by Eleanor de Bolton
Detailed accounts are written by pre-1600’s English plants people on how to grow bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria) in their kitchen gardens. My climate in Cour du Val is similar to that of Medieval England, especially the cool summer temperatures, and likewise challenging to grow heat-loving gourds. I decided it would be a fun experiment to follow the historic techniques as closely as possible, and compare the results to modernly grown gourds. I am relying on writings by Friar Henry Daniel (14th cent.), Thomas Hill’s Gardener’s Labyrinth (16th cent.), and Gerard’s Herbal (16th cent), all of whom are based in England.
The accompanying videos below are also available to play in order on my Bottle Gourd Youtube playlist. I will be adding videos to this playlist as the season and my project progresses.
Harvesting seeds from last year’s gourd
For this year’s gourd plants, I used seeds from a gourd I grew to maturity last year. The seeds were originally sourced from Victory Seeds based in Oregon, and are the Italian variety of Cucuzza (gourd) specifically grown for eating, not storage nor decoration.
I removed the seeds from the dried gourd, separated the chaff using a winnowing basket, and then placed a handful of seeds into a pipkin of water to sit over night. In the morning most had sunk to the bottom of the pot, a few were floating on top. I discarded the floating seeds, and planted the largest of the remaining seeds.
“When they are full dry thou mayst hear the seed rattling within, then with a hooked stick of such a thing, hew out that is therein.”
“The Gardiner, minding to commit of the seeds to the earth, out afore to steepe them in a Bole or Panne of water for a night, whereby the seeds apt to be sown, may the surer be known”– Friar Henry Daniel, 14th Cent England & Thomas Hill, 16th cent England.
Hot Bed Preparation
Both Gerard and Hill have detailed instruction on how to prepare the gourd bed, using a method modernly known as a “hot bed“. By burying a layer of fresh horse manure, you capture the heat generated by the composting dung within the soil, helping to heat up cool spring soils to aid in seed germination. Usually spring soils are around 40-50 deg F. By elevating and creating a hot bed, soil temps can reach into the high 60s. Gourd seeds need at least 60 deg to germinate and do better with 70-80 degrees.
I found that my hot bed did not get all that hot. For the first 3 days, soil temperatures were 68-69 deg F. It then decreased and held in the low 60’s. Rereading Gerard after this experience, one can infer that this is expected. I initially anticipated the heating factor to last longer. Happily, it seemed it was hot enough as I did start to see germination on day 9, although only on the side of the bed that had the more moist manure. It may have been I did not use enough manure, or that I did not wet it down to maximize composting. Or, perhaps I used too cool of water initially as Gerard warns against.
Thanks to Anna Elizabeth von Engelberg and her fantastic horses, I was able to gather about 50 pounds of fresh horse manure on April 17th, the same day I filled the bed.
Gerard specifically calls for gathering fresh from the stable. Because Anna uses modern bedding pellets, the manure from the stable was drier due to the fine coating of pellet dust. The piles from the yard were much easier to pick up using the wooden fork as they were more moist and stuck together better, keeping it from falling through the tines.
First of all in the middest of April of somewhat sooner (if the weather be anything temperate) you shall cause to be made a bed or banke of hot and new horse dung taken foth of the stable (and not from the dung hill)Gerard, Herbal, 16th Cent
Hazel Wattle and Frame
Using hazel from Sir Alail Horsefriend’s grove, I framed my modern 4’x8′ raised bed with a 12″ loosely-wattled wall to increase the height of the sides of the beds and to act as a hurdle to shield young plants from cooling winds. I also used hazel boughs for the framework over the beds to keep the fabric cover elevated above the seeds. I had hoped to bend hazel to make hoops to hold the covering over the bed, but the hazel was one year old, and did not bend well. According to Alail, storing hazel boughs bundles in the river is a historic method of keeping them pliable.
