Flax and Linen Symposium!

OK, obviously I only managed to write a couple posts about dye plants before I returned to flax. But this is a pretty big deal so I feel OK about prioritizing it. We had our long-awaited flax and linen symposium and it was totally awesome!

The official title was “Flax and Linen: Following the Thread from Past to Present” and our flax and linen study group organized it in collaboration with Historic Deerfield. We worked on the planning and organization for about two years, and even though we tried to think through every detail and put together a program that we hoped would appeal to a wide range of people, we really had no idea how it would all turn out. Well, it turned out fabulously. It was pretty much everything I hoped it would be, and I was so grateful and happy.

It was such an exciting, inspiring, and gratifying weekend that I don’t feel capable of summing it up concisely. Generally I am a long-winded writer, as you might have noticed, so perhaps that’s no surprise. So, rather than write a post that sums it up, I started to break the experience down into smaller parts. Here’s my first attempt to share what it was like from my point of view.

The symposium was a two day event, Saturday and Sunday August 20-21, with a reception to kick it off on Friday night August 19th. On Friday, starting early in the morning, study group members, Historic Deerfield staff, and valiant volunteers started to set up the space at the History Workshop for our demonstration session on Saturday afternoon. In many ways, this was the piece of the program that we agonized over the most, and the piece we felt was most crucial. Most people haven’t had a chance to use antique flax processing equipment, or to try all the steps of processing retted flax into spinnable fiber. We really wanted people to be able to do this. Flax processing or “dressing” is very messy, so these parts of the demonstration area needed to be outdoors: this crucial piece of the program was totally weather-dependent.

We had also invited an amazing group of people to exhibit and demonstrate their flax equipment, spinning wheels, textile collections, handwovens, and samples of retted flax. We wanted to reserve the interior of the History Workshop for the things that really needed to be indoors: cloth, spinning, dressing a distaff, rare tools, and historic prints. Basically if it rained we were in big trouble. We had three pop-up tents, but nothing that could really fend off rain. Very fortunately, it was not at all rainy that weekend. Not that it’s been rainy this summer in general. In fact, we have had a drought. But on Saturday August 20th we were glad for the lack of rain.

Here is a view of a flax dressing set up outdoors early on Friday morning when we were first arranging where things would go and trying to visualize the crowd of 90 attendees plus speakers and volunteers:

flax dressing set up

In the foreground are the tools that our study group owns together, and in the distance are the tools that belong to study group member Gina Gerhard, personally. We wanted to have two “stations” with a full set of tools: brake, scutching board and knife, and hetchels. Later, I also added a table with the “hardware store” tools that I have used for most of the time that I’ve been processing flax.

Here’s a cool shot of one of our hetchels (pictured above as well – click for a larger image):


Here’s a close up of Gina’s sign. She does a lot of demonstrations at living history sites and re-enactment events, and her persona is a flax dresser from the 1700s, so she has this whole thing down to a science! I believe the sign was made by Justin Squizzero.

Gina Gerhard sign

My enormous back-log of unprocessed flax came in handy, and we had plenty of retted flax on hand for people to use during the demo (water-retted Marilyn, in case you are wondering). The adorable cart is part of the History Workshop’s collection, which allows Faith Deering and other interpreters to provide interactive educational encounters to Historic Deerfield visitors as they walk down the street.

my retted flax

At this point on Friday we were still wondering, how would it all work out?  The empty scene on Friday was how we imagined it might be, on the cusp of making the event a reality but still uncertain about whether it would be successful or not. It was an absolute thrill to see the reality in action on Saturday afternoon! Here is the dressing station that I was responsible for staffing, in full swing:

dressing station in action

And here are people waiting patiently to have a turn with the tools:

orderly queue

Here’s an example of one of the things I appreciated about the weekend. We knew that our audience would include many incredibly knowledgable people, and we were hoping that everyone would be able to share information and resources directly with one another. A face-to-face gathering such as this provided an incredible opportunity for sharing the kinds of skills that are best transmitted from one person to another, and are hard to learn from books. Hans and Sara Von Tresckow of Woolgatherers were among the people in attendance. They have as much or more experience as any of the presenters. Hans (seen below at the scutching board), Sara (seen above at the brake), and other people stepped in to offer advice and suggestions based on their knowledge and experience, which was such a pleasure to watch. Below, Hans is showing a method for gripping the flax firmly while scutching so the fibers don’t slip down and get tangled.

