I was an adult before I found out that the loofah “sponge” I buy in the bath section at the store is actually not a sponge. It is, in fact, a plant. When I learned that, I knew I needed to start growing loofah to provide bath scrubbies and sponges for cleaning.
Loofah, also spelled luffa and loofa, are gourds and there are two varieties, Luffa acutangula and L. aegyptiaca that are most commonly grown and used interchangeably.
The loofah flowers are beautiful and the the bees love them, which is reason enough to plant them. They are also one of the few plants that will continue to flower and produce in the heat of our summers.
How to Grow Loofah
The main thing you need to know about growing loofah is that they need long hot summers. If you live in zone 8 or zone 9 loofah will probably grow just fine for you. If you live in zone 7 or 6, you can still probably grow loofah but you’ll definitely need to start them indoors at least 6 weeks before your average last frost. If you live in zone 5 or colder, you will probably be unsuccessful growing loofah unless you grow them in a greenhouse.
Loofahs need between 140 and 200 frost free days in order to produce fruit; that’s 4-6 months. We plant our loofah in April, it’s one of the last things to go in the garden along with okra and hibiscus.
Because it’s a vine, loofah plants will need support. The vines can get over 30 feet long so I’ve found that growing them on a fence where they can run wild is better than trying to keep them contained to a trellis. They always seem to sneak over to the neighboring beds and take over.
Sow loofah seeds in well draining soil well after all danger of frost has pasted. You can soak the seeds the night before or scarify them by scratching them with a knife or file to help improve the germination rate.
If you’re starting loofah indoors, start them in biodegradable pots or use a soil blocker so you can transplant them without disturbing their roots. They seem to be a little more sensitive to transplanting that other squash and gourds are.
Loofahs will need regular watering for the first month or so while the plants are establishing their roots. But after that they’ll only need to be watered if it didn’t rain that week.
Each plant can give you 10-15 loofah, so you probably only need one or two for your family’s needs.
We have not experienced any pests with growing loofah, in fact, loofah is the most problem free squash we grow. However, pests that bother other squash, melons, and cucumbers can certainly bother loofah.
Because the vine is thinner than zucchini or yellow squash, vine borers do not tend to bother loofah. We’ve also not had an issue with powdery mildew like we do on other squash.
The immature loofah can be eaten when it’s very small. Every article I’ve read on growing loofahs say something like, “Loofah can be eaten just like zucchini when it’s small.”
In theory this is true, however it implies that loofah has the same taste and texture as zucchini – which is does not. Of course, when the fruit is really small it doesn’t have a fibrous texture but also does have a firmer, stringier texture than zucchini.
I’m going to be honest with you – we don’t like them. Because we struggle so much with vine borers I really, really want us to like eating loofah. But every time I cook it or add it to a salad that would normally have zucchini the results are not good.
That being said, I do think you should try it for yourself to see if your family likes them, especially if you have trouble growing zucchini. Harvest them when they are very small, just a day or two after the flower falls off.
If you’re growing loofah to use as sponges, let them stay on the vines until the skin starts turning brown and gets saggy. You can feel the loofah and if they are lightweight, they’re ready to harvest. If they still have some weight to them, let them dry on the vine longer.
You can leave them on the vine until they’re completely dried out, but they’re a little harder to peel and the sponge might turn dark. If you harvest them too early, the fibers won’t be developed and they will rot. So, I tend to leave mine on the vine a little longer than I probably need to.
To harvest the loofah, either cut it from the vine or use one hand to hold the vine while the other hand gently tugs on the fruit to remove it.
Cleaning and Storing Loofah
Now comes the fun part! To clean loofah, peel the skin away from the fibrous inside. If the skin is completely dry, roll it on a flat surface, kind of like you would do a boiled egg, to loosen and break up the skin. If the skin still has some moisture in it, cut off the ends and then run your fingers under the skin to remove it.
Shake out the seeds, saving a few from the best fruit to plant next year. Loofahs make a TON of seeds and in some climates they will easily self seed, so I try to this inside even though it’s a little messy.
After I get the seeds out, I like to wash the loofah in a little dish soap. If some of the loofah is discolored I will add a small amount of bleach to the water to lighten it up. This isn’t necessary, it just makes the loofah prettier.
Once the loofah is washed, I lay it out on drying racks to completely dry before storing them. They just need to be stored so they won’t get dusty, although if they do, they can be rewashed and dried.
Using Loofah Sponges
Loofahs are great for using in the bath, just tie a thing rope on it so you can hang it up to dry. You could use a different color for each person in your family.
I really like this soap idea using loofah when you make soap from Learning and Yearning. I think it would make a really great gift too.
Besides using them in the bath, I use loofah to scrub dishes and clean the house. Pretty much anything that needs a scrub I use a loofah sponge for. The key, of course, is to keep them separate – you don’t want to use the same one you scrub the bathtub with to also bathe with.
Let the loofah completely dry out after you use it to prevent bacteria growth and replace it every 3-4 weeks.
So what about you, have you ever grown loofah? If you have and have some tips, please leave them in the comments.