P. Allen Smith: Pile on the Gourds, Pumpkins and Winter Squash

 

Set a place at your Thanksgiving table for autumn’s bounty.

Photography by Jane Colclasure and Mark Fonville

 

The Thanksgiving season is a time of gratitude and giving back. It’s one of the few celebrations that encourage us to slow down, to reflect and to enjoy life. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, in part because of the time of year in which it occurs. November days are short, temperatures are chilly and larders are stocked with the 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 to use in creating an elegant and welcoming environment for your guests.

Bouquets of fresh flowers work well with bold, round pumpkins.

Bouquets of fresh flowers work well with bold, round pumpkins.

You Can’t Go Wrong with Gourds, Pumpkins and Winter Squash

Gourds, pumpkins and winter squash are time-honored 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 the very late spring.

Gourds are easy to grow from seed. Sow seeds 1½ 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, 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; so do I. Try ‘Toad,’ which has 4- to 5-inch fruits with an interesting warty surface.

Pumpkins, winter squash, wild pears, horse apples and gourds arranged down the center of a table as an alternative centerpiece.

Pumpkins, winter squash, wild pears, horse apples and gourds arranged down the center of a table as an alternative centerpiece.

You’ll find a wide assortment of winter squash available for purchase, but they are also 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 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. They 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.

For small tables, consider piling winter squash onto a cake plate. Here I’ve created a centerpiece using winter squash and wild pears.

For small tables, consider piling winter squash onto a cake plate. Here I’ve created a centerpiece using winter squash and wild pears.

Putting It All Together

Whether it’s an intimate setting or formal affair, a joyful Thanksgiving table, at which everyone can come 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 and 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.

Next, you’ll want to add filler pieces to add interest. Try 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 create movement and bring everything together.

To soften the arrangement, add 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 a florist. When selecting flowers, think about blooms that will look good as small bouquets scattered around the table. The 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, which will blend in with the other elements in the arrangement.

Keep in mind that you can set your table and create the centerpiece a day or two ahead. The flowers are fresh, but most of your elements are long lasting and straight from the garden.

Hang a dried gourd garland in your garden or over your front door.

Hang a dried gourd garland in your garden or over your front door.

Drying Gourds

Whether you grow your gourds or purchase them from the farmers market, consider drying a few for decorative purposes.

To prepare gourds for drying:

  • Remove any dirt and wipe them down with a diluted bleach solution of 2 tablespoons bleach-to-1 gallon of water.
  • Place the gourds outdoors, or in an area with good air circulation.
  • Rotate them occasionally, and let them dry for a month. Molding might occur, but this is common.
  • After completely dried, wash them in warm, soapy water with wool pads.

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