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You may recognize luffa sponges (Luffa aegyptiaca, synonym L. cylindrica) from health-food stores where they’re sold as exfoliators and displayed next to soaps, shampoos, and other bathing supplies. It’s easy to assume that a luffa is a sea sponge; however, it’s actually a gourd that you can grow in your backyard and process at home.
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An annual, subtropical vine in the Cucurbitaceae family, luffa is a lush plant with large leaves, buttery yellow flowers, and fruit that looks like giant, 2-foot-long cucumbers. The young, edible fruits — which taste like a cross between a cucumber and a zucchini — can be harvested when only a few inches long for stir-fries, chutneys, and soups. When left to mature and dry on the vine, the fruit becomes quite large and the edible flesh transforms into a fibrous woven skeleton with brown skin and rattling seeds. This textured skeleton is what we use as a sponge.
You can enjoy luffa sponges in place of a washcloth, or use them to scrub dishes, scour surfaces, clean your car, add an exfoliating layer to homemade soaps, make a DIY back scratcher, or to apply textured patterns to a freshly painted wall. Gardeners can also use luffa fibers in water to hold a rooting plant, or mix them into potting soil as a sustainable peat moss replacement. There are a number of fun and creative ways to use luffa, and because it’s such a productive plant you’ll have many sponges left to give as gifts, too!
Luffa gourds hang down from a trellis, demonstrating how gravity naturally encourages the growth of straight fruits, which are easier to peel.
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How to Grow Luffa
Because luffa gourds are left to mature and dry on the vine, they need a long growing season (nearly 200 frost-free days in a row). Gardeners north of Zone 8 can achieve this by starting luffa seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before their average last spring frost. (If you’re not sure when your average last spring frost is, then use the Almanac “frost date calculator.”) You can increase your luffa seed germination rate by scratching the seeds on sandpaper to weaken the seed coating — this is called “scarification” — or by soaking them in water for about 48 hours before planting. Plant two or three seeds per container, about 1/2- to 3/4-inch-deep. Luffa seeds are slow to sprout, so practice patience while maintaining a moist, well-drained soil medium and providing plenty of light.
After the seeds sprout, thin them to one seedling per container. Transplant the seedlings to larger containers to prevent them from becoming root-bound. After luffas begin to develop their first set of true leaves, you’ll see that they look almost exactly like cucumber seedlings. Make sure to label your seedlings well, or you may confuse them with other cucurbits.
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Luffas are not at all frost tolerant, so wait until frost is safely behind you before transplanting the seedlings to the garden. Before transplanting, spend about a week slowly hardening off your seedlings. To do this, carry them outside and place them in a shady location for a few hours daily, gradually working up to more hours every day. Place seedlings in a shady location, otherwise the sun could scald their sensitive leaves. Choose a sheltered spot where a light breeze can tease and strengthen their stems but protect them from any strong blasts of wind which could snap their fragile bases.
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