After the harsh winter months, we could all use a little refresh when it comes to our skincare – and what better way to achieve that than a really good exfoliant? Well, you can turn to packaged scrubs, but if you’re moving towards a plastic-free lifestyle, it could be problematic. Not to mention, plastic loofahs, the most common, are contributing to petroleum waste problem. You could go for a natural sponge, but most actually come from dried out sea animals. So if you’re looking for a cruelty-free, plastic-free solution – a natural loofah might be just what you need.
That plant is aptly named the loofa (or luffa) gourd. In short, what this means is that, while we are out there growing our own food, we could also be growing our own sponges for the kitchen and bathroom.
The Amazing Luffa Gourd
A member of the same family that yield cucumbers, watermelon, pumpkins, and squash, the luffa gourd grows similarly, on a winding vine that puts out enormous fruits, sometimes reaching up to two feet long. While on the vine, a full-sized gourd will look like a mutant cucumber or zucchini. Inside the mature fruit is a fibrous “skeleton,” and that is what becomes the sponges we have in the shower. And, one plant can produce dozens of fruits.
While this is reason enough to grow some luffa gourds, the benefits don’t stop there. Luffa gourds, when small (less than seven inches), are actually nice to eat and can be substituted for zucchini in cooked recipes and cucumbers for salads. What’s more, the substantial, quick-growing vines can cover an arbor in the summer, providing natural shade that’ll cool a patio. Otherwise, they can be grown on the sunny side of the house, blocking the sun, which will reduce cooling costs or up existing fences for some extra greenery.
Multiple functions make a plant like this a shoo-in for permaculture designs, and they add serious value to whatever garden they are grown in.
Grow Your Own Luffa
Luffa gourds are annual plants, native to the tropics, but can be grown further north, and seeds are available online for just a couple bucks, both from specialty heirloom companies or even Amazon. That said, it’s important to note that the seeds are slow to germinate, taking around two weeks to sprout. This process can be aided by giving them a 24-to-48-hour soak before putting them in soil. Seedlings can be grown in a greenhouse (or indoors) for six weeks before they are put in the ground, so seeds should be germinated in early spring with that in mind. Then, the seedlings should only be planted when the last frost is behind us.
Luffa seedlings should be planted at least a foot apart, and they require plenty of support. Not only are the plants fast-growing, but the fruits are as well. If they aren’t climbing, the vines—up to 15 feet long—will soon take over garden space, and the large fruits are more likely to have problems with rotting on the ground. For a better yield, gardeners advise removing the initial flowers from the young vine, and as with anything from the cucurbit clan, the fruits need to be pollinated by bees.
Otherwise, normal growing protocol stays in place. The soil should be well-draining, likely a raised bed, but with plenty of water available. Mulch is a must, as it will protect the soil from drying out and moderate soil temperatures. These tend to be hungry plants, so providing some nitrogen-rich organic compost will be great help. Then, it’s at least ninety days of waiting.
From Gourds to Sponges
To create sponges, gourds should be left on the vine until their green outer skin gets dry and dark brown. One end of the gourd should be removed so that the seeds can be shaken out and saved for planting next time, which means sponges are free from now on. After the seeds are removed, the gourd should be soaked in warm water for a day or two, and the skin can then be pulled away and put in the compost. The remaining bit of the gourd should be left in the sun for about a week to dry. What will remain is your very own, homegrown sponge.
With just a couple of plants, there is the potential for enough sponges — bathroom and kitchen — to last the entire year, and unlike plastic loofahs, old ones can just be tossed in the compost when they are spent. That’s sustainability!
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