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Loofa Gourds; Grow Your Own Shower Sponge

Q. Back at the end of July, Steve in Lancaster PA wrote: "I have a friend at work who told me she is going to try and grow a loofah plant and harvest the gourds for shower use. Is this a thing? Anything specific to know about the plant? Can I grow them from seed? If so, I'm all in; although with my luck, the Evil Squirrels will end up using the sponges in my bird bath!"

A. It is indeed a real thing, Steve; in fact, I'm growing loofas myself this year. Like pumpkins, loofas are true gourds ("All pumpkins are gourds, but not all gourds are pumpkins") and they are one of the best 'novelty crops' you can grow, harvesting an all-natural bath sponge from each gourd--if you do it right.

The Big Issue is Timing. Loofas take a long time to fully mature. My current seed packet specifies a maturity rate of 110 days, which is a long time, especially if it means what I suspect.

To explain that comment, we must now delve into the murky mists of DTM (Days to Maturity). For crops that are typically started indoors and then transplanted outdoors when they are six to eight weeks old (like peppers and tomatoes), the DTM clock doesn't start ticking until the transplant goes in the ground.

But for crops that are typically direct seeded, like corn, peas, beans, salad greens and such, DTM refers to the date the seed was planted (in warm soil, of course). Most of us will have to start our loofas indoors to get enough growing time, so add six weeks to 110 days and you come up with 150 or so days to sponge harvesting.

So first, we have to be realistic (I know; I don't like it either. Fantasy gardening is much more my speed.)

Let's say you're in a medium-level USDA Zone 6. You shouldn't plant tropicals and semi-tropicals like gourds, tomatoes and peppers until nighttime temps are reliably in the fifties. Let's say May stays chilly; you still got all of June, July and August for prime time. Which means September will tell the tale; a warm September gives you a shot at fully matured gourds. (And yes; fully matured they must be for this to work, sponge-wise).

The task is a lot easier for gardeners in USDA Zone 7 and above. But if you're in a low zone, the odds are against you. Not saying it can't be done, but it requires a lot of strategizing on your end.

To add to the excitement, growing my own loofas this year reminded me that they grow like pumpkins, which is to say all over the place. If you have grown pumpkins previously, you know that their vines are the 800-pound gorillas of the garden. They grow wherever they want, smothering puny pepper plants like Godzilla trampling a car wash.

I re-learned this the hard way this season, when I noticed that my two loofa starts had engulfed all my other baby plants seemingly overnight, turning the area into a tangled mess that kudzu would be challenged to duplicate. It took hours to untangle this puzzle, and at least one pepper plant joined the Choir Invisible during the surgery.

I decided to move the loofas to a giant raised bed on legs right outside my front door, where they would be somewhat protected from chilly nights. The two vines proceeded to run a marathon over the entire front of the house, reaching the roof line in record time. It took a while for the first female flowers to show up, but I finally had my first sponge-to-be growing. It looked like a slightly deflated zeppelin or an alien cucumber. It grew fast, then was followed by two more.

At this point, we started pulling off any new flowers to force energy into ripening the existing fruit faster. As with all squash blossoms, the flowers are edible, and a delicacy when stuffed with a soft herbal cheese. I have also been advised that the young fruits are edible when picked small enough and eaten like zucchini. Thanks, but I don't eat things that look more like lawn darts than summer squash.

Now we're in the stretch. It is October 10th as I pound these words into my helpless keyboard and all three baby zeppelins are fully sized, but still green. Ideally, you want to wait until the fruits turn brown to harvest. (If you hear seeds rattling around inside, congratulations; you're definitely the proud parent of your own home-grown exfoliator!)

Whatever you got, bring it inside before the first hard freeze and leave it out in the open to dry and maybe get a little riper (hey; pumpkins do!). Then peel off the outer brown shell, preferably using your fingers to pull off portions. Then rinse the sponge that awaits inside and set it aside to dry.

You can use the sponge whole or slice it up into smaller sections you will fill with liquid soap. Either way, the result is well worth the wait, as these are THE best sponges. Oh; and we never bleached ours to whiten up the color, as some sources suggest. Naturally light brown was just fine with us.

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