesticated plant grown here.
Gourds grow much like squash, needing about six to eight hours of sunlight a day and an inch of water once a week in regular garden soil. The growing season is the same for all types of gourds, says Fleming. However, ornamentals need only 90 days to mature, while hard-shells can take as long as 140 days. Luffas are in between.
The type of gourd being grown determines when to plant. Typically, March is the start for hard-shells and luffas, with many growers establishing them indoors, then moving them outside once the last frost of the season has occurred.
Ornamentals can be started this time as well, but area farmers say they usually hold off until mid-June so they can harvest them in time for the start of fall decorating. They also pick them early, at the peak of their bright colors, instead of letting them grow to maturity. That's because these gourds are typically used for only a few weeks as decorations and eventually will rot.
The trick to growing a gourd that will last for decades is not picking it too early.
"You have to wait until the vine dies," says Fleming. Once that happens, pick the gourd and dry in a well-ventilated space. When the gourd becomes light and its seeds rattle, it's ready to be cleaned.
Mold forms on gourds as they dry, so experts warn people to use caution when cleaning and handling the plants. Good gloves and masks should be worn.
Local gourd artist Nancy Worley said she first worked with gourds after seeing Martha Stewart demonstrate a gourd craft project on television.
"I tried it, and I was hooked," said Worley, a Riviera Beach resident who sells her gourd art at the Maryland Renaissance Festival.
Worley said she used to grow her own gourds but now mostly buys them already dried and cleaned.
She uses a technique known as pyrography, in which designs are burned onto gourds. She also uses inks and dyes to decorate gourds. Her work is priced from about $10 for a necklace made out of mini-gourds to $400 for large, detailed artwork.
"People can't believe what they see," said Worley, who is forming a Maryland chapter of the American Gourd Society for local crafters, artists and growers.
"If you can make a jack-o'-lantern, you can [craft] a gourd. It's a very easy project," said Jim Widess, a Berkeley, Calif.-based owner of a supply store for gourd crafters, basket makers and chair caners. "Once you take off that hard [outer] shell, any art medium works on a gourd. There's no end to what you can do with gourds."
Widess has written several books on gourds, including co-authoring The Complete Book of Gourd Craft: 22 Projects, 55 Decorative Techniques, 300 Inspirational Designs.
"If you think of a really beautiful piece of pottery or beautifully shaped basket, it's really just imitating what nature does with the shape of a gourd," said Widess.
The best thing about gourds, said Nathan Baugher, one of the owners of Baugher's Orchard and Farm in Westminster, is the vast variety and whimsical nature. He agrees the winged and warted varieties are in demand, as are the goose gourds.
"You'll never see two that are identical," said Baugher. "Gourds have always been a mainstay here. We start harvesting them after Labor Day and we can sell them up to Thanksgiving."
tips on working with gourds
Leave gourds on the vine until there's a light frost or the stems turn brown. If you need to pick a gourd before the frost, make sure it is very firm to the touch. Cut the gourd so there's an inch or more of stem. Wash in soapy water.
Dry gourds naturally by placing them in an area with good air circulation. When the seeds rattle, a gourd is dry and ready for crafting. Mold on the outside of gourds is a natural part of the drying process. As long as a gourd is firm to the touch, there's no need to discard it.
Because of the mold threat, experts advise that you use an air-filtration mask, wear vinyl gloves and stay outdoors when working with gourds.
Once a gourd is completely dry, it is ready to be cleaned. Good indications that it's ready include rattling of seeds, lightness and a hollow sound when tapped. Submerge the gourd in a bucket of warm, soapy water and scrape off the outer skin with the dull side of a table knife or a plastic mesh kitchen scrubby. Diluted household bleach may be added to the water if desired, but it is not necessary.
These tips are from the American Gourd Society. For more information on gourds, go to americangourdsociety.org.