Digging up Madder Roots

On Saturday March 30th and Sunday March 31st I dug up a good portion of my madder bed. I already posted about the other garden clean-up I did that Saturday. This post is about digging up the madder roots, specifically, so I’m telling the story a slightly different way.

You are supposed to harvest madder roots when the above-ground parts of the plant are dormant. I always think that I will dig roots in the fall once the tops have died back. My notion is that after a season of growth, the roots will be fat and juicy and full of color. For some reason, that fall harvest time seldom happens.

More often, I dig up roots in the spring when I’m trying to curtail the spread of the madder into the pathways and adjacent beds in the dye plant garden. That’s really more like “weeding” than harvesting. I worry sometimes that after a cold winter of storing up nutrients to help the plants survive, there’s not a lot of oomph left in the roots to yield good dye. Nevertheless, given my work constraints and other factors, that has been my typical pattern.

Even with these annual curtailment efforts, the madder has gradually taken over more and more of the garden.

This spring, though, I have aspirations of planting a lot of Japanese indigo and woad, so I wanted to open up some space for additional beds. The weather smiled upon me on Saturday March 30th. The forecast had called for afternoon rain, but at 3 pm it was still gorgeous, 60 degrees, and not in the least rainy. The snow had all melted, the ground had thawed, so I seized the opportunity.

Here’s the “before” photo of the madder bed. Nothing to see here.

With the very first pitch-fork-full of soil, I struck roots. Well, OK, technically the tool I prefer is a hay fork, but it’s pointy and slightly curved and perfect for digging.

The thin pinkish-purplish squiggle in the photo above is a worm. The slightly thicker orange-red squiggles are madder roots. Below is a particularly impressive knot of roots demonstrating its power and sentience:

I was excited to find such a big knot because (brief detour from the narrative)….

This madder bed has been in place for about ten years. Most of the sources I’ve read agree that madder roots are ready to harvest after three years. I have harvested from this bed several times since its initial three-year growth period, but I’ve often been dismayed at the thickness of the roots. They are nowhere near as thick as the commercial roots I’ve bought from places like Aurora Silks or Tierra Wools. They are, in fact, thin.

I have given this matter (a madder matter) quite a bit of thought. First, I suspect that three years of growth here in Western MA is not the same as three years of growth in a warmer climate with shorter winters. In my garden, the plants are dormant for much of the year. They aren’t early to rise in the spring, and they are the first plants to die back in the late summer. Presuming that above-ground photosynthesis is necessary for below-ground root growth, my roots don’t have a lot of growing time. Comparing three-year-old madder roots from a longer-season climate with three-year-old roots around here might be like comparing human years and dog years.

Second, I do not have any way to determine or control the age of the roots I dig. Madder is a bedstraw. The plants send out new runners and put down new roots all the time. Old roots bust out with new shoots. Even in one area of the bed, old and new roots must get jumbled together. It’s likely that a lot of the roots I’m digging up aren’t actually three years old, even though the bed is much older than that.

Third, I have been woefully negligent about testing the soil or adding amendments to the madder bed. The roots would probably grow thicker with additional compost or manure.

OK, back to the narrative. I was thrilled to find thick roots. Finally! Here is a close up of that exciting knot:

Madder is exciting, in part, because the roots are like veins of lava. They look all earthy and rock-like, but inside there is fire!

On Saturday I dug up the west and south sides of the bed. In the foreground are the four trays that I filled that afternoon:

I brought home those four trays to weigh, rinse, and set up to dry. Here is an unwashed tray of roots. Sentient, right?

Here I am scrubbing the roots in a 5-gallon bucket of water to remove as much soil as possible:

Here are some of the wet roots in the bucket:

Here is the Saturday harvest all rinsed and set up to dry:

And here is the bucket of muddy water. I am not sure whether the pink tinge comes just from the soil or from the color that rinses off the roots:

On Sunday I went back again to do more digging, but this time I was racing the rain. The forecast called for rain starting at 11 am, and this time they were right.

In the morning on Sunday, I dug up the east and north sides of the bed. Here’s the “after” photo:

I didn’t take the time to photograph the rinsing process that morning, because at exactly 11am the rain began.

March in the Dye Plant Garden

On March 15th I did a little spring cleaning in my school’s dye plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm. Here is the “before” picture:

That morning I pulled up the dead marigolds (bed furthest to right) and orange cosmos (bed furthest to the left).

The woad was up, but something had been nibbling it. I suspect rabbits, but I can’t be sure.

