Winter's icy grip may be keeping your body indoors, but that doesn't mean your mind can't rebel by starting to plan for this year's gardening season. According to the seasoned green thumbs who keep tabs on what's hot in the world backyard gardening, trends for 2020 include more pollinators and native plants, renewed interest in herbalism, succulents, succulents, succulents and –– my own personal favorite –– a desire for more garden nooks.

Yes, garden nooks, those shady, quiet, secluded parts of a garden that can be anything from a bench under a trellis to a hammock tucked between trees. When the hard work is done or the world feels too heavy, these are the backyard retreats where it feels good to breathe deep, stretch and trade a trowel for a book.

I was inspired to make one of these little nooks last spring after stumbling across images like the one below of gourd tunnels in public gardens in South Korea. Hideaways like these not only feel inviting, but also feature the fantastic addition of dozens upon dozens of sunlit-dappled gourds descending like fall ornaments.

A gourd tunnel in South Korea.
A gourd tunnel in South Korea. (Photo: By ning2k/Shutterstock)

So why gourds? The simplest answer is these plants, members of the same family as pumpkins, cucumbers, squash, luffa and melons, absolutely love to climb. Heights of anywhere between 15 feet to over 30 feet in a season are fairly common. Coupled with massive leaves that compete to catch every bit of the summer sun, and it's easy to see why gourds are a favorite for quick-and-easy shady spots.

Even better, however, is the variety of beautiful and strange fruits that will descend in late summer and early fall. Gourds come in all shapes and sizes, with the most popular varieties featuring names like bottle, swan, snake, birdhouse, turban and even mini-boos.

A top-down view of the gourd tunnel from earlier this past summer.
A top-down view of the gourd tunnel from earlier this past summer. (Photo: Michael d'Estries/MNN)

So where to begin? There are all sorts of options for constructing your own gourd tunnel. Popular choices include utilizing t-steaks, straw bales and fencing mesh, PVC pipe and even 16-foot-long cattle panels. I personally wanted to a.) build one for as cheap as possible and b.) have something a bit more rustic. I sourced some dried rough-cut poles I had lying around my barn and also went into the woods and cut any non-native species that could fill in the remainder. Because these fresh cuts are green and quite heavy, I made sure to utilize them as vertical supports.

Gourd tunnels offer an easy and beautiful way to beat the summer heat and hide away from the world.
Gourd tunnels offer an easy and beautiful way to beat the summer heat and hide away from the world. (Photo: Michael d'Estries/MNN)

I cut the vertical posts into four 12-foot sections (with 3 feet in the ground), with two 9.5 foot-long connectors. I placed these about 16 inches or so beneath each vertical post to create a roof line for the gourds to follow. Up top, two 5-foot-long poles connect the vertical posts and a single 11-foot-long pole completes the roof line. After drilling a few holes, outdoor 3-inch woods screws tie it all together.

Down below, two complementing raised beds parallel the structure on either side, with holes drilled every six inches or so for the galvanized wire to travel through and up and over. I found that the gourds took to this wire immediately, though seasonal exposure likely means I'll be replacing it at least once every two years or so.

You can see it all come together in the 360-degree video I took during the winter months. Use your left mouse button after hitting play to drag the camera angle and look all around you.

The other thing you'll need to consider is what direction to place your gourd tunnel in. I settled on having the entrance face south to allow even light on both sides, but then realized that, once full of leaves, this thing could potentially topple from westerly winds during summer storms. Bracing was added to all the posts to strengthen the overall support. As a bonus, the stability of the structure increased once the gourds began hanging; with several from the center horizontal pole providing a kind anchoring effect against high winds.

For a bit of nighttime appeal, we also added solar lights to the upper posts. Once the leaves fully enveloped the structure, it was a beautiful sight to see the gourd tunnel aglow during the summer evenings.

The gourd tunnel in fall.
The gourd tunnel in fall. (Photo: Michael d'Estries/MNN)

Speaking of weight, make sure whatever structure you build can accommodate the kinds of gourds you choose. Some varieties, such as the bushel gourd, can weigh anywhere from 25-50 pounds each! You could easily build a tunnel that looks beautiful in early-mid summer, but collapses under the weight of all the gourds come fall.

For this particular build, we went with a mix of bottle, swan and turban gourds. As shown in the images above, the vines took immediately to the structure and created a shady nook in no time.

A collection of gourds (with some butternut squash) harvested from our 2019 gourd tunnel.
A collection of gourds (with some butternut squash) harvested from our 2019 gourd tunnel. (Photo: Michael d'Estries/MNN)

After harvest, gourds from your tunnel make for some beautiful fall decoration that can then be dried over winter outside and repurposed. There are countless how-tos online for turning gourds into everything from birdhouses to toys, musical instruments, kitchen utensils and more. It's no wonder that this versatile fruit has been discovered in archaeological sites dating from as early as B.C. 13,000!

In terms of things I'll be doing differently this year, the biggest change will be the amount of plants on either side of the tunnel. I wasn't exactly sure just how many would be needed to cover the trellis and great overestimated. With a nine foot long bed, I'll likely be planting 4-5 plants in each instead of the 8-10 I had crammed in there. I also attempted to incorporate cucumbers into the mix, but whether it was the variety I chose or the close grouping with other plants, they just didn't take to the structure like I hoped –– hence the clear gap in the "green wall" of the western side.

However you build your own gourd tunnel, I promise you won't be disappointed. They're a simple structure for beating the heat and surrounding yourself in green, as well as enjoying the beauty of what researchers believe may be one of the world's oldest domesticated plants.

Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.