Lord of the Gourds
A New Gloucester gardener presides over tunnels burgeoning with the bulbous fruit that fuels his art.
TEXT BY SARA ANNE DONNELLY
PHOTOGRAPHED BY JEFF ROBERTS
From the November 2022 issue of Down East magazine
Over the last three years, New Gloucester’s Aaron Letourneau has given over most of his garden to gourds. He loves their history: one of the world’s oldest cultivated plants, dating back 13,000 years, they’re “our ancestors’ Tupperware,” he says. Also, “I just think they’re beautiful.” Looking for a low-maintenance plant he could leave for long stretches while traveling for his job as a field-project manager for Lowe’s, he picked up birdhouse gourd seeds on a whim, then experimented with drying, hollowing out, carving, and decorating his first harvest. He planted more varieties. Then, he built a four-foot-tall tunnel from wire cattle-panel fencing for the gourds to climb, which allows them to grow straighter than they would on the ground. A seven-and-a-half-foot-tall tunnel was completed earlier this year. Along the way, Letourneau amassed nearly 7,000 followers on TikTok, where his @gourdfarmer reels highlighting his growing and crafting exploits have attracted more than half a million views.
Last summer, approximately 500 gourds of more than 32 varieties — from rope-like snake gourds as long as 12 feet to bulbous Indonesian bottle and squat tobacco box gourds, swaddled in slings to keep them from snapping off their stalks — hung from Letourneau’s tunnels and blanketed his garden. The growing season is exciting. “Gourds are true athletes in the garden; they grow so fast,” he says — as much as a foot a day for some varieties. (One evening, Letourneau set a watering can down inside a tunnel and returned the next day to find it tangled in gourd tendrils.) In late fall and throughout the winter, he harvests the fruit. “I love that, in February, I can pick a gourd and turn it into something amazing,” he says.
ABOVE Simply gourd-geous: in fall and winter, Letourneau paints and carves the many different gourds he grows.
There have been setbacks. The spray paint Letourneau used to decorate his first batch of dried gourds flaked off after a few days because, he learned, the shells are microscopically porous. After consulting other gourd artists, he began using leather dye, a wood-burning pen, a prick punch, and plastic beads to embellish his gourd birdhouses, lamps, vases, and water bottles — some sold at Pownal’s ChiGoBee Farm — with colorful, intricate designs. Last year, however, his artistic endeavors took a hit when deer ate 25 choice gourds he’d been drying on a pallet in his backyard. “Don’t count your gourds before they dry,” he says with a shrug.
On a recent sunny afternoon, Letourneau wandered through his larger tunnel, ducking now and then to avoid gourds dangling from thick stalks like petrified droplets. The air was cooler than outside, and sunlight trickling through the canopy of vines cast an eerie green glow. “My favorite thing about gourds is that I grow a canvas — I can make something from a seed I planted,” he said, pausing to lay his cheek on a ghost-white basketball gourd that might become his dining-room pendant lamp. “My friend who grows pumpkins came through here and was like, ‘You have a way more intimate connection with your plants than I have.’”