If you're eaten your fill of fresh garden bounty and put up the rest, try a new tact this season and use vegetables for interesting and useful craft material. Colorful popcorn, gourds, okra, and peppers can all be dried and transformed into unique handmade gifts or added to your home decor. From birdhouses made from gourds and mini pumpkins, centerpieces featuring dried corn, to jewelry and wreaths … all can be made from using your imagination and dried vegetables. It’s a cool way for gardeners to show their creativity, and a perfect way to add a touch of “vegetable beauty” to your home. Dried vegetables lend themselves to a variety of decorations and projects and, not only are these vegetables colorful, but many of them become quite aromatic as they dry.
GOURD BIRDHOUSES & CONTAINERS
With the many decorative possibilities that ornamental gourds offer, they are one of the easiest and most versatile materials for craft projects for every season. By combining some readily available art supplies, and your own personal touch of creativity, you can create some handcrafted masterpieces ranging from birdhouses and feeders, flower pots and caches, serving bowls, luminaries, and even table centerpieces.
Bowling-pin shaped gourds, (Lagenaria s.), such as ‘Big Apple’, ‘Gakhaa’ and ‘Speckled Swan’ cultivars, make wonderful birdhouses. Cucurbita p. gourds like ‘Japanese Nest Egg’, ‘Orange’, and ‘Small Apple’ make colorful containers for potpourri or tea lights. Try ‘Bali Sugar Trough’, ‘Bushel Basket’, and ‘Calabash’ to create a jewelry box or water jug. You can grow these gourds easily yourself or buy them fresh. Either way, you’ll need to dry and cure them before making anything.
Harvest the gourds in fall when they are fully mature. You’ll need a drill and drill bits, a small knife, sandpaper, a 1/4-inch dowel, and wood glue to make a birdhouse. Set these items aside while you thoroughly clean the outside of the gourds with a damp sponge and soap, removing any debris. Wipe them down with some rubbing alcohol and place them in a well-ventilated place to dry. After one week, move the gourds to a dark, dry place where they can start to dry on the inside. This will take about four to six months.
When the gourds lighten in color and you can hear the seeds rattling around inside when you shake them, the gourds are cured and ready to drill for your creation. Use sandpaper to smooth the outside surface. Then take your drill and bit to create an opening for the bird as well as a smaller hole for your dowel. Place wood glue on the end of the dowel and slide it into the small hole. Allow the glue to dry. Then you can use paint to decorate the surface of the gourd, if desired.
Multi-colored dried corn and mini pumpkins can be used to make beautiful fall wreaths, or wreaths for any time of the year. The cute, little 2 to 3-inch ‘Strawberry’ cultivar popcorn (Zea mays), produces rich, deep red small ears of popcorn that look like strawberries. Leave half of the husks on some and remove them entirely from others. ‘Rainbow Sweet Inca’ is another strain of a beautiful multi-colored corn that makes an ornamental addition in fall wreaths and centerpieces.
TURN SEEDS INTO JEWELRY
It’s easy to transform dried seeds into pendants for necklaces, earrings, broaches and bracelets. Suspend them in epoxy or back them with polymer clay to make medallion pendants. You can also use a small drill to turn the seeds into beads. Then, string the new "seed beads" onto beading thread with a needle. Add a little bling with colorful glass seed beads and the dried seeds are ready for a day at the farmer's market.
A Mexican ristra is a good luck charm composed of dried peppers and can hang in a long strip or tied together to create a wreath shape. Dried pepper wreaths are not only decorative, but also can be used in many recipes for cooking, as they add a burst of flavor. They also make wonderful homemade gifts.
There are a wide variety of shapes and colors to choose from to construct a Mexican ristra. Some of the popular hot pepper varieties that look great are ‘Black Hungarian’, ‘Cayenne Long Thin’, ‘Chinese Five Color’, ‘Corne De Chevre’, ‘India Jwala’, ‘Leutschauer Paprika’, ‘Pasilla Bajio’, and ‘Tabasco’.
Strung peppers make a charming decoration inside and outside the home. Listening to the seeds rattle around inside the dried peppers on a windy day reminds me of living in the Southwest. Place the chili pepper ristra in the kitchen or near the barbecue area of your home for a spicy touch whenever you need them.
Pick the hot peppers from your garden (or purchase them from your farmer’s market) and wash them in cool water. Spread the hot peppers on cooling racks to dry. Do not proceed until the peppers are completely dry. You will want to use disposable gloves to protect your hands from the irritant in the hot peppers. Whatever you do, don’t rub your eyes!