I checked back on things on March 27th. I noticed that one of the woad beds was faring a little better than the other (longer leaves) but was still suffering from some chomping:

Here was the bedraggled stand of amsonia on March 27th:

I didn’t get back over there until March 30th. I cut down the amsonia, which I grow because it is a bast fiber plant. Some years I cut it down earlier in the fall or winter, but this fall I obviously didn’t get around to it. Yay, the Amsonia fit in the back of the car. Barely!

I also cut down the dead bronze fennel, which was not worth saving at that point. Once I cut away the dead stalks and cleared away the fallen leaves, I was excited to see that there was already new growth!

If you bought some of the bronze fennel plants at my plant sale last summer at Sheep and Shawl, check to see if they’re up!

One of the things I love about gardening and dyeing with plants is the way that it requires me to look closely and be attentive. Close up, you can clearly see the new growth. It is eye-poppingly bright and practically shouting its presence. You can also see the architectural ruins of the old stalks, some darker blotches on the fresh fronds, which I think must be frost damage, and so many other intriguing details. At every stage of its growth, the fronds of the bronze fennel are just so soft and feathery.

However, from the view point five feet off the ground, there’s nothing that would catch the eye or demand that you stoop to look more closely:

On that last remaining stalk in the bronze fennel bed, I found an egg case. I think it’s another praying mantis egg case (ootheca!) so I didn’t cut it. Here’s the close up:

Welcome, spring!

Flax 2018–Too Much Rain in July and August

“Better late than never” is my middle name, apparently. Here’s the belated installment about my flax in late July and August 2018.

In late July and early August of 2018 we had lots and lots of rain. I’m grateful to live in a place where it *does* rain, but too much rain and heat causes trouble. Fungal and bacterial diseases grow and spread, roots can’t take up nutrients, and plants rot. After a spectacular start in May, June, and early July, it didn’t turn out to be a great summer for flax here in Amherst.

It wasn’t just me. Local farmers struggled with rot and disease. Here’s a link to an article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette and here’s a piece in the Greenfield Recorder.

I am lucky that I do not depend on my flax for income. Nevertheless, it is frustrating and discouraging to put work into getting plants growing in a healthy, happy way, only to watch them struggle and fail. It also raises concerns about the prospect of flax being a viable crop on a larger scale around here.

According to my notes, it rained every day between July 22nd and August 4th, and rained heavily. We continued to have high humidity and periods of very heavy rain until August 13th.

Here’s the state of the field on August 11th:

All that water was very conducive to fungal growth. I took photos of more types of mushroom than these, but the rest all came out blurry. Here are some teensy things which I assume are fungi on Aug. 11th:

The once-lush plants had experienced significant rotting and die-off. This is the type nicknamed 1807 on August 11th, 2018:

Here are two other sad scenes on August 12th:

Most of the seed bolls had not filled in or ripened. Some of the immature bolls had just dropped off their stalks. Here’s what I wrote in my notes on Tuesday August 7th, 2018:

“It doesn’t look like I will get any seed from some of the USDA plots. This year it’s not mice/chipmunks/rodents. I think it might be too much rain. The ones on the end that were so lush, esp. 1787, have very spindly stalks that have lodged pretty badly. There are practically no seed bolls, and the ones I can see are tiny. Some of the other plots have a few more seeds. When we get past this hot spell and next round of rain I’ll inspect more carefully.”

Here’s what the lodging and subsequent die-off looked like:

And similarly:

The plants had not gained any height since the water-logging began, so for fiber this year everything was useless.

It turned out that I was able to collect some seed from some of the plots. Here are a few ripening bolls:

It was really very dismal, though, with all those shriveled and withered tips. I did manage to collect and dry some seed bolls, but the amount of mature seed inside was minimal:

I think I have less seed now than when I started. When I first began this project in 2015, I had a notion that I’d be able to select the fiber flax varieties that did well in the growing conditions here in Western Massachusetts. In 2016 we had a drought, and in 2018 we had this excessive rain. I’m honestly not sure where to go from here.

Upcoming Events!

I will be teaching four craft, weaving, and fiber arts camps for kids this summer at the Common School. Registration is open now for Summerfun 2019.  You can see the descriptions on the Common School website.

