Gourd People grow their own gourd-eous festival

Tojo Creek Gourd Gala and Art Festival What: Local gourd artists provide demonstrations, display and sell their works.When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. SaturdayWhere: Carroll F.C.E. (Family and Community Education) Clubhouse, 129 N. Hunters Point Road (five miles north of Lebanon on Highway 231)Admission: FreeContact: John Swendiman, 449-0335 or tojocreekranch@wildblue.net By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson PostJohn and Zena Swendiman have grown used to the fact that they have ripened into gourd people. At various festivals and shows in the area, he is referred to as the Gourd Man and she as the Gourd Lady. The couple is serious about gourds. No, neither is out of his or her gourd, just really, really into gourds. On their 45-acre Tojo Creek Ranch about 6 miles north of Lebanon, the duo is doing everything they can to bloom their gourd patch into an agritourism success.“You buy a farm, you gotta do something. I bought a pack of seeds at Walmart and grew some ornamental gourds. Then we went to a gourd festival, and I thought this might be the right product for a small farm,” said John, who had no desire to raise animals.Since that first small crop in 1999, he bought more seeds and experimented through the years. Then people began to come and purchase their gourds. Last fall he harvested 2,500 to 3,000 hard-shelled gourds and about 2,000 ornamental gourds. “As far as I know, we are the only commercial local gourd growers in northern Middle Tennessee,” he said.The couple and other gourd artists will present the Tojo Creek Gourd Gala and Art Festival 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday at the Carroll F.C.E. Clubhouse, 5 miles north of Lebanon. Admission is free.“Gourds are considered a creative art or heritage skill which goes back to our Home Demonstration Clubs, now known as Family and Community Education. I think it is really important they are doing something for the community. It’s a free event and something that the whole family can go can look at it and learn about gourds and where they come from,” said Shelly Barnes, Wilson County Family and Consumer Sciences extension agent. “We hope the gourd show will be big enough to have at the Ag Center next year. We’re looking to applying for a grant that focuses on agriculture sustainability and also a little bit of agritourism,” Barnes said.There are two main kinds of gourds that people grow: hard-shelled gourds that can be painted or used to make birdhouses and ornamental gourds that make colorful fall decorations.Zena, an artist for many years, has concentrated on gourds as her medium for the past decade. She can turn a gourd into just about anything, from baskets and drums to vases and bottle people. From the mini-bottle gourd she crafts characters of all sorts. Her best sellers are Santas, penguins and nutcrackers, but she also paints snowmen, farmers and bankers.“When painting, the gourd, of course, is curved. You have to adjust,” she said. “You can paint, stain or burn a gourd. It’s just like wood but has no grain.”The gourds cannot be harvested before the vines are dead or the first frost, normally in October and November. The ornamentals take 90 days to grow, and the hard-shelled gourds take 120 to 130 days to grow. They take two to three months to dry. Once dried, they are soaked and the skin has been scrubbed off, “You can do whatever you want,” Zena said.“The things you can do are simply up to your imagination. I try to use the different types of gourds. I look at the zucca gourd and think, ‘What can we do with this?’ I came up with making bird feeders, and with the maraca gourd I have made vases.”John has grown 20 varieties of the plant through the years. Those include apple gourds, bottle gourds, dipper gourds, club gourds, martin birdhouse gourds, cannonball gourds and swan gourds. The largest he ever raised is 25 inches high and 50 inches in circumference at its widest.Members of  the American Gourd Society and the Tennessee Volunteer Gourd Association, the Swendimans have lived in Lebanon for 12 years. She is payroll manager for Rogers Group Inc., and he is semi-retired from electronic communications and the music business to be a farmer and humorous speaker.They set up at about six events a years, such as the Wilson County Fair and Wilson Bank & Trust’s Ocktoberfest. Their items are priced from $2 to $80.John leads the Tojo Creek Patch of about two dozen members who turn gourds into art. They meet the second Saturday of each month. He also edits an electronic newsletter that goes to about 120 gourd enthusiasts.Among other local gourd artists expected to show their crafts at Saturday’s show are Valerie Braun, Donna Brumback, Pat Cesar, Edna Goodman, Mary Jo Haynes, Vicki Knapp, Delane Kolbe, Barry and Lorraine Louwerse and Maxine and Norm Osborn. “The point is to bring a gourd art show back to Lebanon and drive interest in an annual gourd show in our area. We want to grow the interest in gourds and gourd art,” the Gourd Man said.Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.