When asked to guess where sponges come from, most people say that they come from factories, the ocean or, simply enough, the grocery store. Little do they know that many of the washcloth mitts and bath sponges for sale in stores from coast to coast are made from luffa gourds. Luffas (also spelled loofa) are cylindrical gourds with a fibrous, sponge-like interior. They grow on a vine just like their close cousin, the cucumber. Luffas are also known as dishcloth gourds or vegetable sponges.
As their name implies, they make wonderful dish and bath sponges. They are also commonly mixed into bath salts or made into mitts, back scrubbers and the like and sold in upscale bath and body stores. Luffas can be made into a multitude of other products as well: they are even made into deluxe massaging slippers that smooth calluses as you wear them!
When you wash with a luffa, it gently exfoliates your skin and leaves it soft and smooth. Thus, luffas are recommended by skincare professionals everywhere. Amaze your friends, neighbors and customers by growing your own luffa sponges! All you will need is some luffa seed, a well-drained garden spot with rich soil and full sun and a good, sturdy trellis.
Luffa plants can be grown in hills or in rows, just like cucumbers. Although official spacing recommendations vary, luffas should be planted between 18'' and 36'' apart if they are planted in rows. Luffa hills should be spaced at least 6' apart, with 2-4 plants per hill. Luffas are a slow to germinate and establish, a weakness which can be overcome by starting them in containers and then transplanting them into the growing area.
After the luffa vines get established, they grow extremely quickly and become heavily loaded with fruit. Support them with sturdy trellises such as chain link fence or any sturdy wire mesh supported by stout posts. Untrellised luffas don't produce many of the long, straight fruits that are most desirable. What's more, fruits that come in contact with the ground often rot and are not marketable at all.
When the luffa gourds mature, they will start to turn brown and will become lighter in proportion to their size than the green, immature, fruits. At this point, the luffa will contain a fibrous core beneath its tough outer skin. Peeling off the skin is a real chore if you harvest the luffas while they are still completely green. Very mature luffas are very easy to peel: the skin zips right off like an oversized jacket. However, harvesting the fruits before they turn completely brown and dried out will give you a much cleaner looking, lighter colored sponge.
Once you harvest your luffa crop, you are likely to have bucketfuls (or bushel basketfuls) of luffa sponges. In order to make them as marketable as possible, you will need to remove all of the seeds from the luffas (this is easier if you sell the luffas in "slices" as opposed to whole sponges). You will probably also want to bleach the luffas in order to give them the clean-looking light color that most store-bought luffa sponges have. They can be lightened with a bleach solution (1 part bleach to 3 parts water) or a hydrogen peroxide solution, which will give the lightest finished product. Soak the sponges in the bleach solution for 15 minutes to 1 hour. Don't soak them too long or they will lose a lot of their fiber strength and become floppy and soft (this can be a plus if you have very sensitive skin) and will reduce their useful life because they will disintegrate much faster.
If you're finished luffas are of excellent quality, and you have at least 1,000 of them, they can be sold wholesale to large scale luffa distributors for about 10-40 cents each (If you want to go this route, you will want to contact them before you clean and bleach the luffas in order to be able to process your sponges to their specifications.). Otherwise, you can wholesale them to local craftspeople, food co-ops, etc.
Retailing your luffas yourself will give you the most gross income for your efforts but if will require a lot more time and management than wholesaling your luffas will. You can retail them at local craft shows, flea markets and farmers markets and other such venues. You can add even more value to your luffas by making them into crafts (dolls, hats, toys, soaps) and gift baskets and selling those.
If you're looking for a money-making enterprise that gives you a long marketing window (luffas store very well), incorporates you craft skills, and leaves you and your family with soft, glowing skin (you'll have plenty of extra luffas and will feel like you've gone to the spa every time you wash with them), luffa growing is a good option to consider. Plant some luffas this summer and you'll sponge up some dollars this fall!
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