Hans gives advice

And all this activity and sharing of knowledge was just at my little station, one small part of the whole demo session. So much more happened during that demonstration time, but I will post those photos in the next post.

More About Woad

Woad is a biennial, which means it flowers and sets seed in the second year of growth. I thought I’d share a little bit about the life cycle of woad and how last year’s plants fared this spring and summer. Here are some photos of the state of things over at the dye and fiber plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm on May 15, 2016.

The woad was in bloom:

woad May 15

It is one of the earliest plants to bloom, and it has very fragrant yellow flowers that are sought-after by insects. I always find it very cheery. Here’s a view of the row of woad from a little further away:

May 15 2016

Here is the row of woad plants once the seeds have set. They were a very bright yellow-green at this point on June 4th, 2016.

woad seeds June 4

I staked them up so they wouldn’t flop onto the lawn and get mowed over. Here they are on June 23rd, the day I harvested them:

woad seeds June 23 2016

The next day, June 24th, I cut the smaller seed-bearing branches off of the main stalks and put them in paper bags in the car to dry. This was in an effort to avoid having them take up a ton of space in the apartment, van, and backyard, as they had the day before. I also wanted to avoid having seeds drop everywhere. It worked really well. The weather was very hot and dry, so they dried quickly, and they weren’t in the way.

me and woad seeds June 24 2016

Stripping the seeds off the stalks for storage took a while. I split the task up into a few sessions. Even though the dry weather meant an agonizing amount of hauling water, it was very pleasant to sit outside and work because it wasn’t humid at all. Here’s my set-up. I stripped the seeds off of the small stalks, and they fell into another paper bag. Then I put the stalks in a bucket, and eventually dumped the stalks in the woods.

woad seeds July 1 2016

On the left hand side is a close up of me stripping the seeds off the stalks. I start near the bottom of the stalk and cup the bottom-most seeds between my fingers and thumb. I drag and pull up toward the top of the stalk, and the seeds pop off. If you pull in that direction, you avoid getting poked by the sharp, spiky stiffness of the stalks. On the right hand side is the bag filling up with gorgeous, glossy purple-black seeds:

I still have plenty of seeds left from 2015, and they stay viable for several years, so you might wonder why I bothered to save seed this year. One reason is that I hate to waste abundance, and another is that they are just so beautiful it’s a pleasure to spend time with them. If I had to pick a favorite dye plant, it would probably be woad. I love every phase of its growth. Maybe the most important reason is that you never know what a growing season will bring. Nourished by the plants’ deep taproots, the woad seeds matured just fine in the earlier part of the spring and summer before the dry weather really had an impact. But who knows what another season might bring in terms of weather or other hazards. So, I’d rather have a surplus than find myself without woad seeds in the future.

Gleeful Woad Vat

On July 18th and 19th I ran a woad vat! This is exciting because last summer I planted woad, but didn’t have time to use it for dyeing. That made me sad, and I vowed to rectify that this summer. This summer I planted two beds about a month apart, so that the leaves will mature at different times. I ran this first vat of the summer with much glee and happiness.

I stuck with my tried and true but not truly “sustainable” chemical vat, using ammonia and RIT Color Remover. One of these years I will learn how to precipitate my own woad powder and master a natural fermentation vat (maybe even the urine vat!). Meanwhile I dyed some fiber blue with my own woad and it made me happy.

woad bed July 18

Here’s the woad bed on July 18th:

I picked about 5 and a half pounds of leaves. We have had no rain for weeks, and we have had hot temperatures and low humidity. Despite almost daily watering from Amethyst Brook, the plants are not as luscious as some years. In another post I will write about a puzzling woad mystery I am trying to solve, but for now let’s stick with the vat.

