Ithaca, an artsy college town located in the Finger Lakes region of central New York, is known for its beautiful scenery, impressive waterfalls, and massive gorges. Yet, somehow, even with a population of more than 30,000 people, the city maintains a charming small-town vibe with sleepy streets lined with local businesses and friendly faces.
One of the friendliest faces belongs to Graham Ottoson, a local midwife-turned-artist and self-proclaimed “Gourd Lady.” Ottoson is the woman behind Gourdlandia, a place she describes as “more than a gallery, not quite a farm,” dedicated to the science and art of gourd cultivation. Her studio, which she frequently opens to the public, is located in EcoVillage Ithaca, a co-housing community that focuses its efforts on sustainability and energy-efficient living.
On an exceptionally muggy September afternoon, I approach the cabin-like building that houses Gourdlandia. I’m eager to learn about what Ottoson calls “the world’s most versatile vegetable.” She greets me at the gate and invites me to wander through the trellises, where she can usually be found hanging new gourds. At the entrance, a welcome sign made of gourds reads: “Welcome! Come on in … unless you’re a rabbit, or a chipmunk, or a cucumber beetle.”
I follow Ottoson closely, ducking as I make my way underneath the viney trellises, careful not to disturb the growing gourds. Ottoson’s garden yields as many as several hundred gourds every year, but Gourdlandia’s comprises only 26 total plants.
Ottoson is quick to point out the difference between gourds and pumpkins. They’re both in the same family as squash (Cucurbitaceae), but pumpkins are prone to rot. Gourds, on the other hand, maintain a strong and dense outer shell, making them a perfect blank canvas. Pumpkins are a popular choice for seasonal dishes and desserts, while gourds are largely inedible.
On the other side of her garden, Ottoson offers me a peek into her small shed, where gourds of all shapes and sizes sit on the shelves in various stages of cleaning or staining. To the untrained eye, it might appear as though some of the gourds are rotting, but Ottoson says that’s not the case. “People always come up to me at craft shows saying, ‘I tried to grow gourds, but they all rotted,’” she says. “That’s when I usually plug my ears, since the next thing they say is, ‘So I threw them away.’”
Gourds might not always have the prettiest natural exterior, but according to Ottoson, that’s exactly when they’re ready to be washed and scrubbed—both necessary steps before a gourd can be transformed into art.
Unconventional cultivation methods
Ottoson shows me the different types of gourds she has available with names that reflect where the specific strain was developed or what it looks like. Today’s selection includes African Wine Kettle, Chinese bottle, Mexican bottle, Copper Canyon Canteen, Nigerian Drum, Martin House, and Extra-Long Handle Dipper gourds.
Just behind me, there’s a tiny plant with what appears to be just a single flower. Ottoson lovingly reaches down to point out that behind the flower, there’s a baby gourd (called a “pepo”) growing. These embryonic gourds grow only on female flowers, so it’s an easy way to differentiate between the sexes.
Gourds are night blooming plants, but due to a lack of natural night pollinators (mainly moths) in the area, Ottoson, with the help of her team, manually pollinates each plant during summer. “We come out every evening in the summertime with headlamps and paint brushes between 9 and 11 p.m., take the pollen from the male flower with a paint brush, and paint it on the female flower,” she explains. “We only missed three nights this summer because it was raining.”
Not only does this unconventional method increase their yield each year, but pollinating by hand also helps create beautiful, more symmetrical gourds to work with. By the time I visit, it’s already so late in the season that Ottoson says the gourds currently blooming likely won’t survive.
The Gourdlandia studio
Inside her studio, Ottoson has created lamps, globe lights, jewelry, baskets, and noisemakers—all made from gourds. Even the bathroom is a showroom, with an array of whimsical, highly decorative gourd nightlights.
Ottoson created a custom-made chandelier and cupola light from the heaviest gourds she’s ever grown (both were more than 120 pounds), and her longest gourd spans an impressive 6 feet and 2 inches. “These things took on a life of their own, and when I finally finished, it was so much fun to see,” Ottoson says. “Those were the most memorable things for sure.”
Some of Ottoson’s pieces can be purchased in her small shop, and guests can also try their hand at crafting their own piece of gourd art. Necklace and nightlight classes are quick and generally available for drop-ins, or guests can pre-register for a workshop.
According to its tourist slogan, Ithaca is “gorges.” Inside Ottoson’s Gourdlandia, “gourd-geous” feels like a more apt description. When I ask her to explain the essence of Gourdlandia, she smiles and says, “It’s hard to give the elevator pitch. It’s all about gourds. I mean, it’s a monument to gourds.” She pauses to think, then shrugs. “But even that doesn’t really describe it.”
If you go:
Gourdlandia is typically open weekdays from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., with varying hours during weekends and holidays.