More than a year ago, I learned that natural luffa sponges are harvested from a plant! Maybe you believed a long time like I did that luffa sponges came from the ocean. I was absolutely floored that I could grow luffa gourds right at home! Right away I ordered enough seeds for myself and both of my daughters. As I began to plan the spring container garden, I was excited to try another homestead experiment and start growing luffa gourds in my container garden.
Luffa or Loofah?
As I began to research growing luffa gourds, I noticed right away that the spelling of the luffa gourd had a variety of spellings (and I have used several). Luffa, loofa, and loofah are just a few of the variations. It’s hard to know what variation is correct.
I decided that the best source would be to look at the scientific name. There are two common species that are found in cultivated gardens. Luffa cylindrica (also known as Luffa aegyptiaca) and Luffa acutangular. The scientific names give us clues to tell the two species apart. Luffa cylindrica are cylindrical and have smooth sides while Luffa acutangula have angled sides.
While loofah is a commonly accepted spelling, Luffa is the correct spelling of the genus. Luffa gourds are also known as loofah sponge, dishcloth gourds, or dishrag gourds, sponge gourds, Egyptian cucumbers, and Chinese Okra.
In my container garden, I am growing Luffa cylindrica. They have smooth skin. They grow thicker fruit than their counterpart. In my research I have read that luffa gourds can grow up to 2 feet long and 7 inches thick, but even in the hot Florida heat, none of my luffas have grown to that size. Most are approximately 8 to 15 inches in length and 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches in diameter.
The luffas have bright yellow flowers and like other squash species, have male and female flowers. In colder climates, some growers hand pollinate the first flowers to ensure that the gourds are pollinated early in the season and the gourds have plenty of time to mature.
My own luffas have had plentiful blossoms. Throughout the growing season, ants have taken great interest in the luffa plants. While ants do act as pollinators, they are not nearly as efficient of a pollinator as bees or flying insects. The ants have not damaged the fruit, so I have not made much effort to kill the ants.
No matter if you grow the luffas in the garden, or in a container garden, be prepared for very long vigorous vines. This vining plant can grow vines over 30 feet long! When I built my DIY garden trellises, I didn’t even make one for the luffa gourds. The luffa is a slow-growing plant, so while the other plants in my garden were searching for a place to grow, the luffa was barely getting started. I realized a few weeks later that they were in need of a trellis as well. By that time, I was left with only thin pieces of bamboo to construct my trellis.
I set the flimsy trellis directly in the large container that the luffas were growing in, to add some height to the trellis itself. Thankfully, the trellis was close to the neighboring plant supports, so once the vines reached the top of my insufficient trellis, they continued to reach for additional support from the tomato and grape arbors.
In the future, I recommend being better prepared to provide a sturdy trellis that can adequately support the amount of vines produced when growing luffa gourds. The strong trellis needs to be able to provide support to the weight of the gourds as they grow. It is important to note, that it’s best practice is to use trellises when growing luffa gourds, as the fruit will be more likely to rot if left to grow on the ground.
Fruit Oh My!
The luffa fruit can be eaten and harvested like zucchini or squash, but only for a very short time. Pick immature fruits that are smaller than 6 inches in length. The fruit will only have good flavor for a short window and then the gourds become too fibrous to eat. You can expect at least 5 luffa gourds per plant, but some plants will produce much more!
Growing Season of Luffa Gourds
The growing season of luffa gourds is long. The package instructions estimate 90 to 120 days to fruit. I’ve seen 4 to 6 months of a growing season in my research. This is because it takes time for the gourds to mature and then dry out on the vine.
Luffas are a tropical plant, they like a long, warm, growing season. Gardeners in zones 7 to 11 will have plenty of time to grow and harvest luffa gourds. Gardeners in hardiness zone 5 and 6 will need to start seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before your last frost date to give plants plenty of time to mature.
Direct Sowing in the Garden
When growing luffa gourds, it is recommended for faster germination to soak luffa seeds in water for 24 hours prior to planting to soften the seed coat. I did not do this and my plants took longer to germinate than the rest of my garden. However, they did germinate! Expect germination to take 1 to 2 weeks. Plant seeds 1/2″ deep in well-drained soil.
When direct sowing in the ground chose a spot that gets full sun. Seeds should be planted at least 12 inches apart in well-drained soil. Luffas are part of the cucumber family, some gardeners prefer to mound the soil for each seed. Have a plan for supporting the vines and the gourds. Plant near a sturdy fence, or provide a trellis for the plants to grow on.
If you are planting a container garden in cooler climates, go ahead and plant seeds in large pots from the very start to eliminate transplanting altogether. The pots need to be 18 to 24 inches across for each plant. Be sure they have good drainage. When the days are warm, a dolly can be used to move the heavy pots to their permanent spot in full sun in the outdoor container garden.