Even though the leaves were not very dirty, I rinsed them anyway. Basically I grabbed one handful of leaves at a time and swished it around in a bucket of water.

rinsing woad leaves

Then I twisted that handful of leaves to rip them into smaller pieces, and put the pieces in an empty five gallon bucket.

shredding woad leaves

While all this was happening, I boiled three pots of water on the stove indoors. Once all the leaves were shredded and the water was boiling, I carried out the pots of water one at a time, and poured them on top of the woad leaves:

boiling water

topping up

I kept pouring on boiling water until the water level was close to the rim of the bucket. This way, when I pressed the lid on, some of the water squeezed out. The point of this is to exclude as much air as possible while I’m extracting the leaves. I guess I didn’t get a photo of that step this time. You can see what I’m talking about in an earlier post here, plus a non-technical explanation of the chemistry that underlies the process.

After that, I let the leaves steep in the boiling water for about 45 minutes. The color of the liquid at this point is usually richly reddish or pinkish. On the left below you can see the bucket with the leaves still in it, and in the middle is the strained liquid. On the right are the strained leaves.

At this point a person may re-use the strained leaves to make a pinkish-beige dye with an alum mordant. I used to do this many years ago, but I’m not enamored of the pinkish-beige color so I don’t bother to do it anymore. That’s what I didn’t do. What I did do was toss the leaves in the compost.

Then, I added ammonia to the strained liquid and used pH strips to test that it was pH 9. The liquid changes color dramatically when the pH changes, so you can tell by looking when it’s ready to roll. Also, it gets a rainbow-like sheen on top.

pH 9

Then comes the aeration. I set the timer for 10 minutes, and poured the liquid back and forth between three buckets until the timer went off, with a little break in the middle to rest. Check out the gorgeous deep green from the high pH:


The ammonia created a lot of foam!

after aerating

It’s OK, though, because once I sprinkled on one and a half packages of RIT Color Remover (which contains sodium hydrosulfite, the reducing agent) the foam retreated and the whole thing looked a lot less like a crazy science experiment gone awry. Instead it’s a successful crazy science experiment!

after sprinkling powder

Why one and half packages? Well, the amount of reducing agent you need to use depends of the amount of oxygen you need to bind up. I know from experience that five gallons of water takes one and a half packages of RIT Color Remover. That’s about 3 tablespoons, I believe. A tablespoon is three teaspoons, so that’s about 9 teaspoons. If you have a smaller bucket you can figure out the math proportionately. Or you can use a scale if you have one that’s more accurate than mine! There is a lot of science involved in all this, but there is also a lot of winging it.

reducing agent

After that, I put the lid back on and let the vat reduce for 45 minutes. That means it just sits there undisturbed and the reducing agent binds up the oxygen in the water. After reducing a vat this way, the color I normally get is a murky olive green/oil slick combo, with a slight translucency that gives you a glimpse of a bright mustard yellow below the surface. Perfect!

reduced vat

I had pre-soaked six 4-ounce skeins of scoured wool (4-ply mill end yarn from Webs).

yarn soaking

At first I dipped two skeins at the same time for 10 minutes, so I’d have 8 ounces of the same color. Then I pulled them out to let them oxidize. I didn’t bother to stand over the bucket and “work” or manipulate the fiber this time.

Here’s a skein that I’m pulling out. The turquoise color on the top of the skein tells you that the oxygen has begun to interact with the soluble “white” form of indigo and it’s converting to an insoluble blue form. The yellow color at the bottom tells you the color is still reduced and hasn’t oxidized yet.

oxidation in process

A lot of dyers I’ve read recommend oxidizing fiber for the same length of time as the dip, i.e., expose the fiber to air for the same amount of time that it was soaking in the vat. Michele Wipplinger of Earthues explained in a workshop at Long Ridge Farm several years ago that Japanese dyers working with a natural fermentation vat only dip once a day. After 24 hours the oxidation is still going on. Following this thinking, I don’t usually try to re-dip a skein in the same vat anymore. I just let it oxidize and dry out. Then I rinse it and dip it again in a different vat if I want to deepen the color. I am absolutely not suggesting that anyone else’s process is wrong, I am just sharing what I do, based on my particular set-up and experience. Here are the skeins oxidizing on the sad, crispy, dead grass (because of no rain, ever, all summer).

