Do you have a lawn that you hate cutting? Half a garden that you’d rather not access? A partner whom you trust enough not to sneak out at night and perform a mass plant exorcism? Neighbouring children that you’d like to scare by making your home imitate the set for a horror film? A penchant for analysing the progress of mould? A passion for planning art projects a full year in advance?
If the answer to all these questions is a resounding ‘Yes!’, then I suggest you spend the upcoming Easter weekend purchasing and planting swan gourd seeds. This particular variety of hard-shell gourd is non-edible, and has been grown, along with its cousins (including bottle, dinosaur, dipper, penguin and snake – now added to my ‘To Grow’ list), throughout history for use as tools, musical instruments and containers, as well as for decoration, such as ornamental bird feeders or, in our case, swan sculptures. Once picked, gourds are left for several months to cure, becoming surprisingly light and extremely hard. They can then either be cut to the required shape (a drill is needed to make a bird house, a saw for a bowl), or painted as they are.
My Chou received a packet of swan gourd seeds from my Mum and Dad (A.K.A. ‘Gee’ and ‘Dada’) in lieu of a chocolate egg for Easter. Together we spent a happy two minutes planting the seeds in tiny pots, then he spent considerably more time emptying the pots over the floor and digging in the soil. After finding and replanting the seeds myself, we left them in makeshift propagators close to the fire (we covered them with thin plastic bags), and distracted ourselves with toys, to discourage further meddling with the poor, abused seeds. That was last April.
Sometime later, when the seeds had sprouted and the weather was favourable, we rehoused the seedlings, as per packet instructions, 60 cm apart, in a purpose-made gourd patch in a sunny part of the garden. The fatal mistake here was to forget that we live in France, and not the damp UK. Gourds grow on vines which, given the right conditions (such as long, hot French summers) will colonise as much of the garden as possible, climbing up anything strong enough to support them, be it poulailler, shrub, or mutant army of giant, besieging nettles. Our five vines formed an alliance with the orties, became uncontrollable and barricaded the entrance to the lower garden, which was surrendered to the enemy for some months. It took all the restraint that my husband possessed not to wade in with his scythe and reclaim his land. Just venturing into the patch required wellies and precision hopping:
The first frost of Autumn came to our rescue and we launched a counter-attack. The nettles fled to an underground refuge. The captured gourds were made examples of as conspirators, and were strung up for all to see. For a couple of weeks they looked glorious – dappled green and cream curiosities bobbing in the breeze. One neighbour even paid us a visit, armed with a basket of coings, in order to negotiate a cunning swap. Soon after, however, the moulding process began, and the gourds began to ooze and seep, turning unbecoming shades of yellow and black, just in time for Hallowe’en. We were only visited by two trick-or-treaters last year, our fewest yet – perhaps the sight of the apparently rotting masses, dripping and swaying in the darkness, was enough to deter them. We already have a reputation in our lieu-dit for being slightly peculiar (we are foreigners after all), and one of our neighbours actually thought that my husband and I were siblings when we moved in, living all alone in a large house in the obscure French countryside…This might have been the final straw for any concerned parents.
Another six months later, still black with mould and sooty to the touch, the gourds were eligible for release. To test whether they were ready a brave volunteer was needed to handle the revolting things and give them a good, hard shake. If the seeds inside rattled the gourd was ready for cleaning – a trial involving a quarter of an hour’s determined scrubbing with a metal scourer, washing up liquid and a glug of bleach (to take off the entire outer layer of ‘skin’), whilst breathing only through the mouth. The effect was transformative:
Finally last week, a year after planting, my Chou and I were able to enjoy the long-anticipated treat of painting our first gourd. A tub of emulsion that happened to be lying around (waiting for me to get on with decorating) proved the very thing to turn our plain gourd into a beautiful swan. Two coats of slathered, dripping paint, a little help with the bill from me, a layer of varnish and copious amounts of feathers later, our masterpiece was finished. Our swan was, with some reluctance on my part, handed over as a present for Gee on Mothering Sunday. It should last indefinitely. One down, twenty-seven to go!
Mots du jour:
C’est quoi ça? What’s that? poulailler – chicken coop ortie – nettle coing – quince lieu-dit – place known as… (similar to a hamlet)
Featured image credit: my friend, Emma T.