From Gourds to Gorgeous
What do dipper, bottle, snake, spinner and kettle have in common?
They are all names for different types of gourds, and you will find several different varieties either growing in Jeff Burke’s garden or drying in his workshop. For Jeff, EMG Class of 2018, and his wife, Nina, an artist, gourds are so much more than a traditional Thanksgiving table centerpiece. They are an “addiction.”
Gourds, one of the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes cucumbers, squash and pumpkins, are the oldest continuously cultivated crops in the world. There are more than 200 varieties, yet few are suitable for eating. Found on every continent except Antarctica, gourds have been grown for utensils, ceremonial hats and masks, musical instruments, corn and grain storage, decorative items, and even floatation devices for fishing.
“The growing part is easy,” says Jeff. “Gourds have to be dried, cleaned, sorted, and cut to be useful. All of that takes a lot of time.” He has nets full of gourds hanging from the rafters of his workshop to keep them from molding.
The Burke’s passion for gourds started when they lived in Mississippi for two years. Nina, who previously gravitated to wood as a canvas, found the availability of various sizes and shapes of gourds to be an attractive new dimension for artistic expression. It wasn’t until they returned to Virginia, and Nina retired as an art teacher in Frederick County, that converting gourds to characters became a full-time passion. A member of Virginia Lovers Gourd Society, Nina has won several awards for her decorative work and sells her signature Santa gourds, snowmen, reindeer, sheep, birdhouses and other whimsical delights at arts and crafts show throughout the year.
Jeff helps prepare the gourds that require base painting, but the dirty work of cutting open the gourds is all Nina, who does the work outside, wearing a mask. “Gourds produce a lot of fine dust and mold,” said Jeff. His other contribution to the business includes “packing and driving.”
For nearly 20 years, Jeff has been growing gourds to supply Nina’s growing business. In an average year, he grows up to six different types and harvests about 100. But that’s not nearly enough. The couple makes frequent trips to gourd farms in Lancaster, Pa., to keep their supply house full.
While gourds “speak” to Nina, who is the creative force behind the gourd transformation, Jeff jokes that “they don’t talk to him.” He prefers vegetable and flower gardening, working with farm equipment and tools, and repairing small engines. His friend Bob Gail (NSVMGA Past President) first got him involved in the NSVMGA as a community volunteer at the Freemont School Nursery in Winchester. He rubbed elbows with other EMGs. “It started with peer pressure,” he said. Then he won a basket of gardening supplies at a Freemont School Nursery fundraiser that included an application to the NSVMGA Class of 2018, he said, “That’s how I received my commitment papers.”
Until back surgery and the COVID pandemic limited his physical activity and involvement, Jeff volunteered at the Belle Grove Plantation Teaching Garden on Tuesdays, the Frederick County Greenline on Wednesdays, and the Farmer’s Market in Winchester on Saturdays. In 2021, he served as the NSVMGA Treasurer.
“Greenline was the best,” he recalls. “A bag of weeds, a jar of bugs. You never knew what was coming in the door.” As an added bonus, since Jeff has lived in the Middletown area for 50 years, he knew so many of Greenline’s clients. “I helped solve problems and caught up with old friends,” he said.
On a personal note, Jeff and Nina have visited all 50 states and just joined Nina’s sister and brother-in-law on a trip to the western United States to celebrate their relatives as they completed the same goal. Their cross-country travels just may have included a few trips to gourd farms.
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