Sew Plush
Ages 8-11
June 24 – June 28

Weaving Whirlwind
Ages 9-13
July 1 – July 5 (no camp on July 4)

Fiber Arts
Ages 9-13
July 15 – July 19

The Art of Nature
Ages 8-11
July 22 – July 26

Here’s a photo of the yarns we dyed with my fiber arts camp last summer, using madder roots, weld, tansy, marigolds, and indigo. We did not grow the indigo, but everything else came from the Common School’s dye and fiber plant garden:

 

For teachers of young children, I will be doing a workshop on growing and using dye plants on June 8th, 2019 at Antioch University’s In Bloom conference here in Amherst, MA. I’m excited to be able to offer this workshop on location at the Common School, where we can walk over to the farm to see the dyeplant garden while the dyepots are steeping at school. More information is available on the Antioch University website.

Here are some images of yarns we dyed with my class at the Common School this winter, using dried marigolds, frozen orange cosmos flowers, and dried bronze fennel. We made them as part of our “Senses” study. Students helped to collect the flowers earlier in the fall, and sprouted some bronze fennel seedlings of their own to take home. This project engaged our sense of smell as well as our sense of sight.

 

If you are neither a child nor a teacher of children, never fear. There will be more Local Color Dyes events to come in 2019. I will keep you posted!

November 21st 2018 Woad Vat

Yesterday I ran a woad vat! This is worthy of an exclamation point because all day yesterday, I was sure that it was the latest date I had ever run a woad vat.

Normally by this time of year, all the dye plants have been killed by frost and the gardening season is over.

As I started writing this post, I decided to consult my records regarding late-season woad vats. It turns out I was wrong about the latest date of my woad vats in years past. Here’s the proof:

It turns out that I had run a woad vat on the exact same date in 2011. The two closest contenders for “Latest Woad Vat” were October 29th, 2013 and October 23rd, 2005.

Luckily, I write things down and do not have to depend on my bad memory. It was actually kind of amazing looking through all my dye notebooks to find the “Latest Woad Vat” date. I’ve been dyeing since 2000, and have filled up a lot of notebooks.

Here’s the story about yesterday’s vat. Back in mid-October, we had a warning for a hard frost. Light frost won’t hurt woad, but I wanted to protect it from a heavier frost until I had a chance to harvest and use it. I had planted it really late this year, and it wasn’t even ready to pick until mid-September. I hadn’t had time to use it by the middle of October, but a year without a woad vat is a sad thing, so I covered it up and hoped for the best.

Then we had rain and more rain and many more frosty nights, and my schedule didn’t get less busy. On Friday Nov. 16th, we got 8 inches of snow. I figured the fall was over, and I should just go take off the row covers and admit defeat.

Yesterday I had the day off school, and finally had time to visit the dye plant garden and take off the row covers. To my total surprise, all the snow on that side of the hill had melted. Even more surprising, the woad looked perfectly fine.

Not at all dead. Totally alive. A little bit flat, but very green.

Here was the view in the other direction:

I decided to harvest it and run the vat that afternoon. The weather when I started out was cloudy and about 35 degrees. Over the afternoon the temperature was going to drop, and the low last night was forecasted to be in the single digits, close to zero. Today’s high has not exceeded 18 degrees (I’m writing around 3:30 pm). No time like the relatively-less-frigid present.

Here’s a bed after I harvested all the leaves:

Here’s the bag in which I collected the leaves:

I harvested a little over 3 pounds of woad leaves. They were muddy and mixed with a lot of pine needles and dried tree hardwood leaves, so I rinsed them in warm water:

I tried to separate out as many pine needles and leaves as possible. Here was the muddy rinse water afterwards:

Normally I shred the woad leaves but I was racing to get as much done before dark as possible, so I left the leaves intact:

I poured boiling water to the top of the bucket and pressed on the lid. To keep the vat hot, I did this step in the kitchen. The leaves extracted for one hour.

Then, I took the operation outdoors, where it was getting really cold and windy.

Here was the scene outdoors in our parking lot:

We have had a lot of rain and other precipitation over the recent weeks and months, so the ground is totally saturated. I set out milk crates along the front walk to keep things out of the mud.

I strained out the leaves and squeezed out as much liquid as possible. There was a little blue staining on the lid where the leaves had been pressed at the top of the 5 gallon bucket, which I took to be a good sign:

I added ammonia until the pH was between 9 and 10, then I aerated the vat by pouring it back and forth between two 5-gallon buckets:

The foam on top lightened to a creamy color after a while, so I figured that was sufficient. I sprinkled on one and a half packages of RIT Color Remover (which contains the reducing agent sodium hydrosulfite) and stirred it in to help it dissolve:

I let the vat reduce for 45 minutes. By this time it was dark out and really, really cold. I couldn’t take pictures in the dark. I overdyed some yellow skeins (alpaca and wool dyed with weld and marigold), a woad-dyed cotton t-shirt of Matthew’s, and some woolen woad-blue skeins from 2016.

