You may have purchased a luffa (loofah) sponge in the body care aisle of your local drugstore or beauty supply store. Did you know that luffa sponges aren’t from the ocean but actually the internal structure of a gourd? Besides use as an all-natural scrubber, luffa is also a popular food, especially among Asian cultures where it is harvested young and often used in stir-fries.
It is believed that Luffa originated somewhere in Southeast Asia and grows wild across Asia and Africa. Because of its tropical origins, luffa requires a long growing season, 120 to 200 days from seed to maturity. With time and patience, you can grow this interesting and useful gourd in your survival garden.
How to Grow Luffa from Seed
If you live in hardiness zones 7 to 11, you can grow luffa from seeds sown directly in your garden. In zones 5 to 6 you will have to start your seeds indoors 4 to 6 weeks ahead of time in order for your plants to have enough time to mature.
Luffa seeds have a tough outer shell, so you will need to soak your seeds for 24 hours prior to planting. Luffa needs a lot of vertical space, so choose a planting location where you can put a large trellis. Once all danger of frost has passed, create 6-inch mounds about 12 to 18 inches apart and sow a few seeds about 1/2 inch deep each. It will take 1 to 2 weeks for your seeds to germinate. Once seeds have sprouted, thin to one plant per mound.
If starting seeds indoors, you will need a seed heat mat set at 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Rather than using the typical seed starting pods, you may also want to use a larger pot for starting, because luffa is very susceptible to transplant shock and a larger pot will allow you to transplant with less disturbance of the roots. As another precaution against transplant shock, be sure to harden off your seedlings for a week prior to planting.
How to Care for Your Luffa Plants
The basic care of luffa is similar to most other vegetables. You will want to make sure that the soil is consistently moist, but not overwatered. Only water at the root level, because it can encourage fungal growth to get leaves or fruit wet. Use a good layer of mulch to help retain moisture and keep the soil warm.
The two things you will need to pay particular attention to are fertilizing and pruning your luffa. Luffa is a vigorous vine and so it needs lots of nitrogen to grow and produce fruit. You will want to supplement your soil with a good nitrogen fertilizer a few times throughout the growing season particularly when transplanting and blooms first occur.
With regard to pruning, you’ll want to remove most lateral growth so that you are left with one primary vine. If you’re in an area with a long growing season, you may even want to remove some of the first few blossoms so that more energy is put into vine growth. Near the end of the season, you may want to do the same thing to put more energy into already established fruit so it will ripen faster. You can normally expect 5 to 10 fruits per vine.
Harvesting Your Luffa
While your luffa vines grow, decide if you want to harvest the fruit for food or for sponges. If you’d like to end up with some nice large sponges, you’ll want to allow the first fruit that forms on the vine to fully mature. A fully mature luffa gourd will typically grow to about 2 feet in length and about 7 inches in diameter. Luffa is best harvested when the fruit is small (about 6 inches long) if you’d like to eat it.
If you plan to use your luffa for sponges, you’ll want to allow them to ripen and dry on the vine as long as possible until the skin is dry and brown. You can then peel off the skin and shake out the seeds (save those to plant next year) and you’ll have a useful sponge.
If you live in an area with lots of sunshine and a long growing season, why not try growing these interesting and multi-purpose plants? Luffa requires a little bit of extra attention to get started, but it just takes a little patience and care to grow this fascinating gourd. They add an interesting visual element to your garden. You’ll be rewarded with fresh, environmentally friendly sponges for your house and delicious summer veggies for your stir-fries.