The which banke you shal cover with hoops or poles, that you may the more conveniently cover the whole bed or bank with Mats, old painted cloth, straw or such like, to keepe it from the injurie of the cold frostie nights, and not hurt the things planted in the bed.Gerard, Herbal, 16th cent England
Filling the Bed
Using the space and manure I had available, I created the hot bed within the existing 4’x8′ bed. I removed the soil in the raised bed, down to the natural soil surface, about 8″ deep. I left a border of stable soil around the inside edge of the bed, making the actual hole closer to 3’x7′. I then added the aprox. 50 lbs of manure, spreading it evenly about 6″-8″ deep, keeping the stable-gathered separate from the field-gathered manure. I am glad I did, as I think the extra moisture was important for the hot bed, as the seeds planted over the field manure sprouted sooner. Finally I used the soil removed from the hole to cover the manure, making sure to break up clods.
Gerard suggests the bed be an ell wide and deep. An English ell is approx. 45″ and usually used to measure cloth. Gerard is also the one that mentions using old cloth to cover the bed. I wonder if there is a connection or if this is just coincidence.
the beds afore ought to be digged two foot deep, and so many broad, and the seeds bestowed well three of four foot asunder, one from the other (in these filled up with old dung), well turned in with the earth: or rather procure them speedier to grow and yield the fruit the sooner, let the beds be filled with hot Horse dung, new taken out of the stableThomas Hill, Gardner’s Labyrinth, 16th Cent England
First of all in the midst of April or somewhat sooner (if the weather be anything temperate) you shall cause to be made a bed or banke of hot and new horse dung taken forth of the stable (and not from the dunghill) of an ell in breadth, and the like in depth or thickness, of what length you please according to the quantity of your seed… Then shall you cover the bed all over with the most fertilest earth finely sifted, halfe a foot thick, wherein you shall set or sow you seedsGerard, Herbal, 16th cent England
I planted 4 sets of 3 seeds each, spaced about 2 feet apart, although Hill calls for 3-4 foot spacing (quote above). I used the finger technique described by Hill. I also used a dibbler, made by Vicountess Nadezhda Volynskaiia, making sure to only go 2″ deep to mimic planting “unto the middel joynts” of my fingers.
The chosen seeds are to be set in beds together with three fingers unto the middle Joynts, and sharper ends fixed upward, but the but the others swimming above, as unporfitable, and serving to no use, are willed to be throwne away.Thomas Hill, Gardner’s Labyrinth, 16th Cent England
Do you really need to plant seeds with the “sharper ends fixed upwards”? To answer this question, I performed a germination test, keeping seeds moist on a paper towel until they sprouted. It was cool to see that both the roots and leaves emerged from the sharper-ended side of the seed. While most seeds can right themselves as they are sprouting, there is logic behind why Hill directs you to plant them in a specific orientation.
Waiting for Germination
The days between planting and germination are always worrisome. Is the soil temperature right? Are they staying moist enough or are they too wet? Are the seeds viable?
The hot bed was about 10 deg warmer than my other raised beds… but will that be warm enough?
Set or Sow your seeds : that being done, cast your straw or other coverture over the frame; and so let it rest without looking upon it, or taking away of your covering for the space of seven to eight daies at the most, for commonly in that space they will thrust themselves up nakedly forth of the groundGerard, Herbal, 16th cent England
First Signs of Green!
The first seed emerged on day nine. A couple days behind what Hill mentions. Sadly, this first seedling was damaged by, I believe, a mouse nibble. The other seeds were a few days behind. Surprisingly, there was 100% germination. It seems like soaking the seeds overnight is a great way to sort viable from unviable gourd seeds.
The Seeds for the most part, appeare by the sixt or seventh day after the sowingThomas Hill, Gardner’s Labyrinth, 16th Cent England
Transplanting Basket Starts
I am thrilled by the outcome of the seeds started in a basket. I had intended to make my own baskets out of gathered materials, but time was tight, and so I purchased an old basket from Goodwill. I soaked it for several days to remove any possible coatings or preservatives, first in soapy water, then in a light vinegar solution, and finally in clear water. Next, I removed about half of the canes to better mimic an old basket “without bottoms” and to also allow better root penetration. I then filled the basket with modern seed starting mix. I used modern mix as I only had one basket (one try) and did not want to run the risk of seeds damping off due to nonsterile starting medium.