Thread the needle with a 20- to 30-inch long length of dental floss. Tie a double knot in the end of the dental floss. Insert the needle through the hot pepper (near the stem). Pass the hot pepper all the way along the dental floss until it stops at the knot at the end of the floss.
Tie a knot in the dental floss approximately ½-inch above the hot pepper. This will space the peppers along the dental floss and ensure that air circulates adequately around each pepper. Keep stringing until you get to the end of the dental floss. Remove the needle from the dental floss and tie a loop on the end of the dental floss. Hang the hot peppers in a sunny window. Leave the hot peppers drying in the sunny window until they are leathery and shriveled. This may take one to two weeks.
The large, globe-shaped cultivar called ‘Green Globe’, the lovely pointed, purple cultivar ‘Violetta Precoce’, and the large, round-headed ‘Purple of Romagna’ cultivar are very easy to dry to use as decorations. This sturdy vegetable, with its warm green to purple hues, stands out when used in centerpieces. Arranged around hurricane lamps with candles, used in a wreath with small ears of dried colored popcorn, or hollowed out just enough to set a candle inside, are just a few of the many uses for dried artichokes.
It’s important to properly dry the artichokes to maintain their shape. When fully dried, they will be somewhat brittle to the touch, so use caution when handling the dried artichokes. Harvest the flower just before it fully opens and hasn't started to wilt, leaving about 2 to 3 inches of the stem.
Stretch a length of floral netting across an area in your shed or garage. Pull it tight and secure it into place. Poke the stems of the artichokes through the openings in the floral netting. Space them out so they aren't touching each other, or tie a heavy string to the stem of the artichoke flower and hang the string so that the flower is suspended, hanging upside down. Check on the artichokes every two to three days to see how the drying process is going. Depending on the size of the artichokes, it may take one to two weeks for them to fully dry. They should be brittle and not flexible.
Use a sharp knife or pruners to do any necessary trimming after they’ve dried. Cut off some of the stem to prepare the artichokes for decorating. If left to mature on the plant, the artichoke itself will develop into a lovely purple thistle-like flower. The flower can be dried and also used in floral arrangements or craft projects.
Okra is most often used in gumbo, or eaten sliced and fried. Not only are okra pods green, but also reddish orange (‘Jing Orange’), red (‘Hill Country Heirloom’), and burgundy (‘Burgundy’) in color. The pods resemble a chili pepper or jalapeno. Okra is very popular and plentiful in the southern United States, and is not only tasty, but is also a versatile material used in arts and crafts. Dried either naturally or with a moisture-absorbing material such as silica gel, okra pods are perfect decorations for an autumn centerpiece or wreath, faux flower bud arrangement, or transformed into painted pod lizards and pod butterflies.
A wonderful use for dried okra pods in their natural state is to make an autumn centerpiece. Start with a small pumpkin or gourd, carving out a small hole to remove the seeds and that will also serve as a vase. Using floral wire stems, arrange the okra pods with dried corn, peppers, dried flowers, and leaves. Place the stems in the pumpkin or gourd, arranging the pieces like you would a flower arrangement. Have a few things cascading down the side, with a few extra okra nestled at the base.
With okra pods’ naturally tapered shape, they are ideal for making odd, but interesting-looking butterflies, alligators and crocodiles, snakes and lizards. Begin by painting their features and their distinguished markings on the dried pods with an acrylic craft paint. Dip some pins into a little glue to attach wings either purchased at a craft store or constructed at home using cardstock or fabric. Use thin wire to create antennae, curl one end and insert it into the top of the pod. Polymer clay works great for shaping into legs. When they are finished, use them as refrigerator magnets, set them on a bookshelf, or hang them up with a piece of string or ribbon.
Faux flower bud arrangements make another beautiful and different okra pod decorating craft. Okra pods naturally resemble closed flowers just before they bloom, such as Asiatic lilies, gladiolas, and hibiscus. Use the acrylic craft paint to transform them into glossy-looking spring buds. Gently apply the paint, using different shades of pink, yellow or orange on the pods with a small sponge to give it that more natural look. Finish it off with a little dab of green paint on the caps of the okra, attach them to green floral wire stems, and arrange the painted pods with silk greenery and complimentary ribbon as an accent.
So now get out there and harvest some fall decorations from your own garden. Not only can you let your imagination run wild, but you’ll get the satisfaction of standing back and looking at what you created, saying to yourself, “Wow, I did that!”