Garden Docs: How to prepare gourds and plant cover crops


Alice I. of Windsor asks: I grew a few varieties of gourds so I can decorate them and use them as ornaments. How do I know when they are ready to be picked, and how do I go about preparing them to be preserved?

It is important that you don’t pick them before they have completely matured. Gourds can be harvested when the stems have turned brown and withered, the vines are dying down, or at the first sign of frost. Hopefully you sowed or planted them early enough during the growing season so they had time to mature. Cut them off with sharp pruners, leaving a few inches of the stem attached. Wipe them off with a soft towel, removing moisture, soil, and any debris. Air dry them on a rack, on a board, or on sawdust in a cool room. It could take one to six months for them to be ready for you to decorate. You can shellac, varnish and paint them. But remember, no matter what you do to them, they will eventually rot.


Alan N. of Santa Rosa asks: I would like to boost my flower/vegetable garden soil this fall after I pull everything out. What do you suggest I add or do?

In flower and vegetable gardens, adding compost in the fall helps to rebuild and rejuvenate your soil for early next season by replenishing its microbial action before the winter temperatures put everything to sleep.

Fall cover crops are also a great way to get organic matter into tired old soil. Sowing seeds while the soil is still warm in the fall will ensure good germination in the spring. The cover crop will help the soil stay put through the winter. Work it back into the soil in the spring. A few of the most productive cover crop seeds include:

Hairy vetch —Planted in the fall, it fixes nitrogen in the soil.

Oats — Sown in the spring as a grain crop, or in the late summer as a cover crop, oats’ thick roots effectively hold the soil over the winter.

Winter rye — Planted in the fall, Winter rye continues growing longer into the fall than any of the other cover crops, and is up earlier in the spring, protecting soil from possible spring erosion. Winter rye adds tons of organic matter to the soil due to its extensive root system.

Field peas — The king of all nitrogen fixers, field peas can add 170 pounds an acre of nitrogen. Field peas can be planted in the fall for overwintering in cold climates, but make sure they are sown six to eight weeks before the first fall frost.

Garlic — Best planted in the fall and then harvested the following summer. Spring planting is not recommended. You will get lower yields because the cloves haven’t been exposed to temperatures below 65 degrees and may not form bulbs. Garlic is very cold-hardy and starts growing again early in the spring after planting. Hardneck garlics produce flower stalks called scapes in early summer and should be cut to encourage larger bulb development. Garlic bulbs are ready to dig and cure in mid to late summer, after the lower leaves have dried down. The best time to plant garlic is late fall. Generally it should be planted between mid-October and end of November.

Dana Lozano and Gwen Kilchherr are garden consultants. Send questions to The Garden Doctors, at The Garden Doctors can answer questions only through their column, which appears in the newspaper and at