Welcome to Postage Stamp Permaculture! There’s so much to write about, but the bizarrely beautiful luffa gourd seemed like a great place to start.
It’s a very common misconception that luffas are marine organisms, much like sponges. But they’re actually a gourd you can easily grow yourself if your summer’s long enough (150+ frost free days). The part we think of as a luffa is actually a set of tough fibers surrounding the seed cavities within the fruit.
Luffas don’t transplant as readily as most other gourds and squashes, so it’s best to plant them in their final location. They will take longer to germinate than most, too — 7-14 days after you pop these gorgeous seeds in the ground. They’ll start sending out climbing tendrils as soon as they have a couple sets of true leaves, so make sure your trellis is in place.
A couple months down the road, you’ll see some odd reproductive structures forming. The male buds appear first, as a tight star-shaped cluster. You will see ants all over your plants. Don’t disturb them, they’re actually the primary pollinators for luffas and many other gourds and squashes.
Then one at a time, the male buds will extend and become, well, rather phallic-shaped. More ants will show up as the flowers prepare to open.
Female buds are not clustered, and even when tiny have pronounced swellings at the base that will become the luffa itself. Each female flower can produce one mature gourd. (Both sexes put out yellow flowers like this that are nearly identical to the casual observer.)
If the female bud is properly pollinated, the flower drops and the fruit begins to grow.
Three to four months later, when the fruits are large but no longer feel “heavy” when you move them, it’s harvest and cleaning time! Many people leave them on the vine until they start to yellow, but never leave them on through a frost. It’s better to pick them slightly green than to let them freeze on the vine.
They’re fairly easy to peel by hand if they’re properly ripe. You can begin to see the fibers here as this thing starts looking more like a cleaning product than a zucchini. (Young luffa fruits ARE edible and can be cooked just like any other squash, but you want to pick them when they’re small, less than 6, or they start to become tough and stringy.)
Cleaning is basically like doing old fashioned laundry by hand — scrub and rinse, scrub and rinse. You can be rough on these things, you want to roll and smash it until the pulpy flesh inside falls out. The top fruit here is clean, the bottom one has not been worked on at all.
It will probably take another wash or two to get all the seeds from the cavities. Set it aside on a paper plate to dry for next year.
There will still be small bits of pulp and unripe seeds stuck to the fibers, so we’re going to ferment it off. Put the cleaned luffas in a water bath, and repeat the “scrub and rinse” process at least daily until the water comes clean and no bits of gunk are left behind.
After that, simply set them somewhere to dry (out of cats’ reach, these things are apparently the best kitten toys ever). Congratulations, you’ve grown your own luffas!