yarns oxidizing

After the first two skeins of wool, I dipped one skein at a time for more like 20-40 minutes. I was doing other things, so I didn’t keep close track. Once all the skeins were dipped there was still a lot of color left in the vat. I put in about 9 ounces of dark brown Romney fleece and that soaked for about an hour. Then I put in about 7 ounces of white mohair (which is the fiber from an angora goat, FYI) and let it sit in the vat overnight. Here is everything laid out the next day. The turquoise color on the mohair on the left tells you it was recently pulled out of the vat.

fibers oxidizing

When I pulled out the mohair in the morning there was clearly a lot of color left, so I put in 12 more ounces of mohair and let it sit all day. On the left you can see the color after the first batch of mohair has settled into a regular-old woad blue. On the right is the second batch of mohair still oxidizing.

two batches of mohair

Here’s how they look after drying for a couple days (this time the second batch is on the left). There is not much difference in the color.

oxidized mohair

My usual process is to let the fibers dry completely, then soak in a vinegar solution followed by repeated rinses with water. That’s what I did this time, too. The RIT Color Remover has a stinky perfume smell, so I let the fibers air out outdoors until they don’t smell so bad. The total weight of fiber I dyed with this vat was just over three pounds. Here are some close-ups of the mohair just because the texture of the curls is so pretty:

Here are the woolen skeins all rinsed, dried, and ready to store. Gleeful!

rinsed and dried



Exciting Lichen Information!

After all the flax-related posts lately, you might be justified in thinking that I don’t care about dye plants anymore. Not true! I thought I’d kick off what I hope will be a series of posts about dye plants with a link to a fascinating article about recent research on lichen.

OK, technically a lichen isn’t a plant. What exactly is it? Well, I used to think that a lichen was a symbiotic organism composed of a fungus and an algae (perhaps more accurately, “alga” singular). My go-to definition is from Lichens of North America by Irwin M. Brodo, Sylvia Duran Sharnoff, and Stephen Sharnoff. This massive and beautiful book is one of my prized possessions, acquired from Raven Used Books in Northampton many years ago (FYI my beloved Matthew is a former employee and does their website, as well as websites for many other good folk). I abbreviate the definition here:

“[A] lichen is not a single entity, but a composite of a fungus and an organism capable of producing food by photosynthesis. Lichen fungi can associate with green algae or cyanobacteria (the latter also known as blue-green algae), or sometimes both […]. The special biological relationship found in lichens is called symbiosis.”

The authors also offer a sweet, almost diminutive term for the photosynthetic symbiont, “photobiont, for short,” which is a word I aspire to slip into casual conversation more often. (Well, OK, ever!)

However, please follow this link for some exciting new insights into the life of lichen ….


Last Straw(s)

flax in bucketsI realized in my last post I didn’t show the buckets of transplanted flax. They transplanted just fine, which was a useful discovery.

After we came back from our weekend away on July 9-10 and found that the seeds in the buckets of flax at home had been chomped, I bought two new types of rodent repellent and a solar robotic owl for the garden. The first type of repellent I tried, Bobbex-R, stinks to high heaven! I wanted to run away from it myself as I was spraying it. We have been having a sustained spell of very hot weather, and the directions said not to spray when it’s over 85 degrees, so I waited to spray the plants at dusk when the temperature cooled off a little. It was initially more effective than the Plantskydd. I didn’t detect any new damage overnight. After a day or so, though, things went back to normal. Sigh.

Here’s a photo of my owl when I first brought it to the garden.

owl July 13

Even though I bought it out of desperation, I love my robotic owl beyond all reason. It is solar powered, and has a teeny solar panel on its head. It has a bobbly head that moves around randomly when it’s not catching rays, and moves systematically and robotically when it is. In case you haven’t seen this video, please watch and enjoy: “Move your owl around for sci-ence!” In my case, since it is solar powered, “I rotate my owls auto-matic-al-ly!”

I have been moving my owl around every couple of days, as directed, so the rodents don’t get complacent. Here it is the next day up on a perch:

owl July 14

However, it isn’t helping. The stalk-chewing continues. Even though the seeds are just beginning to ripen, the seeds are being chewed up now, too. Certainly by rodents and milkweed bugs. Perhaps by birds or other animals. There is seed debris all over the ground in the beds.