Did I say it was getting cold? When I set the skeins out on milk crates to oxidize, they froze. When I put Matthew’s t-shirt out on the milk crates, it froze:

Here are the skeins oxidizing in the bathtub this afternoon:

The greens were in the vat for 10 minutes each. I left the darkest blue skein in overnight. I haven’t washed or rinsed them yet.

Around 8 pm I moved the vat into the downstairs bathroom to keep it from freezing:

Farm Aid Exhaust Baths

I have finally exhausted all the dye baths from Farm Aid! Here are some photos of the process, plus some of the ratios and measurements for each plant material. I didn’t keep close track of the times and temperatures during the demo itself because it was so busy. Each bath with the plant material heated for at least an hour, and some of them heated for longer.

As I mentioned in the first post, I used madder root, weld, orange cosmos, and marigolds. All the yarns at the demo were 4 ounces of 4-ply wool. They were pre-mordanted with aluminum sulfate at 1 tablespoon per 4 oz. fiber, and cream of tartar at 1 teaspoon per 4 oz. fiber. As I got further along with the exhaust process, I switched to alpaca yarns, pre-mordanted at the same ratios. All the exhaust baths were heated to about 140-160 degrees, kept at that temperature for an hour, then cooled overnight.

Madder: I used 10 ounces of chopped, dried madder root to make the dye bath. Some was from Aurora Silk, some was from my mom’s place in New Hampshire, and some was from my school’s dye and fiber plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm in Amherst, MA. Before the demo, I soaked the roots for 24 hours in about a gallon of water, with a teaspoon of calcium carbonate and a teaspoon of soda ash. The day before the demo I did the first extraction of the roots, heating them up to about 160 degree, maintaining that for about an hour, and then letting them steep overnight. The temperature accidentally got up to 200 degrees for a short time. I extracted the roots a second time at the demo in another gallon of water, then combined the two dye baths.

Weld: I used 8 ounces of weld to make the dye bath. The weld was from the dye plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm. It was dried and chopped up. I didn’t soak it ahead of time, but I did extract the plant material twice during the demo. I didn’t put in any soda ash or chalk at first, so the color didn’t bloom until after I strained out the plant material and adjusted the chemistry. After that, I kept the pH around 8.

Orange Cosmos: I used about 16 oz. frozen orange cosmos from our community garden plot at Amethyst Brook and the Bramble Hill garden. I kept the flowers frozen until right before I put them into the pot of water. After I extracted the flowers, I added soda ash to keep the bath around pH8.

Marigolds: I used 6 ounces of dried marigolds picked at our CSA, Next Barn Over, in Hadley, MA. I don’t know the variety, but they were huge and eye-poppingly bright! I didn’t adjust the pH or use other additives.

Here are four exhaust dye baths on the stove on September 24th, two days after the event. All of these skeins are the 4-ply wool mill ends from Webs that I used at the demo.

The weld dye bath got stinky within a few days, so I wrapped that one up first. Here are the weld-dyed skeins rinsing in the bathtub:

I have seldom gotten such an orangey-yellow from weld. I used cream of tartar along with the aluminum sulfate when I mordanted these skeins, and I wonder if that made the difference. Otherwise, my treatment was the same as usual, i.e., I bumped up the pH and mineral content with calcium carbonate and soda ash. Here they are hanging on the rack to dry. The skeins are hanging from left to right in the order in which they were dyed:

Here they are all dried and twisted neatly. The total weight of all four skeins was 16 oz:

For the orange cosmos baths, I kept the pH up around pH 8-9 by adding soda ash solution, which contributed to the surprising redness. It was also a really strong bath!

Here are all the orange cosmos skeins dripping and drying outside. They are really vivid because they are still wet in this picture. Fiber is always lighter when it dries.

I always do a delayed rinse on my fiber, which means that after I pull a skein out of the dye bath, I wait until it’s dry to wash and rinse it. The two on the right, above, are wool. The one on the far right went into the strongest dye bath. The one second from the right was the first exhaust bath. The thinner skeins from the middle to left hand side are alpaca fiber. In this photo, I hung the skeins slightly out of order. The larger, more orangey skein second from the left was the third in the sequence, and the teensy ones in the middle were, in fact, in the fourth bath. The pale pinkish one on the far left was last.

