Before plastics came along, nature provided many useful resources for the human race. Many are still about, but little used as buying the manmade version is often easier and cheaper. But as the general population become more aware of their individual impact on the planet, natural products are starting to hit the headlines again.
Todays news saw National Trust talking about their property Knightshayes Estate in Devon, who have started growing their own loofahs. A practise that nods back to the estates previous occupiers hundreds of years ago, but also hits a chord with modern eco conscious visitors.
Recognised by many as a rough sponge often seen hanging up in the shower, the fibrous loofah as we know it is actually the insides of a vegetable that looks very similar to a large cucumber. If harvested early, loofahs can be eaten in a similar way to courgettes, or left longer, their inners get more and more fibrous, and if dried out correctly give a dense sponge like quality.
Loofahs are related to pumpkins, squashes and cucumbers whose family originated in Asia and Africa around the time the great Pyramids were being built in Egypt. Even then the Egyptians recognised the usefulness of this strange fibrous plant, and uses them as sponges.
As well as a natural decoration in the shower, loofah sponges are surprisingly useful around the house. They are great for cleaning most surfaces as they are tough, don’t scratch and can easily be washed (even in the washing machine!). This means they can be used to do the dishes, as an exfoliator in the shower, or even for scrubbing the toilet (we would obviously advise individual sponges for these tasks!).
So they have been around for years and are versatile long lasting items that don’t include any chemicals or plastics. They are a vegetable that can be grown with minimal effort and that don’t have a high impact on specific habitats (like the collecting of some sea sponges) and when they eventually get to the end of their useful life, they can even be put in a home compost bin, or your council food collection caddy.
Products with such great eco credentials often come with a high price tag to match. But luckily for us, the lovely loofah can actually be grown in your own back garden. All you need is a sunny sheltered spot with something for the plant to climb such as a trellis, or wires on a wall or fence .
How to grow your own loofah sponge
Firstly you need some seeds! Many garden centres are starting to sell these, but if you can’t find any near you, then you may need to look online. Find a variety that is designed to be grown into a fibrous loofah sponge (some are bred for their taste instead).
Pick your spot. Although they can be grown in most parts of the UK they do need warmth to do well. If you have an empty greenhouse then fab! – but bear in mind they may take up a lot of room as they are a rambling vine. Otherwise find the most sheltered sunny spot you have and prepare a couple of large 12″ pots or a grow bag against a wall with wires or trellis.
Start early indoors – Plants ideally need 6 months for the fruits to fully mature, so starting early Spring is ideal. For most of the UK starting them off in smaller pots on a sunny windowsill will give them a head start. We recommend sowing 6 weeks before the last frost is expected. Take a look at Plant Map to guide you. Don’t start earlier than this unless you have an artificial sunlight bulb, as our beautiful UK winter sunshine just won’t be long enough for the plants to do well on your windowsill.
Soak the seeds – When sowing the seeds, follow the packet guidelines, but usually you will be advised to soak them in warm water for 24 hours before. Sow into a seed tray and cover with a plastic lid if possible to help warm them up. FYI loofah seeds can be a pain to germinate! So plant more than you need and you should at least get a few come through. At this stage the most important thing is keep them warm. If you have a heated seed tray you will get the best results.
Pot them into individual pots – Once they have got their first set of true leaves (the ones that actually look like slightly wrinkly loofah leaves), they can be transplanted into their own pots. You can use any container to start them in from plant pots to yoghurt pots. But we recommend using a biodegradable plant pot that can go straight in the ground. Loofahs don’t like being shocked, so by giving them some root protection to start with should help.
Acclimatise them to outdoors – If the weather is on and off its also wise to put them outside in the daytime for a few days, whilst bringing them in at night so they get used to the lower temperatures before planting outside. It may sound like a faff but the extra work is worth it in weight of sponge you will get at the end of the season!
Plant them out – When they are ready to stay outside make sure your pots are ready in the warmest spot of your garden. Plant out, keep watered and keep an eye on the weather. Any cold snap can put the plants back for weeks, so a bit of protection with a half plastic bottle or bag through the colder nights can work wonders.
Have patience! – Now they are planted, you just have to wait… and wait… and wait. Did I mention the 6 months? Keep watering and occasionally tying them to the fence and you should start to see a sprawling plant with small yellow flowers.
Harvest – Ideally you leave the fruits until they have grown green, then turned brown and dry before harvesting. But if the frosts arrive before then, then pick them whilst still green. They still make good sponges, they will just be more difficult to peel. If left out in the frost you may lose the whole crop 🙁
Clean and dry – To prepare the sponge, peel off the dry outer skin. If fully mature there may be some plump brown seeds inside – shake them out and dry these off to plant next year. Wash the fibrous innards with a strong jet of water (hose pipe or strong tap is ideal) to remove any remaining flesh. Then leave to dry ideally somewhere sunny, or if it is typical UK weather, then try and airing cupboard or windowsill near a radiator.
Once dry you have a sponge! This can be cut into segments, and as long as it is kept dry, can last in the cupboard for years until you need them.
Share – If you are successful you may only need to grow them every couple of years, or even better you can share them with friends and family. Every loofah sponge given out could save another plastic sponge being manufactured and in the end, ending up as non biodegradable debris in landfill.
If you like growing things then why not give it a go. Our seeds for this year are on order and we will post up progress later in the year. We would love to see your plants too!