On July 7th I had noticed that one of the flax chewers had pulled a stalk out of one of the beds (the type Ariane) and dragged it across the dirt pathway toward a patch of grass.

dragging off a stalk

I thought, “Hm, that’s odd. I wonder what that’s about.” I also thought, “Must be a rodent. A cutworm certainly couldn’t accomplish this.” It wasn’t until July 12th, however, when I found another dragged-off stalk outside the bed that I followed the route a little further. Under the longer grass was a stash of flax-stalk pieces:

chewed flax stalks in the grass

I imagined the little critter feeling exposed in the increasingly empty bed, and finding a more sheltered spot to eat. Or, cutting down the stalk despite the sting of chili and smell of garlic, and dragging it off to a less odiferous spot to finish chewing. I dug up all the grass in that area and turned it over to dry out and die.

On July 15th I noticed a little stash of seed in the woad bed, which is next to the 1602 bed.

flax seed in woad

I also noticed some chewed up stalks:

flax stalks in woad

I sprayed some Bobbex-R around the woad. Over the weekend I was out of town visiting with family.

On Monday July 18th I was picking woad for a woad vat. I realized that there were a LOT of chewed up flax stems in the woad bed, far more than I had noticed before.

too much chewed flax

There were also a lot of chewed off woad leaves.

chewed woad leaves

This was totally uncool. In fact, it was the last of my final straws. My final final straw. Despite my efforts, I am losing the flax fight. I am done with this. I give up.

I pulled up all the flax in that bed right then (the type 1602). It has no chance of surviving until the seeds are ripe. Meanwhile something is thriving on it, and chomping up the woady-brassica-goodness next door to boot. Enough is enough.

Nothing Works

I read that a chili pepper/garlic spray would keep rodents away from plants, so I gave it a try. We grow a lot of chilis. A major goal of our gardening endeavors, besides growing flax and dye plants, is to grow tomatillos and chilis to make home-made salsa verde. We also grow garlic for the salsa, but it’s too precious to use for mouse-repellent so I just used store-bought garlic.

For each batch of spay, I crushed up 14-16 dried chilis:

our chilisI divided them between two 12 ounce canning jars, and added a head of minced garlic and water. I let them sit overnight and then blended them.

two jarsTo make the spray, I strained out the solids and added extra water.

straining sprayI used this quantity of chilis and garlic two or three times with additional water before starting a new batch. When I felt a jar had lost its oomph, I dumped out the remaining solids around the beds. One recipe called for a little soap or oil to break the surface tension of the water, so for the first two batches I added a little Dr. Bronner’s castille soap.

At first I sprayed just the lower parts of the flax stalks, where the initial chewing was happening. The M.O. of the chewers is to cut off the stalk at the base, then chomp it into little sections. However, the lowest leaves on the plants did not look happy after I sprayed them. They got spots and then shriveled and fell off. So, I omitted the soap after that.

At first, it seemed that the chili-garlic spray was helping. For a few days there seemed to be less damage, and I was very excited. Then, a few days later there was just as much chewing, and the chewers seemed to be severing the stalks a little further up to avoid the spray. So, I started spraying willy-nilly over the entire bed. I also shook garlic powder all over the beds and pathways a couple days in a row. No help. Meanwhile, I continued to lose plants every day.

Matthew suggested digging up some of the flax plants and bringing them here to the apartment for protection. I wasn’t sure they would transplant, so I didn’t try it right away. I was getting desperate, though, so I dug up two patches from each of the two tallest types, 5NN and Peynau, and plopped them into five gallon buckets. It is a bit of a walk from the community garden plot to the parking lot, and they were heavy to haul. I carried out the four buckets over two days.

With a portion of the flax safely ensconced at home, we went away for the weekend of July 9-10th. We returned to a scene of destruction. A majority of the green seeds had been chewed off.seed is goneHere’s some of the seed debris on the seat of a chair:

seed debrisSome of the seed pods were hollowed out:

hollowed out seed podOthers were just missing:

missing seed podIt could have been squirrels, birds, mice. Who knows what. We were not here to observe, witness, defend, or protect. AAAARRRGGHHH!!! Yes, I had a major meltdown.

