If you’ve ever used a real loofah sponge (not the synthetic version), you know how great they can be for exfoliating your skin while you wash it. They have just enough softness to not be harsh, yet get a good lather to scrub away dirt.
There’s a misconception that loofah sponges come from the ocean, but they actually come from a plant similar to winter squash. These sponges were a novelty in the 1800s, and people are beginning to take an interest again.
If you want to learn how to grow your own loofah plant so you can harvest and use homegrown sponges, here’s a guide to doing just that.
What Is a Loofah Plant?
The loofah plant is considered a gourd and grows like a winter squash, although it needs a longer growing season.
Luffa aegyptiaca (synonym L. cylindrica) is the most commonly grown variety for harvesting sponges because of its very fibrous nature. Luffa acutangula is softer inside and frequently grown as an edible vegetable in Asian countries like India and China.
Like other squash and gourds, loofah plants need lots of room and the support of a trellis because they grow large, long vines (usually 8-12 feet). The fruit, which is where the sponges come from, is long and skinny, typically growing 1-2 feet in length.
Although they may look like they came from the sea, loofah sponges actually grow on a plant. They are technically gourds that are very fibrous inside when left to dry.
When you search for seeds or information online, you’ll notice that there are several different spellings for loofah: luffa, luffah, loofa, and loufa.
The History of Loofah
Loofah gourds are thought to be native to India. The plants and the sponges that come from them were likely introduced to western countries like the U.S. in the 1800s. Loofahs were given names like “vegetable sponge” and “poor man’s dish rag.”
The seeds were offered for sale in drug stores so that people could buy them and grow their own novelty plants. They were used not only for bathing but also for scrubbing in the kitchen.
Before other synthetic materials were created, loofah fibers were sometimes used as insulation, packing material, and mattress stuffing.
Loofah gourds were also grown as an edible plant, especially by Chinese immigrants. The fruits were harvested when they were small and cooked on their own or in vegetable dishes. Their flavor is a combination of cucumber and zucchini.
Can I Grow a Loofah Plant?
Technically, loofah plants need 150-200 days of warm weather to fully mature. This means it grows best in USDA hardiness zones 7 or higher.
Loofah plants grow like winter squash, although they take a longer growing season: over four months. Starting your seeds indoors can give your plants the extra time they need to mature.
However, you can still get good quality sponges out of loofah fruit that isn’t quite mature, and many gardeners in zone 6 have reported good success growing this plant. You’ll just need to start your seeds indoors to give plants a headstart.
If you’re growing in zone 5 or below, this probably isn’t the best plant to try.
How to Grow Loofah Plant
Loofah plants are rarely, if ever, sold in garden centers or nurseries, so you’ll need to start with seeds. You can order loofah seeds online or stop by a garden store to see if they have them.
Starting seeds indoors is the best method because it gives your plants a few extra weeks of growing, which they need. However, if you live in zone 7 or up, you can start plants by seed outdoors.
Starting Seeds Indoors
Most winter squash and gourds will transplant best if sown in peat pots or some other biodegradable pots rather than trays. You’ll need these, a good quality seed starting mix, and grow lights (fluorescent works well).
Start by getting your seed mix damp by mixing it with some water. You can also soak your peat pots or run them under water for a minute so they aren’t bone dry.
Fill each pot just below the top with your damp seed starting mix. You can put the pots on a tray so that they’re easier to carry around and so that dirt and water won’t get everywhere.
Starting your seeds in biodegradable pots is a good idea because the whole pot can just be transplanted to your garden when it’s time.
Loofah seeds may germinate poorly, but you can help the process by weakening the seed coat. To do this, you can either scratch the seed coat with something like sandpaper or soak them in water for 24-48 hours before planting.
Plant the seeds about ¾ inch deep in your pots and cover them with soil mix. Water all your pots and put them somewhere warm to germinate. If you have them, cover your pots with plastic domes to keep moisture in during the germination process.
Your seeds will slowly sprout, sometimes taking 2 weeks to do so. Remove the plastic domes once your seedlings come up and place the pots under your grow lights.
Keep the soil around your seedlings consistently watered as they grow, but avoid getting water on the leaves or letting the soil get soggy. Run a fan a few times a day to help with air circulation and to avoid damping off (a fungal pathogen).
Harden your seedlings off a week before planting in your garden. Make sure all danger of frost has passed, since they are extremely cold sensitive.
Starting Seeds Outdoors
To start seeds outdoors, you’ll need to wait until all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed. Prep your soil by getting rid of rocks and weeds and mixing in some compost.