Orange cosmos is not the most lightfast dye plant, but it’s bright and easy to grow and looks extremely cheerful in the garden. And I love orange. Here’s how the skeins looked once they were dry, in front of an autumnal maple. This time they are hanging from left to right, strongest bath to weakest. The woolen skeins together weigh 8 oz. The alpaca skeins together weigh 12 oz:

Here are the madder skeins this afternoon under the same maple tree:

The three skeins on the left, above, are 4-ply wool, hung in the order in which they were dyed, strongest bath to weakest. The thinner skeins on the right are alpaca. The three woolen skeins together weigh 12oz., and the alpaca all together weigh 16 oz.

Here are the marigold skeins rinsed and dried on October 20th:

Again, the skeins on the left are wool, and the skeins on the right are alpaca. The two woolen skeins together weight 8 oz. the alpaca skeins together weigh 12 oz.

Here are the madder, cosmos, and marigolds skeins hanging all together on October 20th. I liked the way the skeins echoed the color in the trees, so I didn’t include the weld skeins.

 

Flax 2018-More July Happenings

In July, the flax started blooming. Usually my flax is blooming in June, but I planted really late this year. I decided to cover the beds again this year to keep the varieties isolated. Depending on whose advice you follow, covering isn’t strictly necessary. It’s labor intensive, admittedly, but it gives me a sense of security that the seed I’m saving from the types I originally got from the USDA are as true as possible to the way that I received them.

The earliest type to start flowering was the one nicknamed 448, which started to flower on July 4th, 37 days after planting. It’s a white flowering type:

Here’s the whole patch:

As each variety started to bloom, I covered it with a tent made of Agribon and staked it down around the bottom to dissuade pollinating insects from getting in. I will spare you the detailed photos I took of each and every type as it started to bloom. Here’s the short version: the earliest variety flowered at 37 days after planting, and the latest at 58 days on July 25th.

Because I made each bed a different size this year, sewing the covers was tricky because each bed had a different circumference. Fortunately, it’s not like custom tailoring and my crude imprecision was not an issue. Here’s the cover in place on the 448:

Originally I just draped the covers over 4 foot hardwood stakes, but I knew that the areas where the Agribon abraded against the sharp corners of the wood were prone to tearing. So I hit on an ingenious solution, if I do say so myself. I padded the tops of the stakes. At first I used some rubbery material that is sold for padding kitchen cabinets (but which I use to keep my reeds from slipping inside the beater on my loom):

I didn’t have a lot of this stuff, and a little did not go a long way. It seemed foolish to spend money on this kind of a temporary hack, so next I turned to my basket of long un-used scrunchies (from the days when I had enough hair to wrap in a scrunchy) and my basket of un-paired and worn out socks:

I have no need of scrunchies these days, plus the elastic is shot. The padding worked amazingly well, and I had practically no tearing or abrasion over the season.

The second design challenge I encountered was the effects of high winds and heavy rain. We had a very thunderstormy month in July. I was disappointed but maybe not too surprised after the first big storms to find that the tents had collapsed:

I figured that the wind was causing the tents to billow like huge balloons and pull too hard on the stakes. So, I added extra stakes on the outside, and wrapped twine across the top to keep the Agribon from billowing out too far:

After a couple more storms, I added twine to the south side of the beds (the beds were more exposed on the north side). With these reinforcements, the tents lasted through the rest of the rainy, wet, stormy month:

I’ll write more about the rain in another post.

Farm Aid 2018

On Saturday September 22nd I did a natural dyeing demo at Farm Aid 2018 in Hartford, CT. Yes, Farm Aid, as in Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews. It turns out that Farm Aid isn’t just a concert, it’s a day-long festival celebrating family farms and local agriculture. The festival has a huge focus on education. My table was in an area called the Homegrown Village, featuring dozens of organizations with creative, informative, interactive exhibits and activities. I was in the Homegrown Skills Tent, along with cheesemakers, beekeepers, papermakers, seed savers, and herbalists: a very interesting crowd!

It was a big thrill to be part of it. And I mean “big” literally. Despite the boggling complexity of logistics involved in pulling off such a huge event, everyone was incredibly friendly and helpful. I owe many thanks to the electricians who hooked me up with power to run my electric stoves, and then rescued our extension cords at the end of the day, to the volunteers who helped us unload and pack up, and to the person who was coordinating our whole area, Jessica Kurn. Thanks to everyone’s hard work and positive attitudes, it was a really fun day.

