Backyard Self-Reliance: Luffa

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The desire to be more self-reliant tends to strike all preppers here and there, regardless of location. While some aspects of self-reliance are hugely limited, others can be accomplished even in very small backyards. Some even apply to patios and balconies.

Luffa makes for an excellent self-reliance crop, whether we want to reduce reliance on commercial products and throw-away disposables, or just enjoy the “I made that” feeling.

Luffa Gourds

We typically see luffa, loofah, loufa, or whatever exactly we want to call it in bath and beauty sections of stores. Their usefulness goes beyond scrubbing our bodies, though.

We can use them in place of brushes and sponges all over, whole, sliced into sections, or cut into squares, from floors to dishes, bathrooms to barns.

Dry luffa can also be turned into boot scrapers, used as “bumpers” or “spacers” instead of sections of pool noodles, or provide rodents and chickens with some enrichment activities instead of using cardboard boxes and tubs or plastic bottles.

Fibers, chipped bits, ends, slices, and scraps from cutting all get used by some to embed in soaps. They can be dried, blitzed in a blender, and reduced to even smaller bits for adding texture to body and facial scrubs or working-hands soaps as well.

Depending on any chemicals it might contain from that first life, we can also hollow them out for seed starting cups that allow roots to pass through and later dissolve away.

Once we’re done with them, they’re compostable, creating not only a steady supply of household and homestead scrubbies, but also a zero-waste product. It can also be chopped/shredded and mixed into soil immediately to improve drainage, aeration, and soil retention akin to a tilth radish or tillage beets/turnips.

*Bonus Use: Any of the melon and gourd vines can have a second life squeezed in between producing harvests and adding biomass to soil.

Cut the dried-off vines into 6-12” sections and add them to bug hotels as burrow-in options for pollinators and predatory insects. Big or small, arty or simple, bug hotels can help decrease pests and improve our yields.

Growing It

First off, these are big plants, and they take a long time to grow. Then they need to season. There are workarounds, though, that make them viable for anybody with room for a multi-branching 6-12’ or larger annual vine.

Some cultures eat immature luffa in a cucumber stage. That’s not the cultivar we want for scrubbies, though.

It has larger internal pockets where seeds and the “meat” around them develop, and less of the fiber matrix. Even growing them to maturity, it’ll be more difficult to peel and clean them without tearing, they don’t slice into mini scrubbies as well, and they don’t hold up as well or last as long. 

Specific variety affects the shape, size, and total yield of the gourds, and the terminal size of the plants. Some will yield 8-20 luffa ranging from 8-12” to 24” long each. Others almost qualify as SOS pads right out of the pod.

Variety also plays into the textures each luffa will yield when harvested, although maturity at time of harvest and post-harvest drying and follow-on treatments also affect the texture and density of each sponge.

A household may only need 1-2 plants per year depending on how hard and often we use them, and how productive the vines are.

The seeds are even hardier than the average squash, popcorn, or bean, though, so don’t worry about only using a few from each packet at a time, or fret harvesting luffa at an immature “green” stage before the seeds develop.

If anything, you might want to plant in pairs and let a few fruits go all the way to on-the-vine brown husks every 3-5 years just to get improved pollination and maintain genetic variety.

Being squash (closer to cucumbers, but they behave like a squash), they’re heavy feeders.

The larger and heavier yielding they are, the more fertility they need. If you can source some of the red-clay African or older Deep South cultivars that haven’t been bred for super-high production yet, they tend to be a little easier on and more forgiving of soil fertility.

The vines of most cultivars are narrow, akin to melons, so while they’re vulnerable to squash bugs and other pests, they won’t play host to squash vine borers.

Like other squash-family plants, they do need pollinators, but they’re not as sensitive to humid heat. (Many squashes and melons are prone to only producing male flowers in some weather conditions.)

Luffa are, however, sensitive to drought and arid conditions.

The water needs for a squash cousin that size make them a prime candidate for buckets or totes turned into sub-irrigated planters or any of the olla-like fast-fill and root-zone-watering hacks.

Some growers have success letting them sprawl on the ground, or close to it. I typically see them on heavy-duty trellises, teepees, and fencing – which is how I grow them.

I do want to emphasize that “heavy duty” point.

Round wire tomato trellises from stores, unsupported coat-hanger twist-up’s, and 5’x1/2” cane poles aren’t going to cut it. Also, if there’s not a top rail on chain link or cattle/dog wire fencing, consider attaching a temp to that section, and definitely use a reinforcement on decorative carport/patio lattices (oops).