Many gardeners like to plant squash and gourds in mounds. To do this, you simply make as many wide mounds as you need spaced several feet apart. Sow 2-3 seeds in each mound (presoak them for better germination).
You can also simply make ¾ inch holes directly in the ground and sow seeds one per hole. Space seeds 3-4 feet apart and if you have multiple rows, space them about 4 feet apart.
It’s a good idea to seed your loofah plants along a sturdy fence or some other kind of support system. You can also plant them somewhere you’ll be able to add a trellis or trellis netting later when the plants start getting bigger.
Water your seeds well and keep the soil moist as they germinate. Seedlings should sprout up in about two weeks.
If you started your seeds indoors, you can plant them outside when the weather turns warm. Loofah plants are very sensitive to frost, so don’t be in a rush to get them outside too soon.
Plant your loofah in full sun somewhere it will have lots of room to grow. Vines typically reach 8-12 feet long but can grow up to 20 feet in one season, so plan ahead for this.
Remember that room to grow doesn’t have to mean ground space. Getting the vines to grow vertically up a support system will save you from having to set aside 20 square feet of your garden for each plant.
Loofah will tolerate many different soil types, but it does best with well-drained soil. Adding fertility to your soil with compost or rotted manure is also a good idea because the plants need lots of nutrients during their long growing period.
If you’ve ever grown pumpkins, winter squash, or gourds, you already have an idea of how to grow loofah. The vines need lots of space to grow, lots of sun, and lots of warm weather.
Because loofah ideally needs 150-200 days of growth, plant it out as soon as possible while still avoiding any danger of frost.
How to Plant Seedlings
You can plant your transplants in the same way you would plant seeds outdoors: in mounds or level with the ground.
If you grew your seedlings in biodegradable pots, you can plant the whole thing directly in the ground. To help your plant send roots down, tear off the bottom of the pots before planting. You can also rip off any part of the pot that is sticking up over the soil on top.
Prep your soil by weeding, getting rid of rocks, and adding any amendments needed. Then, dig holes that are about the same size as the root ball of your plants.
Space individual plants out 3-4 feet away from each other. This is important because growing the vines too close together will invite fungal diseases in, especially during wet weather.
Make sure the roots of each plant are covered with soil, and firm each one in with your hands. Water all your seedlings well, but make sure you water the soil around them and not the leaves.
Caring for Your Loofah Plants
The biggest care requirements for your loofah plants are watering during dry weather and giving them a trellis or similar support to grow up.
Plants will do best when they get about 1 inch of water per week. If it doesn’t rain enough, water them deeply once or twice a week. You might want to consider some systems for collecting rainwater to cut down on your water bill.
As the fruits start growing, they’ll look a lot like zucchini or cucumbers. However, they will keep getting longer and remain thin before maturing to a brownish-yellow color.
Loofah vines need a very sturdy support system to climb up. They can be grown on the ground, but this takes up a lot of space and the fruits are more likely to end up misshapen.
The vines put out thin tendrils to grab onto a nearby support, so make sure your system has thin enough parts for them to wrap around. A very sturdy trellis can do the trick, but many gardeners find that a solid fence or wire panels work even better.
For a decorative look, you can have the vines grow up and over an arbor.
The other maintenance task that may make your life easier is mulching around plants to keep the roots moist and weeds down. Use a lightweight mulch like straw and lay it down after the rainy season is over.
Pests and Problems
Loofah plants can be attacked by the same insects and diseases that other winter squash and gourds are beset by.
Cucumber beetles, squash vine borers, and squash bugs are the main insect pests. Regularly check your plants for signs of an invasion. You can also check the underside of leaves and remove eggs before they hatch.
Squash vine borers can be especially detrimental to your plants because they bore inside the vines and will eventually kill them. You can prevent this in young plants by wrapping strips of row cover around the base and up the vines as they grow.
Squash vine borers are the nemesis of all types of summer squash, winter squash, gourds, and pumpkins. If your plants suddenly start wilting for no apparent reason, you may have vine borers eating through the stems.
If you notice little piles of shavings at the base of your plants or along the vines, you probably have a borer already inside. You can cut it out with a sharp knife by slicing open one side of the vine. After you remove the culprit, bury the sliced section under soil if possible.
The most common disease problems are fungal pathogens like powdery mildew. These usually aren’t bad enough to kill your plants, but the best prevention is to space plants properly and avoid getting the leaves wet as much as possible.
How to Harvest Loofahs
Waiting to harvest your loofahs will take some patience, but it will be well worth it! Once you start seeing the long fruits appear, you’ll probably be wondering how to know when to pick them.