To read more about Farm Aid’s mission and projects, you can check out their website. Even though I had been aware of Farm Aid since they first started in the mid 1980s, I didn’t really know that much about the details of their work. So, it was inspiring to be at the festival and learn more about what they do. Before the Homegrown Skills Tent was open to the public, I had the opportunity to attend part of the press conference. There was a wide range of folks on stage, including many of the Farm Aid musical artists. There were also lots of farmers, and the agricultural commissioner of Connecticut.

The first short video that they showed was about the struggles facing small dairy farmers. I’d seen Forgotten Farms when it screened at Amherst Cinema in 2016, so I knew a little about the financial challenges facing dairy farmers. The Farm Aid video was very moving, and highlighted some of the incredibly difficult personal experiences of dairy families, including depression and suicide of family members. I wish I could have seen more of the press conference, but even the brief glimpse that I caught helped me appreciate the significance of Farm Aid’s support for farming families across the country.

OK, so what exactly was I doing there? I’d been invited to do a dyeing demonstration! I decided to run four dye baths that day with orange cosmos, marigolds, weld, and madder. I figured many people would be familiar with marigolds and cosmos, but not too many would have heard of weld or madder.

Here’s one of my very first visitors looking at the snazzy sign that Matthew made for me:

Matthew even figured out how to make one of those square-shaped puzzle-looking things that lets you link straight to my website if you have the right kind of reader on your phone. I felt very 21st century!

I brought two baskets of yarn showing colors that can be obtained from plants you can gather along the side of the road or in the woods, including tansy, goldenrod, Queen Anne’s Lace, curly dock, purple loosestrife, nettles, black-eyed Susan, yellow wood sorrel, black walnut hulls, and umbilicate lichen. That’s the basket closest to me in the photo, with the yellows, grays and pinks, and the basket on the far side of the table with all the different shades of brown.

I brought a big basket of colors from plants you have to grow in a garden, including Japanese indigo, woad, weld, orange cosmos, marigolds, and madder. That’s the basket on the right above. I also showed a couple types of animal fibers (different breeds of wool and alpaca) and various plant fibers (linen, cotton, bamboo, and tencel) so people could see how different fibers take the dye differently. I also brought four of my favorite dye books: A Dyer’s Garden by Rita Buchanan, Harvesting Color by Rebecca Burgess, The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing by Jim Liles, and A Dyer’s Manual by Jill Goodwin.

Some of my samples show how you can shift the colors with a copper or iron afterbath. The skeins I’m holding here were dyed with purple loosestrife and iron:

Knitters and other fiber people always love to handle the skeins. Since the whole point of a demo is to get people excited about the possibilities of dyeing with plants, I encouraged people to feel the different textures of the fibers.

I went so far as to put alpaca into people’s hands so they could see and feel the difference compared to wool. I’ve got some small alpaca skeins in my hands in the photo below, ready to offer this visitor. The skeins I’m pointing to are linen:

Over the course of the afternoon I heated and extracted the plant material to make the dye baths. My demo was from 12-5:30, so there was enough time to extract the weld twice. I had set the madder roots to soak on Thursday, and extracted them once on Friday evening. I saved that dye bath and extracted the roots again on Saturday, then combined the two extractions to make the dye bath for the demo.

Here are the pots all in a row while I’m making the dye baths:

With so much going on, I had to label the pots or I was worried I’d do something dumb. I had already made a mistake with the madder when I was running around trying to pack up the van on Friday. I got distracted, and the bath almost got up to a boil, ~200 degrees. I usually try to keep my madder below 160 or so, and I was worried that I’d wrecked it. It turned out fine, thank goodness. I really love doing demos, but the only downside is that when I get talking with people, I forget to check the temperature or set the timer.

Here I’m straining out the madder roots:

At 3:00 I had a 30 minute speaking slot. I decided to put the skeins into the dye baths while the audience was watching, so they could see the color strike. For this demo, all the skeins were 4-ply wool pre-mordanted with alum at a rate of 1 tablespoon per 4 oz. of wool and cream of tartar at 1 teaspoon per 4 oz. Each skein was approximately 4 oz.

This is what my set-up looked like during my talk.

