Pile on the Gourds, Pumpkins and Winter Squash
Set a Place at Your Thanksgiving Table for Autumn’s Bounty
article by P. Allen Smith | photography by Mark Fonville
The Thanksgiving season – a time of gratitude and giving back. It’s one of the few celebrations that encourages us to slow down, reflect and enjoy. Thanksgiving is a favorite of mine, in part, because of when it occurs. In November the days are short, temperatures are chilly and larders are stocked with summer’s harvest; what better time to invite friends and family over for a hot meal and a seat by the fire?
When it comes to decorating for Thanksgiving, November also makes it easy. The opulent landscape is overflowing with materials to use – fall leaves, lichen covered sticks, berries and dried flowers. You’ll be surprised at what you can find in your garden or at the farmers’ market that you can use to create an elegant and welcoming environment for your guests.
You Can’t Go Wrong with Gourds, Pumpkins and Winter Squash
Gourds, pumpkins and winter squash are classic Thanksgiving decorations that you can grow in your garden. All three are in the cucurbit family and like it hot, so plant seedlings or sow seeds when the soil warms up in very late spring.
Gourds are easy to grow from seed. Sow seeds 1 ½ inches deep about 4 to 5 inches apart and make sure you have a trellis in place to support the long vines.
Pumpkins are aggressive growers and need about 5 feet between plants. They don’t need support like gourds do, but it’s a good idea to plant them on the outside edge of the garden so the vines won’t smother your other plants. Everyone seems to like miniature pumpkin varieties for decorating and I do too. Try ‘Toad’, which has 4 to 5-inch fruits with an interesting warty surface.
You’ll find a wide assortment of winter squash available for purchase, but they are easy to grow in the garden. Set plants in hills of soil, three plants per hill. My favorites for decorating (and eating) are acorn, butternut and hubbard.
All three plants require full sun and a compost-rich soil. Feed with an all-purpose, organic fertilizer according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Like most members of the cucurbit family, these plants have female flowers that require pollination. The female flowers are easy to identify by looking for a tiny fruit below the blossom. Male flowers are borne atop a bare stem. You need the help of bees and other pollinating insects to spread pollen between the flowers so avoid pesticides and remove floating row covers once the plants begin to bloom.
Whether you grow your gourds or purchase them from the farmers’ market, consider drying a few for decorations. It’s a simple process and dried gourds last forever. I have some from years ago that I use every Thanksgiving. Here are the steps for preserving gourds.
• A simple way to tell if a gourd is ready to harvest is by look and feel. The vine will begin to die back and the skin of the gourd will be hard and pale. Harvest after the first frost.
• Cut gourds from the vine rather than pulling or twisting them away. Use sharp pruners so you can make a nice, clean cut. And leave about 2 inches of stem intact to speed up the drying process.
• Mildly clean the gourds to remove dirt and wipe them down with a diluted bleach solution of 2 tablespoons bleach to 1 gallon of water to remove bacteria and prevent rotting.
• Gourds should be dried in an area that has good air circulation or outdoors. Place on cardboard and space them so they are not touching.
• Rotate them occasionally and let them dry for a month. Larger gourds may take longer to completely dry.
• Mold may appear on the gourds as they dry, but this is common. After completely dried, wash them in warm soapy water with wool pad.
• Once the gourds are clean, wipe them with a cloth and let them dry thoroughly before crafting with polish and paint.
Putting It All Together
Whether it’s an intimate setting or formal affair, a joyful Thanksgiving table where everyone comes together is the crowning glory. So if you only have time for one arrangement, I suggest creating a beautiful centerpiece using gourds, pumpkins, winter squash and bits-n-bobs from the garden. The key to making it interesting is to work with objects in varying sizes and textures .
I like to use pumpkins as the main attraction. They are eye-catching and readily available. Depending on the size of the table, three to five pumpkins is enough to make a statement. Winter squash are a good size when space is limited. Be sure that the pumpkins are easy to see over or around so your guests can talk across the table.
Next you’ll want to add some filler pieces to create interest. Trying tucking several small gourds, pumpkins, wild pears or rosehips in the nooks among the pumpkins. Intertwine elegant grapevines or bittersweet through the arrangement as a connecting element to give movement and bring everything together.
To soften the arrangement add some flowers. I usually take a walk around the garden to see what’s available. If we haven’t had a hard freeze, I’ll find chrysanthemums, dahlias, salvia and even a few roses. Some years I have to cheat and get flowers from the florist. When selecting flowers think about blooms that will look good as small bouquets scattered around the table. Sweet and simple seems to be a good mix with the bold, round shapes of pumpkins, squash and gourds.
Light is the finishing touch for a festive table. I like low votive candles because they add such a nice sparkle. I suggest using candleholders in earth tones such as honey or cream that will blend in with the other elements in the arrangement.
Keep in mind you can set your table and create the centerpiece a day or two ahead of time. The flowers are fresh but most of your elements are long-lasting and straight from the garden.