Once I began to return my normal self a little bit, this scene from a Louis C.K. skit popped into my mind and somewhat captured my feeling (N.B. video contains swears!). We keep a birdfeeder outdoors, with a lot of seed that spills on the ground. Plenty for birds and squirrels alike. “I left food on the floor!” Why did you have to eat my flax seeds?! Lesson learned, though. There is no safe harbor anywhere for the beleaguered flax.

Stated differently and more positively, I have now established through repeated observations that flax is a preferred food source for a range of animals, even when other sources of food are available. Both stems and immature seed are consistently sought out, despite deterrents and repellents, and despite easy access to other food.

Know Your Enemy, or Just Photograph Them

By late June I had not definitively proven that rodents were eating my flax, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t insect larvae, as I said in my last post. Stalks were being chewed daily, between 4-6 stalks per bed, per day. Sometimes more. So, additional sleuthing was required.

I continued to pay close attention to anything that might be suspicious and tried to document anything I saw just in case it turned out to be a problem. It turned out there were a lot of flying insects on the buds, flowers, and newly-forming seeds.

There was also some minor wilting and withering at the tips of the stems, which may or may not have been caused by bugs. The withering was negligible compared to the chewing problem so I didn’t put a lot of effort into figuring out what most of the insects were.

Here’s one:

mystery bugAnd another:

another bugHere’s one that seemed to just be looking for nectar:

Is it looking for nectar?And here’s one that I was pretty sure was harmless. I’d seen it before on milkweed, and didn’t figure it could do any harm to my flax:

milkweed bugHere is another view of a milkweed bug:

milkweed bug close upOver roughly a week’s time, I started to see more and more of these milkweed bugs, and they were always on the green seeds. In contrast, there were none on the actual milkweed in the garden (which I leave there in the hopes that a monarch might fly by some day). This seemed weird, so I looked up milkweed bugs. I found this page provided helpful information. They come in two types. Large milkweed bugs feed almost exclusively on Asclepias species. Small milkweed bugs are less picky and will feed on a lot of different plants. Both types stick a special eating tube into the seeds, squirt in digestive enzymes, and then suck out the liquefied seed material through a different eating tube. Great, that’s just what I need. Insects liquefying my seeds at the top of the stalks and chewing creatures mowing down and snipping up the stalks from the bottom. So, I started squishing all the milkweed bugs.

Meanwhile, I decided to operate on the assumption that the big chewing problem was caused by rodents. At first I thought all the chewing was happening at night, so I read up a little on rodent habits. I ruled out chipmunks (diurnal) and figured it was voles (nocturnal).

During the last week of June and first week of July, I set out a couple traps overnight in the beds. One night I caught a deer mouse, and another night a white footed mouse. I had baited the traps with peanut butter, and Matthew pointed out that perhaps they were after the peanut butter and not the flax. So, I put out unbaited traps. I caught nothing for days, until finally over the weekend of July 9-10 I caught a vole. This did nor narrow down the list of suspects. However, in the course of reading up on rodents, I discovered that a single vole can have a hundred babies a year, and that an acre of meadow can provide habitat for as many as 300 voles. During these weeks, I started visiting the garden twice a day, morning and night, and realized that the flax-chewing occurred both during the day and over night. Basically the odds of winning my battle against rodents were nil. I was not ready to give up yet, though.



What Constitutes Evidence?

The Plantskydd did nothing to stop the chewing of my flax stalks, unfortunately. So, I wondered if perhaps it might not be rodents after all. What if it was insects, for example? I sent out inquiries to various flax-growing contacts, and to the UMass Extension folks. Many thanks to flax and linen study group friends Faith Deering and Carolyn Wetzel (with expertise in entomology and botany, respectively), to Tawny Simiski (entomologist at UMass Extension), Alvin Ulrich at Biolin, and Ken at the Crop Development Center in Saskatoon for their suggestions. My favorite suggestion was that “flax beavers” were using flax fiber to build dams, but I also liked the idea of a night-vision camera to catch the culprits in action.