Transplanting Luffa Gourds
For those starting seeds indoors, luffas are not fond of being transplanted. Give them plenty of space at the very beginning. Sow seeds in large 4″ to 6″ pots rather than traditional seed sowing containers. When the days warm above 50 degrees and all risk of frost have passed, begin hardening off the plants to prepare to plant them outside. Don’t rush the process! Luffas are cold sensitive, so take time to harden them off well before transplanting. Once ready carefully transplant the luffa gourds into the garden in an area that receives full sun. The Savvy Gardener recommends covering newly transplanted luffas in a mini hoop house using plastic or frost cloth to give them their best start.
Caring for Luffas
Luffas like consistent watering. Try to provide consistent watering without overwatering or underwatering. This can be especially challenging in a container garden. Many container gardeners use upside-down bottles filled with water that will slowly provide water to the plants. One of the homesteaders I follow, Carrie at The Little Pallet Farmhouse makes a DIY drip system out of milk jugs that can be used to provide even moisture to plants. Mulching plants can also help retain moisture.
Feed the luffas with a diluted liquid fertilizer every two to three weeks. I like fish emulsion for liquid fertilizer. I tend to not measure, I just pour and mix. However, mixing the fertilizer too strongly can result in attracting flies to the garden.
The luffa gourds can be harvested for two purposes. The first is eating. Young gourds, under 6 inches can be harvested and used like zucchini or squash. The young luffas are only edible for a short window. If left to get too large they will be too fibrous to eat. I tried them, check out the reel on Instagram.
The second option to harvest as natural sponges. Gourds harvested for this purpose need to be allowed to mature completed and turn yellow or brown on the vine. If there is no chance of frost, leave the gourds as long as possible to turn brown for best results. The gourds will become lighter in weight as they dry and you will hear the seeds lose inside.
If there is a chance of frost, remove all the luffas from the luffa vines, brown or not! The first frost will damage the fibers if left outside and will not be a useable sponge. Gourds harvested while they have green skin are left to completely dry. Turn them on occasion to dry evenly. If any of the gourds mold, add to your compost bin.
Processing the Sponges
Once browned, cut the gourds from the vines and allow to completely dry. Once ready, you can break off the end of the gourd and shake the seeds out of the gourd. I found seed removal the most difficult of the process. Most of the seeds will fall out easily, but others are stuck high up in the gourd and were more difficult. I did the best I could. Save your seeds to plant next year!
Once the seeds are removed, begin peeling off the dried skin. Most of them peeled easily. I had one gourd fall off the vine before ready and it was green when I brought it in. Even though I left it to dry inside, the skin was more difficult to remove. If you are having difficulty, you can soak the gourd in cool water until it peels more easily.
If I had any trouble removing the luffa gourd seeds, I used water pressure from the rinsing process to try and dislodge them. You can also soak the sponge in warm water to soften the seeds and work them out of the sponge.
Whitening and Sanitizing the Luffa Sponges
Once you have peeled the sponge, soak the sponge in a warm bleach water solution to clean and sanitize your sponge. A 10:1 mixture of water to bleach solution is sufficient. If you know me, I just dumped some in. This will kill any bacteria that may be inside the sponge itself. Soak the sponge for 5 to 10 minutes. Work the sponge with your hands in the water solution to remove all the seeds and loose fibers. Once removed, rinse well and allow to dry.
Sanitizing is an important step. Remember you are using this to clean your body or your dishes. If you prefer not to use bleach, you can soak the sponge in a warm water solution and rinse well to remove any of the unnecessary fibers and leftover seeds. Sanitize the wet sponge in the microwave for 2 minutes.
Using Luffa Sponges
The point of growing luffa sponges is to use them! Don’t be afraid to give them a try. I found the luffa sponge did an excellent job of exfoliating my skin. The sponges are more ruff than a synthetic luffa, but the exfoliating process is so much better! My skin was not scratched in the process but felt so much cleaner after using. These homemade soaps are made with a luffa inside the soap itself. I’ll save this link for a future project, maybe I will eventually have homemade goat’s milk and honey luffa soaps in my future!
The sponges can also be used in the kitchen. Use to wash dishes, as you would use any sponge. The course texture is excellent for scrubbing. When finished be sure to rinse well and allow to dry. If you need to sanitize the sponge again, rinse with water and microwave for two minutes to sanitize or soak in a bleach solution.
Luffa sponges are a biodegradable product, once it has exhausted their usefulness, add them to your compost bin. There is absolutely no waste!
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About the Author: Barbra-Sue Kowalski grew up on a small hobby farm. She was always drawn to farm life, however, she was stuck in an urban life far from her roots. Barbra-Sue was a single mom for 13 years, raising her 3 children on her own. She met Philip in 2018 and they married in 2021. Between the two of them, they have 5 grown children and 4 grandchildren. These empty nesters are following their dreams! As they both turn 50, they are building their off-grid homestead to live the life that they dream about. Learn more about Philip and Barbra-Sue here. Contact them here. To leave a comment on this post, please scroll down.