Two weeks before direct seeding in the bed, I planted soaked seeds in the basket, making sure to plant at the same depth and orientation as the direct sown seeds. I then covered with plastic to maintain soil moisture and set on a heating mat. On day 7 the seeds began to sprout, so I removed the plastic cover, and kept the seedlings moist and warm under grow lights for 4 weeks. Once the first true leaf was strongly developed, I hardened off the plants over a week by moving them outside during the day and bringing them back inside over night. A broken clay skillet worked great for the daily in-out-in transport.
I really like how the open weave of the basket encourages air pruning of the roots. I think this is the most effective means of transplanting cucurbits I have ever used. Cucurbits resent having their roots disturbed, and are often stunted in their grown for 2+ weeks as they recover from transplant shock. A modern means to help lessen this is to use decomposable pots such as peat or cow pots, although I have not had good success with them. I am curious to see how degraded the basket is at the end of the season and how the roots grew through and around the basket. Hopefully the basket will still be robust enough to use for another season, for although my sample size is of only one, I am confident in using this method for my cucurbits going forward.
If the owner would possesse fruits timely and very soon, then (after the instruction of the Greek writers of husbandry) bestow in earthen pans or old baskets without bottoms, fine sifted earth intermedled with dung, about the beginning of the spring, in which the seedsset, sprinkle and moisten sundry time with water: after this, in faire and sunny dayes, or when a gentle shower falleth, set with abroad, but then the Sun goeth downe, besotw the baskets with the plants within the house again, and these like order so often (and water when need requireth) until all the frosts, temepst, and cold seasons be gone and past. After this as soon as oppertunity and time will serve, and that a faire day be present, bestow all the baskets and pans of earth unto the brim, in well laborured and dressed beds, and applie that other diligence required, through which the Gardener shall possesseThomas Hill, Gardner’s Labyrinth, 16th Cent England
A week after transplanting, all the plants in the medieval bed were a bit yellow, even the direct-seeded ones. I am not sure why. It may be because of fabric covering excluding light, or perhaps a reaction to the colder temperatures. Thankfully they grew out of this stage after a couple weeks. Gerard does mention extra care needed for freshly transplanted cucumbers and gourds.
then must they be replanted very curiously, with the earth sticking to the plant, as near as may be unto the most fruitful place, and where the sun hath most force in the garden; provided that upon the removing of them you must cover them with some Dock leaves or wisps of straw, propped up with forked sticks, as well to keep them from the cold of the night, as also the heat of the sun: for they cannot whilst they be young and newly planted, endure neither overmuch cold nor overmuch heat, until they are well rooted in their new place or dwelling.Gerard, Herbal, 16th cent England
On re-reading the section of watering by Hill, I think I allowed modern techniques to sway my understanding of the passages. Modernly, the use of wicking strings or ropes from containers is a common practice. So, with that framework in my head, I interpreted these passages as wicking water from a container to the base of a plant.
As I reread the watering passages of Hill, Gerard, and Friar Daniel, I think they are describing using strips of wool (or in Friar Daniel’s case a feather) to drip the water from a few inches above the plant. And to do so starting when the seeds are first planted. Oh well, this was a good lesson learned in trying to clear one’s mind of modern frameworks and assumptions when reading these instructions.
Such plants which comes speediest forward, through much moisture bestowed on them, as the Cucumber, Mellon, Gourd, and sundry others, the Gardener may with far greater ease and travel water after this manner, in taking Wollen cloathes or Lists, and these like tounges cut sharp at the one end, which lay to the bottom of the pot, and the pot leaning somewhat forward, that these may through the continual dropping, hastily speed the increase of the above said plants, so that to each plant a like pot prepared be set, which manner of doing, is termed filtring.
