Join hotel's annual harvest and pick your own loofah
WHERE do you think loofahs grow? If you said underwater, you wouldn't be alone. You would, however, be wrong.
They actually grow on vines and, while they are growing, they look nothing like the spongy things you find in the bathroom.
Instead they look more like cucumbers, which dark green skin that gets increasingly tough and rubbery as they age.
And although they are usually grown in warmer climes such as India, Vietnam or southerly states in America, a handful can also be found in a greenhouse at Ston Easton Park hotel, cultivated by head gardener Steve Hargreaves and vegetable gardener Dale Toten.
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Because although in this country the only place we tend to see loofahs is in the bathroom, they are edible and are a commonly used ingredient in some parts of the world.
The loofahs at Ston Easton though are not destined for the kitchens. Each bedroom in the hotel has a home grown loofah, and once a year members of the public are invited to come along and join in the annual loofah harvest which this year will take place on October 24.
Steve began working at Ston Easton in December last year, and Dale joined him a month later in January, and for both the gardeners this is their first experience of growing loofahs and of the loofah harvest.
But although it might be an unusual crop, they say it is actually very easy to grow although they do take longer than other gourds to reach maturity.
"We start them in pots in February from seeds," said Dale. "And grow them up from there in garden compost.
"Then in mid-May we plant them in the greenhouse and as soon as they are planted we just leave them alone.
"If anyone had the room and wanted to grow them it would be easier than growing cucumber or tomato plants.
"Once you've got them out of the pots and planted up they pretty much look after themselves really as long as you keep them fed and watered."
The annual harvest day is at the end of October, but Steve and Dale have already done a trial run with one of the vegetables to ensure that they know exactly what to do when the time comes.
"You peel off the skins and they are full of seeds," said Steve. "We will keep the seeds to plant more.
"Then you wash them through with a hosepipe, squeezing out all the flesh. It feels like they are full of soap.
"Once you've done that you just hang them up to dry for a week or two and you have a loofah."
Loofah are far from the only things grown in the hotel's 32 acres. There's a rose garden and picturesque flower beds around the lawns, and Steve and Dale are embarking on a project to clear overgrown patches near the river which runs through the grounds to open up the sweeping views across the estate and restore the landscape to how it was originally designed.
Dale also grows vegetables throughout the year which are then used in the kitchens and served to guests and he grows everything from micro herbs to tomatoes, butternut squash and rhubarb as well as heritage vegetables.
"Heritage vegetables are older varieties," explains Dale. "They are varieties that are starting to die out but we keep growing them, and we can collect the seeds and give them to other people so they can grow them too."
"A lot of the vegetables you see now are hybrids," adds Steve. "They have been developed so they are hardier and easier to grow but it is important that we don't lose these older varieties.
"Often then look a bit more misshapen than the ones you usually find on the supermarket shelves, but that doesn't affect the taste."
One of the greenhouses also houses a giant pumpkin which Steve and Dale estimate already weighs around 20 stone, and it is still growing.
"We're not sure how we're going to get it out," said Steve. "It's too heavy to lift, and it won't fit through the door!"
The Annual Loofah Harvest takes place on October 24 from 12.30pm to 4pm. Tickets cost £39 and include a two course lunch, a loofah demonstration and the chance to pick your own loofah, and a cream tea.
Garden tours also take place throughout the year.
For more information or to book tickets visit www.stoneaston.co.uk.