Small clean store bought loofahYou can grow your own back scratcher at home, yes you read that right you can grow a back scratcher. The Loofah or Luffa plant is a type of squash, while it is not strictly a vegetable it can actually be eaten when young. It is the mature plant that is dried and used as a back scratcher. The vine they grow on is similar to the cucumber vine.

Loofah vines are a long season annual that loves the hot weather and slows growth in cooler times. They can grow up to 30 feet (10m) so are great for vertical gardening, growing up and over trellis, fencing or walls.

Getting Started

Select good mature seeds which will be dark and hard, very similar to watermelon seeds. In warmer climates they can be planted directly into the ground but in cooler areas or just for a head start on the season, they can be started undercover.

clean loofah and black seeds TOP TIP: Plant at a depth approx. 3 x the diameter of the seed.

 

 

 

 

 

Starting in pots Planting or Transferring

If you are going to be starting in pots, a 4 inch (10cm) pot is good for four weeks but a 5 or 6 inch (13-15cm) pot is needed for anything longer, you may also need a small pot trellis as well. Transfer after the first normal leaf appears but not before the last frost of the season.

When planting or transferring they like to be at least 3 feet (1m) apart, if you have the space, 6 feet (2m) is best. Make sure you wait until the last frost otherwise they will die.

Loofah seed germination rates can vary widely, about 50 to 80% for ideal planting conditions. Some seeds may take longer than others from the same batch. It could take weeks. Typically it is 7 to 14 days but it can be as short as 4 or 5 days for fresh seeds in ideal conditions.

Young Loofah are vulnerable to weeds and pests. The shade from weeds will stunt their growth and the usual garden pests such as slugs and snails will do their best to hamper your harvest. Once the vines starts to get bigger it will fend for itself and climb over most obstacles.

Climbing

Loofah fruit growing on a vineThe Loofah vines must have a strong trellis system to climb. The vines prefer to grow tall and will do well on a 6 to 10 feet (2-3m) high trellis. The vine length can exceed 30 feet (9m). The Loofah sponges can get heavy, so the more places the vine tendrils can hold on to the better, it may need to be supported so that it doesn’t pull the whole vine down. They won't grow as well on a single cable as they do growing into lattice or fence links with many support points. Loofah will circle and climb wooden poles if the surface is rough enough. They can also climb on walls with a rough surface. Training the vines to go where you want can be accomplished by gently wrapping the tendrils around supports in the desired direction, the vines are moderately flexible until they are very large. Growing along the ground is more likely to produce a curved Loofah and increases the chance of mould setting in.

Flowering

Bright yellow loofah flowersLoofahs produce large yellow flowers.

Pollination needs to occur before a pod will form. Bees, butterflies and ants will often do this for you but it can also be done by hand.

 

 

 

 

Hand pollination can be done using a cotton bud, swabbing from the Male flower to the female flower. The Female flowers are the solitary large stemmed ones and the males will be clustered together with thinner stems.

Once pollination occurs the female flower will fall off leaving the pod to fully develop, first into a soft edible fruit and later will harden into a fibre filled seed pod.

Harvesting

Harvest when the skin feels thin and loose, as if it is going to come of easily. Leaving it to dry in the sun can make it easier to peel. Many people find it easier to cut the bottom off before peeling and shaking/banging/tapping out the seeds into a bucket, there should be a few hundred in a good sized loofah. The banging and tapping will also help to loosen the skin making it easier to peel. Peeling the loofah itself is not that dissimilar to peeling a banana. Once peeled wash thoroughly and then dry out completely before storing to avoid it going mouldy. It can then be cut into different shapes as scrubbing pads for pots and pans or left whole as a back scratcher.

Dried loofah having skin removedTOP TIP: If you don’t like the natural colour you can soak it in hydrogen peroxide or household bleach, just don’t leave it in soak for too long.

 

 

 

 

dried loofah having skin removedIt’s ok for your Loofah to be any colour from brown to green.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recap:

  1. Grow in a seed tray for the first 4-6 weeks, keep inside until all risk of frost has gone.
  2. Once transplanted ensure there are well watered but not water logged.
  3. The loofah will be ready to harvest in around 11-12 weeks.

I can’t believe it is that simple.

Happy Growing!

When to Plant*: Plant undercover in seed trays in Sept, transplant Oct-Dec
Where to Plant: Warm & sunny
Soil PH: Neutral to slightly alkaline
Watering: Keep moist but well drained
Harvest: 11-12 weeks
Compatible: Can grow alongside Peas, Beans, Onions, Sweetcorn
Incompatible: Avoid growing in the same bed as Potatoes

*Based on Temperate Australian Climate

Loofah Facts

  • They are used in Chinese medicine to treat Rheumatic pain.
  • In Asia they are known as the dishcloth gourd as they are used to scrub pots and pans.
  • Great skin exfoliator, especially for people with eczema or psoriasis.
  • Origin is thought to be India but because they are grown so widely and have done so for so long it’s not easy to be sure.

 

N.B. This article has been written for Australian gardens. If you're reading this from around the world, we do hope you've found it a useful stepping stone for your own further research.