With even just a small plot of land, you can grow many useful plants. Obviously, some are edible, but you can use others for health and beauty purposes. One such plant is the luffa sponge gourd, commonly called a loofah. Many people use them as bath sponges, but they start as green fruits that are actually edible. Loofah plants are Cucurbits, in the same family as squash, cucumbers and melons, that you can grow with ease, although they do require a fair amount of time on the vine if you want to use them like sponges.
Loofah Plant Types
There are two species of gourd that gardeners grow to use as sponges. They are Luffa aegyptiaca, which is sometimes called Chinese okra, angled luffa or ridged luffa, and L. acutangular (or L. cyclindrica), commonly called smooth luffa, Egyptian luffa, dishrag gourd or gourd loofa. Both loofah plants grow on vigorous vines and can be used as sponges, so choose the one that appeals to or is available to you.
Growing Loofah Plants
Loofah plants require between 150 and 200 warm, frost-free days (sometimes even longer). Because they have a long growing period and require plenty of sun, only start the plants outdoors in USDA Hardiness Zones 7 or higher. Gardeners in Zone 6 should start the seeds indoors, and the plants are not recommended for regions below Zone 6. If you opt to start indoors, do so 6 to 8 weeks before the last spring frost date.
Experts recommend starting with fresh seeds, as older ones are less likely to germinate, and soaking them in water for a full 24 to 48 hours before planting. You can also scarify the seeds prior to soaking them, which weakens the outer coating to encourage germination. Carefully nick the seed coat with a rough surface, such as sandpaper or a nail file, so that the inner seed is visible, taking care not to damage the seed.
If you start the plants indoors, consider using paper or other biodegradable pots, peat pellets or soil blocks. Doing so will reduce the risk of transplant shock, which loofah plants are prone to. These methods allow you to place the young plants directly into the ground without removing them from a pot.
You will need a large trellis for the vines to climb and hang from, as they can easily grow up to 30 feet long, so choose a roomy spot that gets lots of sunshine. Plant the seeds or young plants in rich, moist, well-drained soil. If you are planting seeds, sow them 8 to 12 inches apart along a fence or trellis. For young plants started indoors, place up to three plants in a hill of soil, with hills spaced about 6 feet apart.
Loofah plants need consistent water to grow well. Check the soil once a week or more, especially during warm weather. Insert a finger into the soil at the base of the plant. If it is dry up to your first knuckle, the plant needs water. The soil should be moist but not saturated.
Pinch off flowers and the first four lateral branches two months before your first frost date to direct the plant’s energy toward producing stronger fruit (pro tip: you can use the flowers in recipes just like other squash blossoms). Aside from this and watering regularly, there is not much more to do but wait and watch for any signs of pests or disease.
To use the fruits as loofah sponges, leave them on the vine until they are mature. You will know they are ready when the skin has turned brown or dark yellow and begins to come away from the fibrous interior. The gourds will feel lightweight to the touch, as well. After removing a gourd from the vine, cut off one end and shake out the seeds (you can save them for next season if you plan to grow loofah plants again). Then roll them on a solid surface, such as a table, to loosen the skin, making it easy to peel.
Cut the loofahs to your desired size, wash them in warm water with a bit of dish soap and allow them to dry completely in the sun, frequently turning them as they dry. You can use each one in the bathroom, kitchen or around your home for three to four weeks before tossing or composting. Allow the sponges to dry between uses to prevent bacteria growth.