Yardsmart: Creating organic fall decor

Maureen Gilmer
McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Repurpose, recycle, reuse, is the mantra of today’s decor. When you decorate for autumn with organic elements that can later be repurposed, you get double the value. All over America, it’s the season of gourds and Indian corn, both highly useful raw materials that can yield art projects and seed for next year’s garden. The key is knowing what to buy now and how to exploit the second harvest next year.

Gourds are among the most ancient crops. Their natural shape is said to have influenced the form of the first pottery vessels. These relatives of squash have a hard outer shell that dries to become rigid, then are handcrafted into canteens, bowls, cups and storage containers. Carved, painted or burned gourds have become a fine art in America’s heartland.

The best gourds are sold on pumpkin farms. Unlike the little varnished colorful ones in the supermarket, big field gourds are not only great shapes for organic arrangements, they offer you craft opportunities, too. The epicenter of the gourd world is the Midwest, where farmers grow bushel, dipper, birdhouse and a dozen different other sizes and shapes. They’re left outside after harvest to gradually dry out, which results in a deliciously rustic patina that blends nicely with sticks and dried clippings from your garden. Some folks arrange them in outdoor window boxes with autumn foliage to create a lovely autumn display.

This is also the season for Indian corn, the colorful varieties of Zea mays developed by Native Americans. These strains are the progenitors of sweet corn, and each region has its own indigenous varieties. Native Americans grew their corn to dry and grind into nutritious meal to feed them through the winter. They always saved the most robust ears with the largest kernels for seed that would yield equally as vigorous offspring the next year.

Keep this in mind as you look for Indian corn in the supermarket. The smaller varieties such as strawberry popcorn are prolific, with a single saved ear producing enough seed for a whole crop. The same is true of the slender multicolored popcorn ears, which make excellent decorations in not-so-big homes. Popcorn’s hard, shiny seed coat keeps longer in storage and is less prone to pantry moths that love fat kernel flour corn. The larger, starchier kernels were the result of Native American efforts to select better flour producers.

Look for gourds and corn in local farmer’s markets. Colorful corn grown in your immediate climate zone will be the best suited for growing in your garden. Organically grown Indian corn from local farmers will yield organic seed free of residual chemicals or preservatives.

At the end of the year, retire your decor gourds indoors away from frost in a cool, dry place. This is essential before you can repurpose them into a birdhouse or other artistic creations in spring. You’ll know they’re dry when you shake a gourd vigorously and the seeds rattle inside. When preparing them or extracting seed, cut the gourd, then separate the seed from webby remnants of flesh and set them aside for planting next year. Select the biggest seeds of each gourd type to plant for the genesis of your own gourd garden.

Gourds need a lot of space and may run on the ground or trained to an overhead trellis. This is why those with small yards or even smaller food gardens rarely attempt cultivation. But if you’ve got an arbor or a big backyard, plant them with impunity to witness these ancient plants produce the most useful crop of all.

Autumn is a great opportunity to buy gourds and corn when selecting your pumpkins. Now that you know what to look for, you’ll turn great decor into useful seed for a fraction of the cost of packets in the most natural repurposing project of all.

Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at MoPlants.com. Contact her at mogilmer@yahoo.com or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.