Peering out the window of our tiny house in Costa Rica, I saw our neighbor Josué slowly climbing up a ladder holding a basket full of what looked like overgrown zucchinis. He pulled each one out and placed them side-by-side on his roof, where the unobstructed sun would beat down on them for more than eight hours each day! Why was he doing this to his zucchinis?
Josué climbed back up every morning to rotate the large veggies, and after a week of baking in the Costa Rica jungle heat, they’d transformed into a row of dark brown logs.
I was dying to know what he was tending to up on his roof, so I asked, “¿Que son esos?” It turned out they were loofahs! For some reason, I always thought loofahs were like sea sponges and came from the ocean.
Loofahs are members of the gourd (squash) family and Josué had been growing them in his garden for decades. He left them in the hot sun until their skin darkened and was easier to remove, then he’d peel it off and extract all the seeds. This last task involved violently smacking the poor loofahs, against a hard surface until they finally gave up the copious amount of seeds hidden deep in their fibrous interiors.
I’ve used loofahs to exfoliate my skin for years, AND I’m an avid gardener, but I did not have a clue about the origins of my faithful scrubber!
Once we returned from Costa Rica, I found some tiny loofah plants at a nearby farm and set to growing them in my yard. My plan was to use an old swing set frame we’d salvaged from our aging neighbor’s yard, cover it with fencing wire that we bought at a local home improvement store (similar to this) and create a frame for my loofahs to grow up and over. My son helped me attach the fencing to the swingset frame with zip ties and we removed a crossbar at one end of the frame so I could get access to the growing loofahs inside the frame.
The loofahs aggressively grew up one side of the frame like an army taking a hill. As soon as each big yellow blossom appeared, I’d tuck it through the fencing, so the loofah that developed from it would hang down inside the frame as it grew.
I also planted a few smaller gourds along the back wall.
The loofah plants grew so fast I didn’t always have time to make sure the blossoms got pushed through the frame. This resulted in loofahs growing in crescent-shapes because they had no room to stretch out. The multiple vines and tendrils tightly attached to the frame, blocked the loofahs’ growth so they simply grew where they could. These “c” shaped loofahs often looked like they were bivouacked against a cliff wall.
Here is my harvest, in various stages:
…and finally skinned, seeded and cleaned:
I ended up with lots of loofahs, so I sliced them up, put them in homemade soaps and gave them out as Christmas gifts.
My first year growing loofahs was very successful, but here’s what I’ll do differently next year:
- Plant fewer plants, further apart. Initially the little seedlings seemed so small, I decided to double up the amount of plants I planted in the trough at the base of the frame. Unfortunately, they looked so healthy as they started to grow, I didn’t have the heart to thin them out! I ended up with a jungle of leafy vines, blossoms and loofahs all vying for space, with a third of my crop developing into crescent-shapes. These were the ones I sliced up for soaps.
- Build a frame with two vertical sides and a spacious flat roof. When I tended to my growing loofahs on my A-frame, I ended up stepping on the plant bases and once killed an entire vine. A large flat roof will provide lots of space for the loofahs to drop down from and grow long, straight and unhindered.
- Not wait until the skin gets completely dry before harvesting and peeling. If loofahs stay on the vine, or are left out to dry until becoming hard and brown, the skin becomes brittle and tends to break off. I found the loofahs were easier to peel when they still had some moisture in the skin. I should have followed Josué’s example!
Loofahs will successfully dry either way, but make sure to get them inside before the first frost, or they’ll get mushy. When you’re ready to peel them, cut off one end,
shake whack them vigorously to get all the seeds out first, and then finish peeling. Be thorough about getting all the seeds out. Seeds that are left inside can turn your loofahs black and make them unattractive.
You may have to buy your seeds/plants for your first year’s crop, but you’ll be inundated with seeds for years to come after your first harvest!
Try growing this fun crop this summer. Your gardening skills will impress your family and friends and they’ll be thrilled to find a loofah in their Christmas stocking!
Pura vida, Penny