Some two decades ago we regularly grew a vine whose fruits helped us scrub down cleanly in the shower each evening. And nothing quite equaled them in wiping the egg off the breakfast dishes each morning. The sponge (fruit) of the luffa vine was among the most versatile cleaning tools around.
At the time we were living in a climate that was frost-free for eight to 10 months of the year. Growing the heat-loving luffa under such circumstances was a piece of cake, as they say.
In the northern tier of the US, the luffa would never make it. At least that was what I presumed until Vermont gardener Dick Raymond proved the presumption entirely wrong. In test gardens which he runs for the Troy-Bilt Tiller Company near Burlington, Dick was able to harvest "about 35 good-sized sponges as frost closed in last September."
When I was growing the luffa you could go to a store and buy a finished sponge for the equivalent of about 25 cents. It was an interesting plant to grow but hardly a money-saving one. Now, however, luffa sponges fetch up to $2 a piece when you can find them. So growing a few of your own has some monetary pluses as well as interest for the gardener.
The sponge part of the luffa squash is the tan-colored membrane that encloses the flesh and the seeds of the fruit. Peel away the skin (as if you were removing the skin of an orange), wash out the flesh and the seeds, and the membrane remains. All you have to do is dry it and you have a sponge that will last for years.
You should grow the luffa sponge in compost-enriched soil (a shovelful per plant should do nicely) or you might use aged manure.
The secret for success in the North is to start the plants indoors. Dick Raymond sowed his three weeks before the last expected frost in his area. Then five weeks later, or two weeks after the last expected frost, he set the plants out 2 to 3 feet apart in a row. Water well in dry weather. If you can grow good winter squash you should do reasonably well with the luffa.
Be sure to give it something to climb on. In my former garden it rambled along a fence and then took off into a nearby tree. In this respect I recently read of a woman who let a luffa vine climb into a tree. Folk driving by would stop to examine the "un usual" tree bearing the "strange looking fruit.
To increase the length of your luffa- growing season (and the vine's productivity) you might start your seedlings indoors earlier than two weeks before the last frost and transplant them outdoors under the protection of a clear plastic tent or other minigreenhouse. Fiber-glass cones, mentioned in previous columns, would be ideal. Do not take away this protection until the weather warms up. Temperatures above freezing but below 40 degrees F. can set back the plants.
Luffa seeds are available from Gurney Seed and Nursery Company, Yankton, SD 57079, R. H. Shumway, 628 Cedar Street, Rockford, IL 61101, and Grace's Gardens, 22 Autumn Lane, Hackettstown, NJ 07840.