Happily, big as they are, we don’t have to worry about supporting the fruits as they grow and mature the way we would many melons or squashes grown up vertical patches. They can hang freely with no problems.

Ready for Harvest

As they grow, give the luffa a squeeze. They’ll shift from a ripe, firm cucumber consistency to a little bit softer.

In those first stages, if we peeled and cut it open, we’ll find a spongy white mass of squash meat inside. (It’s not tasty. At all. It’s a gourd.)

As they go along, the skin first yellows a bit and almost feels softer and looser. Then it starts to feel more leathery. (That stage is almost the way an acorn or spaghetti squash skin feels after it’s cooked, but the “squish” is different.)

As it matures, the skin becomes more brittle, with more springy give underneath it.

The earlier we harvest, the thinner that fibrous matrix we’re after will be, and the finer and tighter the weave of it.

Once the luffa matures further, those fibers get thicker and denser, and we’ll wind up with a looser, larger textured scrubby sponge.

When exactly it’s “ready” depends both on our variety and what we’re aiming for with our homegrown scrubbies.

Some will cure hanging right on the vine, even with staggered, indeterminate production.

Others really need to be cut off to finish up.

Once cut, some people prefer to husk them right away (especially in green or just-yellowing stages). Some will hang the naked luffa whole to start drying off, while others will split it and remove some of the pulp and seeds before hanging it to cure and dry completely.

Like summer squashes, if you’re aiming for seed collection, you do need to let at least some of them mature all the way.

That can be a challenge for some, because most luffa take at least 100-110 days to reach maturity, and might take 120-140 to dry off.

If that’s a problem, start them super early as a houseplant.

Planters made from buckets, totes and lined laundry baskets are all big enough to support a luffa if we fertilize and water. If we use a small frame trellis to get it started, we can grow it indoors for months.

Then we transfer it outside to a larger frame and space where it can sprawl, the way some transplant other large, long-growing melons, pumpkins, and squashes.

If a head start doesn’t buy quite enough time, stick the potted luffa somewhere near a house eave or garage (especially with asphalt to reflect and hold heat), or plant some posts that can be covered with garden fleece or poly at the autumn end of the season.

Another option for people with limited seasons and space is to stick with the smaller, shorter growing and the hardier wild cultivars. They don’t produce the same thick, dense sponges, but are plenty good for dish and surface scrubbers.

Finishing Touches

I’m typically after surface and dish scrubbers, boot brushes, and the ability to staple them to a dowel attached to a handle for scrubbing or sweeping concrete, wood, and CMU block flooring or siding, not a sea sponge replacement. That means I’ve never actually tried any of the dips and soaks used to soften luffas.

I’m not into parroting what others say without testing/seeing it, so you’ll have to do a web search if you’re interested. (Let us know how it goes, good or bad.)

Care & Maintenance

Like other natural products, luffas need a bit more care than synthetic sponges and brushes. It’s only a bit, though.

I will sometimes throw them in a laundry bag and then the washer. Usually, they soak and get squeezed around in a little dish detergent, pine cleaner, or bleach.

They do need to dry.

Even between uses, hang them somewhere, don’t leave them sitting in moisture like can be trapped by a dish, bucket or ledge.

Self-Reliant Crops

We may not be able to become truly self-sufficient, but we can all increase our self-reliance. From being able to take care of ourselves in short-term emergencies and disasters, to lowering our dependence on outside resources, increasing our ability to take care of ourselves tends to be a primary prepper objective.

Food production is regularly part of that, but don’t stop there. Growing our own can apply all over our supply and resupply lists.

Luffa with the many ways it can be used – then reused and returned to the soil – is a prime candidate for almost anyone interested in increasing self-reliance – all it takes is a big balcony, a warm summer, and the ability to water it.

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Matt in Oklahoma
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Matt in Oklahoma

My friend grows these and it’s pretty cool. Something I’ve never thought about. He gave me some and I used them in the camper during deer season.

R. Ann
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Matt in Oklahoma

>>”My friend grows these and it’s pretty cool. Something I’ve never thought about. He gave me some and I used them in the camper during deer season.”
— Very cool!
Wanted to dab my toe into the self-reliance production aspect that goes beyond pantry gardens and luffa are about the most versatile, so seemed like a good test run re interest. (Ah, well.) Take care!
-Rebecca Ann