One suggestion that I latched onto was cutworms, which I have experienced in the past so I knew what to look for. Another was Bertha armyworms, which I had never even heard of, and seemed unlikely around here (Saskatchewan has a very different climate than Amherst, MA). They are also a type of cutworm, but they can climb! My culprits were not just chewing at the bottom of the stems, so perhaps they were climbers.

They were chewing just above ground level, and even just below ground level:

root cut below ground

On the other hand, flax has pretty shallow roots, and the transition from lower stalk to upper root is not that definitive.

How to find hard evidence of the culprit was not obvious (in the absence of motion-sensor cameras, which I do not possess and couldn’t really justify buying), but I figured I’d look for signs and simultaneously treat my plots as if I was dealing with soft-bodied larvae. Because it would, in fact, be larval stages of the worms that would chew plants. The adults are moths, and they would not be doing any flax-chewing.

Step one, dig down into the soil at the base of the plants that are affected. I dug down around the sad little stumps of the stalks, but found nothing. Wait, here’s a small hole! Does it mean anything? Who can tell?

small hole

Also, I found this:

possible pupae

What is it? No idea. Is it evidence? Maybe. Does it matter? Who knows. Finding this reminded me of the scene in Life of Brian when the Roman soldiers are searching the home of Matthias (twice), and one of them reports, “Found this spoon, sir.” “Well done, sergeant.” Not exactly a relevant detail. Found this pellet-like thingy. Well done, Michelle.

Step two, remove all the ground cover around the plants. Well, I had made a valiant effort to do this already, but I turned over the soil in the pathways between the beds with a fine-toothed pitchfork, and found exactly 5 cutworm larvae (which I squished). I confirmed their presence, but I do not think this constitutes an infestation. When you first uncover a cutworm, they are all curled up like so:cutworm curled upThey look harmless and defenseless. If you ignore them for a second, they unfurl and hustle away with haste:

cutworm on the move

They are definitely sneaky and deceptive, but I wasn’t convinced that cutworms were the problem. However, in case there are hoards of sneaky cutworm larvae (or armyworm larvae) that remain undetected in the garden, proceed to step three.

Step three, deter and if possible, kill the creatures. I spread out diatomaceous earth. This is composed of the sharp exoskeletons of long-dead, teensy diatoms, and we have it on hand for dealing with fleas at home. Because the diatoms’ exoskeletons were made of silica, which is sharp and glass-like, the dust has very sharp edges on a micro-scale. Soft-bodied insects and insects with exoskeletons themselves are negatively impacted, shall we say, by the razor-like edges of the particles.

diatomaceous earth

It works best when dry, so you have to re-apply after rains or watering. Rains? Ha! No such luck.

first dusting

I sprinkled it all around, liberally, and reapplied three times. No effect whatsoever. That lack of result combined with the lack of obvious larvae infestation led me to conclude that it wasn’t armyworms or cutworms.

So, thus far, none of my attempts to deter or kill the culprits were successful. I persevered in my efforts to defend my flax plants, undeterred by repeated failure (but pretty sad about it nevertheless).

Bloody ‘ell!

“What’s a bloody L, Mummy?” This is a direct quote of myself as a young child–or perhaps one of my sisters, because sometimes those memories are blurry. The backstory here is that I grew up in London in the 1970s. A family friend used the phrase “bloody hell” to express exasperation and dismay, which translated through his accent and my young ears to “bloody ‘ell”. Was it the letter L that had somehow become bloody, and if so how? Was it bad? Why? And why would you bring it up in conversation if it was so bad? Parsing grown-up-speak isn’t easy.

Now I will get to the point: blood is what my blog post is about. And also my feelings about it, as expressed by this old-fashioned swear. Exasperation, dismay, despair. An existential questioning… What am I doing? I can’t believe I’m doing this. Is it doing any good?

