The luffa plant is perhaps best known for the sponges made from it once it matures. When harvested young, it tastes similar to summer squash and is a popular vegetable in Chinese, Vietnamese, and Indian culture. A member of the cucumber family, the luffa is a subtropical and tropical plant. It can be grown in the United States, as long as you take note of the extended growing period the fruit needs to reach maturity.
Luffas prefer rich, well-drained soil. They also have a long growing season and do not tolerate freezing. If you live in USDA zone 6, start the seeds indoors and transplant after the danger of frost is passed. If you live in zone 7 or warmer, you can plant the seeds directly in the soil. The growing season in zone 5 or cooler is not long enough to reliably grow luffas.
The luffa is not picky about soil type, as long as it is well-drained. Their vines can reach 30 feet long over the growing season. Adding organic matter to the soil as you plant provides the nutrients needed to fuel this growth. If your soil is heavy clay, work some loose organic matter into a small hill to plant your luffas. If you are planting seeds, place two seeds to a hill. If you have young plants, plant one per hill.
Luffas need at least 6 hours of full sun each day and grow better the more sun exposures they have. The shorter the growing season, the more care you should take when planting the luffa. It takes the plant around 100 days to reach maturity, and there is only so much you can do to speed it along.
Starting seedlings inside is one way to overcome the obstacle of a short growing season, and planting in a spot that has full sun for a large portion of the day is another. The luffa does not tolerate frost, so if it hasn't matured by the first frost in your area, you won't be able to enjoy the sponges.
After sowing the luffa seeds or transplanting the seedlings, keep the soil moist for a few weeks. Once they have settled in, they need about an inch of rain each week. If there isn't sufficient rainfall, supplement by watering at the base of the plant, keeping water off the vines and leaves.
The squash bug can attack luffas, with both the nymphs and adults causing damage. They feed on the plant's juice, leaving scarring and causing wilting. Older plants may withstand the damage created by the squash bug, but it can kill younger ones. Removing the pests by hand and dropping them in a container of soapy water is a quick, effective way to rid your plants of them.
Luffas are not commonly targeted by disease, although they can develop leaf blight, powdery mildew, downy mildew, and angular leaf spot. If you notice the leaves turning yellow, brown, or developing spots, the plant starts dropping leaves or developing white growths, it probably has a fungal or bacterial infection. Caught early, spraying with a copper fungicide can halt the disease. If it doesn't recover, remove all parts of the plant from your garden to prevent the disease from spreading.
You can allow your plants to sprawl across the ground, but they may not grow as well as they could. The vines are easily damaged, and the lack of airflow can make them susceptible to disease. If you decide to leave them on the ground, adding a layer of mulch or straw between your plant and the soil can help keep them healthy.
Trellising your luffa plants allows them to grow without worrying about excessive moisture, damage, and lack of airflow. A trellis at least 6 feet tall will provide enough structure for your luffas. They have tendrils that help them climb but may need a little encouragement when they first start to vine.
Luffas are not propagated through cuttings. Instead, you start them from seed. They grow easily, and if you are in a warm climate you can direct sow into your garden. If you're in a cooler area, start inside by planting the seeds in a sterile potting mix and placing them in a warm spot that gets bright light. A cool-white fluorescent light will provide the light needed for your seeds to sprout. Luffas have tough seed coats, so soaking them in water for a day before planting inside or out, can speed up the process.
Harvest your luffas before the first frost. They are ready to use when their skin transitions from green to brown. If you lift one, you will notice it is much lighter than it was during the summer. Once harvested, peel the skin away, revealing the inner sponge. Your luffa may already have cracks, which tend to develop as it dries out, but if not, you can get started by pressing hard on either side of the fruit. Once there are some cracks in the skin, peeling it away is just a matter of patience.
After you remove all of the skin, shake the sponge so the seeds fall out. Use soapy water with a little bleach added to clean out the sap. Once clean, let them dry in the sun, rotating frequently. As long as you let them dry before storing them, they last for years.