When to Harvest
For fresh eating: Loofah fruits are edible and have good flavor when they are very small. Most people want to grow them for sponges, but you can try a few and save the rest for later.
To harvest for eating, cut fruits off the vine when they are about 4-5 inches long. The flavor is described as a cross between zucchini and cucumber but will quickly become bitter and unpalatable once fruits start getting larger.
Loofahs can be harvested when they are small and used in much the same way as zucchini. Fruits will start getting bitter as they grow, so make sure you harvest them quickly if you want to eat them.
For sponges: To harvest for sponges, you ideally want fruits to stay on the vine until the skins turn yellow-brown or all brown. The skin will start to shrivel, and the fruits will feel lightweight when you lift them. You’ll also hear seeds rattle inside when you shake them.
Harvesting immature fruits: If you live in the north, chances are a frost will be coming before the fruits have completely matured and dried on the vine. No matter what stage they are at, harvest before a frost hits, or you may end up losing your whole crop.
You’ll need to process immature fruits differently than mature ones, but you can still end up with good quality sponges.
How to Harvest
Loofah fruits can easily be harvested by snipping them off with garden clippers right at the top. Snip them as close to the fruit as possible without cutting into the skin.
It’s a good idea to keep an eye on the fruit during the growing season to make sure it’s all easily accessible when it’s time to harvest. Sometimes the fruits will end up growing in a gap in your fence or trellis and be stuck by the time you try to pick them.
How to Process Your Loofahs
If you were able to harvest mature brown loofahs with dry skin, use the following steps to process the fruit into sponges. If you ended up with still green fruit, there will be a section on how to process those a little later.
Ideally, loofahs should be harvested when they are dry and a brownish-yellow color. However, if you garden where there’s a shorter growing season, you’ll likely have to harvest fruit that’s still green.
Removing the Skin
To let the fruits dry out completely, let them sit in a shady spot for a few days after harvesting. You can then set up a processing station somewhere you won’t mind making a mess.
The first step is to peel off the skin. You can loosen it and the seeds inside by banging the fruit against something, rolling it vigorously on a table, or hitting it with a rolling pin. It’s a good way to get your frustration out!
After you’ve done this, cut one end off of the fruit and tip it so that the seeds pour out. Start peeling it like a banana until all the skin is off. Or if the skin started cracking when you were pounding it, you can simply peel it off at a seam and then tip the seeds out.
The inner part of the fruit will likely look dark and somewhat dirty once you’ve peeled the outer skin off. Rinse them off in a sink or with a hose to clean them and get rid of any seeds still hanging on.
Some gardeners like to soak their loofahs in a bleach solution (one tablespoon bleach per gallon of water) to whiten and sanitize them. If you don’t want to use a chemical like bleach, skip this step or try using white vinegar instead.
Use a hose to rinse off your loofah sponges, or soak and scrub them in a sink. You can also use a bleach or vinegar solution to further sanitize them and prevent mold from growing later.
After rinsing, cut your gourds into smaller pieces. They can be any size you want your sponges to be.
Lay the cut sponges out in a sunny spot and let them dry for a few days or up to two weeks. The sunlight will help to bleach them and get rid of mold and fungus spores.
Processing Green Fruits
If your fruits were immature when you harvested, your processing method will be a little different. You’ll want to work on them right after harvesting so that they don’t start rotting or develop mold.
The skins will be harder to peel, but you can use the same method of banging them and peeling as best you can. Cutting off one end and peeling downwards may give you the best results.
If the inner part of the fruit is mushy, you’ll have to throw it away or compost it because it won’t make a nice sponge. Otherwise, you can start rinsing them off and use a chopstick or pencil to dislodge all the seeds.
Although loofah sponges are most commonly used in the bath or shower, they also make great scrubbers for kitchen and household cleaning.
Immature loofahs are likely to release a sudsy sap when you rinse them. Get as much of it off as you can with water.
Finally, cut the loofahs into sponge-sized pieces and lay them out in a sunny location for 3-4 weeks. Only store them when they are completely dry.
Using Your Loofah Sponges
Once you’ve done the hard work of processing, you should end up with a good supply of organic loofah sponges!
You can use them in the shower, kitchen, and other areas around your house. They make excellent gentle exfoliators for your skin but also scrub off stains on dishes and counters without scratching.
To keep your sponges in good condition, let them dry completely in between uses. This helps prevent bacteria from growing and makes your sponges last longer. Unused ones will store for several years in a mesh or cloth bag or in a box.
Now that you know exactly how to grow and harvest this plant, let your loofah adventures begin!