The seeds for the most part, appeare by the sixt or seventh day after the sowing: being sufficiently moistened with store of water for that space and time, by a pot or pots of water dropping continually downe with a list of wollen cloth hanging forth of the mouth of the pot, which manner of watering is named filtring…
… If the owner of Gardener happen to commit seeds to the earth in a dry ground, and that the tender plants appear above the earth his care shall then be to water them plentiful for the speedier shooting up, after this manner: by taking certain pots filled with water, into which tongue of cloth afore laid to the bottoms of the pots, that these may the workmanlier distill and drop often on the plants, through the stooping forward of them: which no doubt profiteth greatly the plants in drough and hot seasons.Thomas Hill, Gardner’s Labyrinth, 16th Cent England
Medieval Techniques for the Win
Week 6 – wow, perhaps it was the transplant shock the modern planted gourds experienced, or the cover and horse poo in the medieval bed, but the plants in the hot bed are doing better than the modern transplanted ones. Both the basket-transplanted and the direct-seeded have outgrown the modern transplants.
Observe these instructions diligently, and then you shall not have cause to complain that your seeds were not good, nor of the intemperancy of the climate (by reason whereof you can get no fruit) although it were in the furthest parts of the North of Scotland.Gerard, Herbal, 16th cent England
Conclusions & Next steps
Bottle gourds thrive in heat, and require long days to flower well. This year’s plants look like they will start flowering in July, and will be in strong production in August. Last year, I had good success, especially when I went out early in the morning and hand pollinated the female flowers with male flowers from another gourd plant.
Going forward, I would like to explore the shaping of gourds that seems to be so popular. They would use ceramic and wooden molds to grow gourds through or in. Hill also goes into great detail how the shape can be changed by setting pans of water next to the gourds. I have always thought this was ‘silly medieval gardener talk’, but after following his other instructions and having such success, I will give this a try and see if it has an effect. This may also be more of “arm chair gardener” talk, as Hill seems to quote this and other more eccentric techniques from the writers of antiquity (i.e. Columella, Plinie, Rutilius).
I think the growing techniques described are cumbersome enough and sometimes frivolous, such as shaping, that it indicates gourds in England were more a vegetable grown in middle- to upper-class gardens. With the end result being more about class symbol, or showing off the skill of the gardener, rather than growing food for subsistence. Gerard also nods to this with his entry under “Place” in his gourd section
The Gourds are cherished in the gardens of these cold regions rather for pleasure than for profit: in the hot countries where they come to ripeness they are sometimes eaten, but with small delight; especially they are kept for the rinds, wherein they put Turpentine, Oil, Honey, and serve them for pails to fetch water in, and many other the like uses.Gerard, Herbal, 16th cent England
I will continue to add videos as the season progresses to my Bottle Gourd Youtube playlist.
In 2020, I had the fortune of being introduced to Ken Albala, who offered to collaborate on a project, in part to the quality and unique field of study of my skirret paper (the one that won An Tir Championship & Sable Bonnet). After bouncing ideas around on what to cook together over Zoom, we decided on a Fried Squash recipe from Martino, a late 15th cent Italian chef. The translation Ken shared had the use of bottle gourds with fennel flowers and verjuice. I was really intrigued due to the implied Summer seasonality of the dish, timing gourds with fennel flowers both of which occur in the deep summer, and all of which were growing in my garden. (Thank you Maestro Edwardo for the Intro!)
It was a great experience and a whole bunch of fun. I think I did pretty good at not Fan-Geeking and totally losing it. 😀
This year I hope to try other pre-1600’s preparation methods, including pickling young gourds, cooking and pickling more mature gourds, and cooking the seeds. I am especially keen on trying out the White Gourd and Yellow Cucumber recipe from The Most Excellent Book of Cookery (Livre fort excellent de cuysine, translated by Ken Albala) with medieval-esque cucumbers I am growing to yellow ripeness.