I tried to cover scouring, mordanting, and making a dye bath using a basic simmering-in-water method. I brought up some jars with the dye bath liquid in them to pass around so folks could get a closer look, small skeins to touch, and some dried weld and madder root for people to look at, since I figured those would be new to most people. I wanted to be sure to show and explain some of the chemicals I use, like aluminum sulfate, soda ash, and calcium carbonate, which I remembered to do, but I realized afterwards I forgot to show the pH strips, scale, and other important supplies. Ah well.

I had made the dye baths pretty concentrated, so the color strike happened almost instantly for the marigold skein and the cosmos skein. The madder was slower to take it up, which wasn’t a surprise. It was sort of purplish-gray at first. And the weld was light initially because I forgot to add soda ash to bring up the pH. I remedied that problem later. Here’s what the madder skein looked like from Matthew’s vantage point in the audience:

Questions from the audience included how to make blue with plants that grow in New England, and whether I had taken classes to learn what I know or had taught myself. The first was easy to answer and the second was trickier. I talked about Japanese indigo and woad as the two sources of blue for our region, if you want to grow your own plants.

In terms of my training, I have been fortunate over the years to have taken workshops with amazing teachers, beginning with Christine White (author of Uniquely Felt), and continuing with Michele Wipplinger, Kathy Hattori, Gasali Adeyemo, Jane Woodhouse, and Joan Morris. I have consulted with many other dyers and read many books and articles. But my favorite guiding principle is still this quote from Jill Goodman:  “Prove everything by your own efforts.” In the moment, I could only think to highlight Long Ridge Farm in Westmoreland, NH, where I’ve taken many classes, but I should also have mentioned Snow Farm in Williamsburg, MA.

As things wound down in the later afternoon, I decided not to put the dye baths with the skeins in them back onto the stoves to heat up. Instead, I let everything cool down so it would be easier to pack up and transport at the end of the day. So, the skeins steeped for a couple hours, then sat overnight in ziplock bags until I could heat them up for a full hour the next day.

I am still exhausting the dye baths, and will post again when all the skeins are done. Meanwhile, this image of the first weld and madder skeins drying on Saturday night will give you a sense of how things turned out. Vivid!

Flax 2018-Late June and Early July

This summer we had extremely pleasant weather in June. My flax was very happy.

It was a busy month. The school year was wrapping up, I had year-end reports to write, a sweet little fiber arts summer camp to teach, and we had some old friends visiting from Texas. I managed to water my flax during the dry spells, but that was about it. Unsurprisingly, this was the scene on June 30th. 

I knew that there were flax seedlings in there somewhere! Can you see them? They are the small feathery-looking plants in the center of the staked-out square below. This type is called Ariane:

June 30th also happened to be the beginning of a heat wave that lasted about 8 days. “Heat wave” around here means highs in the mid to upper 90s. I know that’s normal in a lot of places, but it’s hot for western MA. Or maybe it’s just hot for me!

Despite the heat, I undertook an epic weeding campaign that week. By working early in the morning, I managed to avoid the worst of the heat. It was also humid, with several thunderstorms and heavy rain. The wet soil made it easy to pull out the weeds (mostly just lamb’s quarters and grass this year, almost no campion). The down side was that a lot of soil clung to the roots, and I couldn’t avoid pulling up some of the flax plants as I weeded.

I worried that once the shade and support of the taller, leafier plants was removed, the comparatively small and fragile flax would suffer from shock, shrivel up, or flop over. Luckily that did not happen.

Here’s the Ariane after I weeded:

Ariane was the type that I had the least seed from, so it was in the smallest bed. I think I mentioned earlier that I arranged the beds from west to east, smallest to largest. So, this was the furthest to the west.

My calculations (well, OK, estimations) regarding the weight of seed I had and the size of beds I should make turned out not to be very accurate. The smallest beds grew in too sparsely and the largest beds came in too densely. You can see what that looked like in the early stages of growth in the images in this post.

Only a few types grew in the way I had expected, at the density I was imagining. The pair of images on the left below is the type nicknamed 1602 and the pair on the right is Rolin:

In contrast, the Cascade was tightly crammed:

It looks lush and beautiful at this point, but when the plants got bigger it became a problem.

Here’s the larger bed of Electra before I started to weed:

And here’s a close up proving that there really is flax underneath all that:

After a few days of weeding it was all looking much better. From left to right it’s the Ariane, 1602, Rolin, and Cascade beds on July 5th:

In early July there was some worrisome withering at the tips of a lot of the stalks. It seemed like possibly a tiny, brown, flying insect was sucking out the juice just below the tender tips, but I couldn’t get any good photos of the bugs.