I have been a vegetarian since about 1983, and the question, “What is the minimum amount of animal suffering or death necessary to sustain agriculture for humans?” has been on my mind for a long time. Over the years, more and more dead animals have crept into my gardening scheme. First it was horse manure generously offered by the Campbells in Belchertown. No death involved, just poop. Next it was dead sea creatures (Coast of Maine) then dehydrated composted cow manure (Moo Plus from Vermont). Dairy farms=dead male calves so, death? Yes. Sorry, babies. Moving right along… Most recently, I have been using an organic fertilizer from North Country Organics that contains blood, bone, and other animal body parts. That’s definitely death. I am sure they were not killed for their blood or bones, but they are dead nonetheless.

I never did write a blog post about my first crop of carnivorous woad, but it sat with me pretty heavily and I thought about it for a long time. Woad is a heavy feeder and our soil is very sandy and low in organic matter, despite leaving swaths of it fallow every summer and periodically seeding with clover. Hence, dead animals…. Over time I have somewhat reconciled myself to the fact that I prioritize plants over animals in some cases. It’s in the same boggy territory as the fact that I’m not a vegan. You face up to what it means, and you live with it.

What does it mean for my flax? Well. First, I fed it with dead animal body parts. Now, I want to stop whatever is chewing it!

So, on Tuesday June 21st, I decided to buy some kind of small rodent repellent. Our local Amherst Farmers’ Supply carried this:


This formulation of Plantskydd is dried blood from pigs and/or cows. It is little brown granules known as blood meal. Dried blood is also one of the ingredients in the fertilizer mix I’ve been using, so I figured it wasn’t much worse than what I’ve already been doing. I bought two containers, and sprinkled them in and around the beds. This is what the blood is all about. I hoped it would discourage the chewing if it’s being done by small rodents, but I wasn’t entirely optimistic. Bloody ‘ell! Here goes nothin’. Sorry, dead piggies. Here’s what it looks like on the floor of the beds, with lovely white flax flower petals on top (four of the six types I am growing this year have white flowers, by the way, which will be the subject of another post).

all going on

Then, I decided I’d better remove as much of the surrounding cover as possible considering the limits of my site (conservation land). Last year, the little test plots at the community garden were totally destroyed, but I managed to get on top of the chewing at the Brennan’s farm after they finished haying and after I weeded down to the soil…. Sorry critters, but I want the owls and hawks and whoever else is out there to eat you!!!

I said in my last post that I can’t clear-cut, but I did chop away pretty heavily. Here are some before and after pictures. Here I had chopped away with clippers but not yet raked.grapes et al.

Here is the giant mint that encroaches more every season:

giant mint

Here is how it looked after chopping and raking:

crew cut

Here’s a slightly wider view (that’s woad on the right, flax on the left):


OK, not too bad. I gained about ten feet, maybe more, of relatively open ground on this side of the plot. I figured I could go back and clear out some more, even, once my blister heals over. On Tuesday morning, I was cautiously optimistic.

Pennyroyal Oil Is Not a Deterrent

The title about sums it up. I wondered if a strong-smelling essential oil would keep away my flax-chewer. My mother uses peppermint oil to discourage mice from chewing the insulation in the stove at our family’s cabin when we close it up for the winter. I didn’t have any peppermint on-hand Sunday morning, but I did have pennyroyal oil.

I saturated some strips of row cover:

pennyroyal oil on strips

Then I tied them to bamboo stakes:

strip tied to stake

Then I stuck them inside the beds so the cloth hung near ground level:

stake in position

On Monday morning, there was more damage, including three tall stalks felled immediately on top of stake-and-strip set up in the 5NN bed. Frustrating.

I realize there were many flaws with this plan. First, the volatile oils from an essential oil dissipate quickly, so by Monday morning I couldn’t detect any odor on the cloth anymore. Second, I only put in two of these stakes per 10 foot bed, so I hadn’t exactly created a “wall of smell”. Three, I still don’t know what’s doing this so I can’t really customize my defensive strategy.

Meanwhile, I have lost a lot of plants, mostly from the types 1602 and Lisa which are closest to a strip of grapevine, wild mint, roses, and Joe Pie Weed between the garden plot and the walking path. Cutting down some of these plants will provide less shelter, I’m assuming, but considering that the garden plot is in the middle of a conservation area, I can’t completely clear-cut the surrounding vegetation.