Using the remaining hazel boughs, I created a trellis for the gourds to grow on. I do not know if this exact trellis design would have been used, but it worked well with the materials I had available. Many images of medieval trellises have a strong grid design, so I mimicked that with the horizontal cross braces. I anticipate the gourds out growing this trellis, but it should give them a bit more space to grow and will help keep the gourds off the ground.
The plants creep along the earth, and spread into branches much like to the Vine, which for the weekness of the stalke are caused on such wise to spread abroad on the ground, except these be otherwise shored up in their growing, with props workmanly set in the earth, for the better staying up of the weak armes and branches, that the fruits corrupt not by laying on the earth.Thomas Hill, Gardner’s Labyrinth, 16th Cent England
Gerard specifically mentions using “old painted cloths.” Why is this? Was it just because it was large chunks of fabric they had access to, to cover beds? Does the painted quality of the cloth make a difference? Stayned cloth in England utilized rabbit skin glue as the size material, which is hydrophilic. Does this make a difference in functionality or heat retention? Also, will a rabbit-stayned cloth hold up in an outdoor setting?
I based my Stayned Cloth project on the the article ‘Stayned’ and ‘peynted’ textiles and the accompanying video by Melisa White reproducing a stayned cloth hanging at Bayleaf Farm, an early Tudor house in Kent England. I also re-watched the Tudor Monastic Farm episode where Ruth helps paint a stayed cloth.
Utilizing the aspects covered in above videos and after consultation with Baroness Rebecca Robynson (OL) from Caid, I created a stayned cloth, attempting to be as historic as possible. I used a canvas weight undyed 100% linen, hand stitched, sized with rabbit skin glue, and painted with oxide pigment dust suspended in rabbit skin glue. For the majority I used modern heating techniques for the size. I did happily happen to have all the pottery needed to assemble a double boiler pot on a chaffing dish (details in the pottery section below).
For the overall design, I used large scale stripes and floral elements as in the Bayleaf cloth. I simplified the elements to just a scatter of heraldic roses as I did not have a lot of time. I also did not want to put a lot of effort into this first project as it was to be used outside, and I did not know how the paint would hold up to the spring rains.
I am thrilled by the outcome. I tested both finished and unfinished edges, and found that the rabbit size acted as ‘fray-check’ and hemming was redundant. In the field, I love how responsive it is to relative humidity, becoming more pliable with increased atmospheric moisture. Although, this was annoying trying to recover beds in the drier evenings with a more ridged cloth. I was also very surprised by how resilient the paint was to all the rain.
The rabbit skin paint needs to be kept warm to keep the collagen liquid. A double boiler is advised so the size does not get too hot and degrade its adhesion properties. Fortunately, I made some pottery pieces the previous year that would work well for this project. I used a chafing dish, with a three-footed skillet filled with water, and a small pot for the paint jars.
I had been puzzled for a while how the chafing dish worked. Most medieval chafing dishes have slits in the top bowl and projections on the rim to support a bowl or skillet. The extant piece I replicated (image below) has a solid top and an almost even rim. I, in my modern mindset, assumed coals or a candle would be placed in the the opening underneath, much like modern sterno catering chafing dishes. I tried it several times, but there is not enough airflow to keep a candle lit. Serendipitously, while watching ‘A Stitch In Time’ from The BBC, I saw a historic dressmaker use a medieval style chafing dish to warm an iron. The coals are placed on top! (See minute 22:10 from the Arnolfini episode when Ninya Mikhaila sets up the chaffing dish.)
The water in the skillet quickly started to steam when the coals were placed in the chafing dish, keeping the paint in the smaller jar at lovely liquid consistency. Both the hollow handle of the skillet and the stand of the chafing dish kept cool, making it easy to gasp and maneuver with bare hands. This set-up worked well, although I did not need to use it much as the paint stayed warm enough for long enough when in the stoneware vessels.