Weeding the Electra took a while, but luckily it was on the easternmost side of the plot, which was in the shade until about 10:30am.

On July 5th I had to call it quits around 11 am even though I was so close to being done!

I finished up the next day, July 6th:

Of course, the weeds all grew back again later in July, but at least I gave the flax a fighting chance against the competition.

Bronze Fennel and Swallowtail Butterflies

About four or five years ago, I planted bronze fennel in the dye and fiber plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm. I planted a small six pack, thinking that it would be a one-season plant, in the same way that one might buy marigolds or basil. But no!

As a dye plant, bronze fennel makes a light but bright yellow-green with alum mordant on wool, which can be shifted further toward green with a copper afterbath. Maybe it doesn’t sound that exciting, but if you like chartreuse, you might understand the appeal.

As a garden plant, it is utterly fantastic. It is a perennial, it grows really tall, and it changes color and texture in a lovely way over the season. It smells amazing, tastes amazing, and every part is edible. The flowers, though not showy, attract a lot of pollinators.

Early in the season, the foliage is dark and bronze-green (hence the name). It’s dense and feathery, and can tolerate a lot of neglect. For example, if you don’t get around to weeding until the beginning of June, it is undaunted and continues to make a statement:

After you get around to weeding and filling in the annuals, it makes a gorgeous color contrast with other shades of green or purple:

Alas, the purple basil didn’t thrive (i.e., survive) this year, but the eucalyptus is doing well.

One of the most amazing things about bronze fennel is that it is a host plant for swallowtail butterflies. The downside is that the caterpillars eat the leaves. The upside is that there is so much plant material, you really don’t care. You just want the caterpillars to be happy and turn into butterflies.

Here are some photos from June 20 that show older caterpillars:

The first and the last image, I’m pretty sure, are the same caterpillar from different viewpoints. So, let’s say there were two caterpillars on the mature bronze fennel on June 20th. I had noticed them in past summers when they were about this size, but hadn’t thought much about what happened before or after this stage of growth. Honestly, I didn’t even look further into what type of caterpillar it was. They came and went, no harm done.

At some point this summer, I decided I ought to hold a dye plant sale. So, rather than just weeding out the bronze fennel seedlings that had sprouted up around the parent plants, I dug a few of them up and put them into pots. For many days, the potted-up babies sat in the shade next to the garden, but eventually I got all the necessary factors lined up to put the plants in the back of the car and bring them home. Well, we didn’t go straight home from Bramble Hill Farm, because once you are out and about doing errands with the car, you may as well multi-task. So, they were still in the back of the car when I pulled into the parking lot of Stop and Shop. I looked in the rear-view mirror, and could clearly see that one of the plants had been chomped.

Well, it was obviously caterpillars. But these were plants I was hoping to sell, and I didn’t want them to be eaten! Who is eating my fennel? Here’s what I saw when I looked more closely:

This wasn’t the only one. There were three of these little creatures.

Even without knowing exactly what they were, I was sure this wasn’t your average “pest”. I decided to move them back to the mature fennel plants at the garden so they could keep growing. It is surprisingly hard to get my phone aka camera to focus on small insects, so all my photos of the resettlement project came out blurry except this one:

OK, this one is blurry too. But the point is that I moved the teensy caterpillars onto different plants, and hoped they would continued to grow and develop.

There are a lot of websites that have information about swallowtail butterflies’ lifecycles. I found the images by Bob Moul on this site very clear. This website from the University of Florida also has clear images and information. This Mass Audubon site has information specific to Massachusetts.

It turns out that there are a lot of different types of swallowtail, and even different types of black swallowtail. I think that the teensy caterpillars I noticed in the Stop and Shop parking lot are the first instar of eastern black swallowtail caterpillars. That’s as specific as I could get at this point.

Up here in the Northeast, from what I can gather, there is only time for two generations of butterflies to grow and mature in a summer season. After that, the next generation has to overwinter and emerge from its chrysalis in the spring. I may be oversimplifying this, so I intend to do more reading and observations on the topic. Some folks protect the chrysalises over winter, but I am hoping they will be OK in situ.

9/2/18 Edited to add: This blog post on Our Habitat Garden has very clear photos of the entire lifecycle of Eastern Black Swallowtails. Upon re-reading it, I think the caterpillars I found were an early instar, but not the first. The authors also explain how and why you might need to overwinter a chrysalis in the northeast.

As of August 30th, I haven’t seen any chrysalises yet. If I do see a chrysalis at Bramble Hill, I will let you know!