It’s a Sponge With a Long Growing Season, So It Wants to Be Hot
By Carole West, Texas
Did you know Luffa grows on a vine and not in the ocean? It’s true and the most common question we received was, “Don’t sponges grow in the ocean?” It started to feel like everyone in the world got together and practiced this question before coming to our farm.
Luffa is an exfoliating sponge, a tropical from the cucumber family. This plant is an annual, loves the sunshine and grows into a massive vine. A trellis and some wide open space is the ideal environment to optimize the growing season.
Luffa can also be an edible vegetable in the early stages. It’s tasty and a good substitute for zucchini in stir fry, soups or bread. Harvest when it’s less than six inches because it acts as a laxative at a larger stage. To avoid that, pick around four inches just to be on the safe side.
After six inches the pod begins to fruit and transforms internally with fibers that create a sponge. When left alone the pod becomes large in size; it will reach maturity much later in the season before the first frost.
Luffa has a 200-day growing season and prefers hot, humid climates. You can get a jump start on the planting season by germinating seeds indoors as early as February under a grow light; we did this our second season. This involved additional labor, but helped organize our efforts because the weather can be unpredictable.
The following tips help provide speedy germination, as luffa is slow to sprout. I’ve had seeds germinate anywhere between seven and 20 days. The average period is around 10 days:
• Soak the seeds in warm water 24 to 48 hours prior to planting.
• Plant one seed in containers with moist natural potting soil, or you could also use peat pods.
• Temperatures need to be at least 70 degrees because this is a tropical annual plant.
• Keep the soil moist, and never let it dry out.
• Transplant into a larger pot when the next set of green leaf’s sprout.
• Keep under the light until outdoor temperatures rise and after the last frost.
The key to a successful transplant is all about temperature and acclimation. These plants are delicate and cannot go from greenhouse to ground without an introduction. This next list of steps is important because you don’t want to risk losing the entire crop.
Take the plants outdoors in trays during the day to let them adjust to weather temperatures.
Set them on a table or on the ground and keep all animals out of reach.
Daytime temperatures need to be at least 70 degrees or higher and no cooler than 65 at night.
The acclimation period can take up to three or four days; in North Texas this is around mid-April and sometimes May.
Once the plants are acclimated, it’s time to transplant them into the ground. Make sure the soil has been properly prepped ahead of time, so this means it should be already fertilized, tilled and weed free. We always prep our planting space months prior to transplanting.
Trailing ideas for small crops can be incorporated by using an existing fence or trellis. If you’re thinking about growing Luffa in a large fashion, then you’ll want to explore structure options.
Luffa loves to stretch and branch out especially after a heavy rain; their growth can explode from two or more feet and become heavy by weight so plan carefully.
Our first structure incorporated landscaping timbers that went two feet underground spaced six feet apart. They were connected from the top with 2-by-4s and screws. Later we added welded wire fencing so the plants had more trailing space between the posts.
Luffa attracts fire ants; keep this in mind prior to choosing your planting location. We discovered the fire ants had a purpose; they kept the other bad bugs away. Bees of all types will also show up to help pollinate.
If you can tolerate bees and fire ants, then growing luffa will be fun.
Once the vine is established around May or June you’ll notice yellow flowers and before long pods will appear. There are a few key things to remember during the fruiting process to ensure healthy luffas.
Water often in the early stages, the soil needs to remain moist.
The more water in the early stages the larger the sponges will become.
Attach new vines with string in the direction you want them to grow.
Make sure all the pods are hanging straight up and down.
Don’t touch or apply pressure to the pod while it’s growing, they’ll bruise and turn the sponge brown. This little act can ruin your crop.
Some of your sponges may be ready to harvest as early as August or September; this is based on temperature. The pods will appear green and then turn yellow. I like to harvest right before they turn brown because the shell is soft and they’re easy to peel open. When you harvest at this stage the sponge is also softer.
If you prefer you can keep the pod on the vine allowing them to completely dry out; they’ll appear brown and crisp and the fibers will be tough. At this point the sponges do not need to be cleaned right away because they’re completely dry on the inside; if you shake them you’ll hear seeds rattle.
Harvesting is similar at both stages. You break open the ends and shake out all the seeds before you peel away the shell. Each pod can hold up to 100 or more seeds, place them aside because you may want to share them with your gardening friends for gifts. I always rinse the seeds and let them air dry on trays in the sun.
When the seeds are removed, wash off the sponge with water and air dry in the warm sunshine. This will help free any additional seeds that haven’t sprung loose. Harvesting is an easy process but can be time consuming with a large crop. Any luffas left on the vine after the first frost will turn black and be ruined.
Our first crop of sponges was an exciting time and I remember that moment I used our first luffa in the shower. I thought life doesn’t get any better than this. The sponge felt wonderful against my skin and relaxing after a long workday.
In that moment, I was amazed that a single luffa could turn a 200-day experience raising hundreds of vines seem worth it and could be perhaps the most amaziing part of the entire experience.
A luffa sponge is wonderful for relaxing sore muscles, exfoliating the skin and improving circulation. It can also be helpful for those with tactile concerns, especially for children who are sensitive to touch.
I was curious how I could incorporate luffa in our home. I began using them for washing dishes, this worked great and I quickly said “Goodbye,” to synthetic sponges. I also used them to clean the shower, bathroom and later took some outside to clean the animal troughs.
The luffa we grew was able to replace our synthetic sponges with a natural alternative. This was exciting because we’re always looking for ways to live greener.
This amazing plant has another aspect that is often overlooked. Once the sponge is completely dull and falling apart it can be buried back in the ground or tossed into a compost bin. A sponge that recycles itself back to the earth is a beautiful thing.
If you don’t have a compost bin, then try placing retired sponges in the bottom of your planters, they help collect moisture, which improves soil circulation.
After discovering the wonders of using luffa in your home, don’t forget about that field of vines that turned brown after the frost arrived. This isn’t a pretty site but there are a couple things you can do.
I turned some of our vines into wreathes; these vines are easy to work with and make a beautiful background for seasonal decorating.
The other option is to plan a workday and pull off the dead vines from the trellis and burn them; the ashes can be sprinkled into the soil, nurturing future crops.
Luffa turned out to be a neat crop, especially since we have a long growing season with hot and humid temperatures. We prefer growing on a small scale because it was very labor intensive, and requires a lot of water.
Now we make sure to have at least one vine growing in the garden because they’re fun to watch and it brings back some neat memories. Luffa is a circle of life kind of plant.
Carole West lives on a small farm in North Texas with her husband and variety of livestock ranging from Jacob Sheep to quail. She is the author of Quail Getting Started and shares advice about gardening, poultry farming and building projects on her blog www.GardenUpGreen.com.