When sizing the canvas and painting the stripes, I used a modern set up of quart mason jars of paint, kept warm in a crockpot half filled with water and set on low. The paint cooled more quickly in the mason jars, which made keeping them warm in a crockpot critical. For all steps, I used a modern stove and pot for the initial heating and dissolving of the glue granules. I used modern bristle brushes.
I have the good fortune of having two dibblers. One made by THL Nemo Magnus, and the other by Vicountess Nadezhda Volynskaiia. I really enjoy using a dibbler to plant larger seeds such as peas and gourds. Dibbling is well-documented as a medieval gardening technique. While most dibblers pictured in garden text have a ‘T’ handle, I prefer the knobbed and flat top versions as I tend to dibble smaller items.
I have also good success dibbling colewarts as Thomas Hill instructs. This video demonstrates using both dibblers.
I am still a few years out from the ash sapling I am growing and shaping into a 2-prong fork to be large enough for use. So I ordered a wooden fork from an online purveyor of more historic tools. It is similar to 18-19th cent wooden forks. I adore using the wooden fork, especially for moving straw. When gathering horse manure, it worked well for the fresh field piles. The droppings in the barn were slightly dehydrated from the modern pellet bedding, decreasing clumping, and the smaller apples fell through the tines, making a modern barn rake much more effective. When moving straw, the wooden fork worked better on straw that had not been compressed into modern bales.
Modern is Sometimes Better
Gardening while in your courses
While there are some beneficial aspects that we can embrace and bring forward with us to our modern gardens, there are some aspects that I happily leave behind… such as the concept that somehow women while menstruating will hamper gourd growth. I am happy to report the gourds I am tending to during my menses seem to have no ill effect.
But there must be a special care, as Columella (after the Greek Florentinus) admonisheth, that no woman, at that instant, having the reds or monethly course, approacheth nigh to the fruits, especially handle them, for through the handling at the same time they feevle and wither.
If she in the place be like affected, she shall after kill the young fruits, with her onely look fixed on them, or cause them to grow after unsaverie or else corrupted.Thomas Hill, Gardner’s Labyrinth, 16th Cent England
I have a temporary hoop house made from hog panels over two of my 4’x8′ raised beds. I hope to trellis gourd plants on the hog panels, as a nod to the Gourd image from the late 14th cent Tacuinum Sanitatis (Paris 1673 edition). I am growing four different types of gourds in the hoop house: Birdhouse, Cucuzza, Dipper, and Corsican.
The gourds in the hoop house are thriving with the added heat. They also have a longer internodal length. I am not sure why, perhaps the higher heat and early access to a trellis encourages the less compact growth.
I am also growing a gourd plant in a large container to see if gourds can grow well in situations where one can not plant into the ground. So far it looks great. In retrospect, after planting into the larger container, I should have kept it in the hoop house for a few weeks to give it a warmer growing condition. I will not try to trellis this plant, instead I will let it grow on the ground.
History and Botany of Bottle Gourds
More information about bottle gourd and my research into the history are highlighted in the article I wrote for the July 2021 Crier. To view, access through the online Crier articles, selecting the July edition, or view the PDF of the text with references.
I taught a class about Bottle Gourds at the 2021 Known World Science Symposium. Please see my class slides for detailed information about Bottle Gourds, including the history, botany, and modernly available types.
Link to PDF of class slides: https://drive.google.com/file/d/169olgX7Tpl9vvhZGCsOPjfv4avIGVQw8/view?usp=sharing
- The Herbal, or general history of plants. John Gerard. I used the 2015 reproduction by Calla Editions of the 1622 edition. An online indexed version through the Ex-Classics Website. The gourd growing instructions are in the cucumber section.
- The Gardeners Labyrinth. Thomas Hill. I used Richard Mabey’s 1987 edited version published by Oxford University Press. It is based on the 1652 edition. I have spent several hours with an extant 1577 edition.
- Friar Henry Daniel. I used the “Gowrde” section as shared in Medieval Gardens by John Henry in his treasured 1981 book published by B.T. Batsford Ltd.