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!

Flax 2018-What Happened in June

In June the flax was happily growing. By June 2nd seedlings were emerging. I was excited and took a lot of pictures. To identify the beds, I wrote my nickname for each type on a stake at the corner of the bed. The name is on the left and the photo of that type of flax is on the right of each pair of images:

From west to east along the strip of land, I organized the plots from smallest to largest. Sometimes I can’t remember why I made certain decisions when I look back on them. But that’s what I did.

The day after I planted it was 90 degrees. Overall in June it wasn’t too hot, but we had some spells of warm (mid 80s) and dry weather, so I watered every few days to make sure the seeds germinated. If I had planted back in April, watering might not have been necessary. That said, many times in the days immediately after I plant flax we seem to have a heat wave, even in April or early May.

Flax is often promoted as a crop that needs very few inputs. I’m sure that’s true compared to cotton, specifically cotton grown under conventional agricultural systems. However, in my experience, flax isn’t a hassle-free crop. For one thing, it really needs moist or damp soil to thrive. Note I said, “moist or damp” not “sodden or saturated”. Second spoiler/foreshadowing!

I took some photos that show the difference between watering and not watering in the early stages of flax growth. Granted, late May is sub-optimal as a planting window, so this is slightly quirky data. But here’s my data nonetheless:

Above you can see the Rolin bed and the Viking bed on June 10th. By this time I had watered these beds three times (May 30, June 2, and June 10). It had also rained on June 4, and overnight June 5-6).

In contrast, I did not water the Electra bed on May 30. I watered it on June 2nd with 20 gallons of water. Here’s how it looked before watering on June 10th:

See the difference? Now, maybe the Electra seed was older and slower to get going compared to the others, but I suspect that water was a major factor. Here’s a view of the whole strip on June 10 after I watered, with the Electra in the foreground:

You can clearly see a flush of green in the beds to the west, and a non-flush-of-green in the foreground where the Electra was planted. I watered again on the morning of June 14, while it was still cool and shady:

Drink up, Electra!

Flax 2018-What Happened in May

I usually aim to plant flax in mid-April. Sometimes it is snowy at that time, so I have to wait. Sometimes I just don’t get everything organized in time. This year was a case of the latter. Well, it did snow during my vacation week in April, but that wasn’t the main obstacle. It took me a long time to winnow all my seed and to figure out what I wanted to do this season. Long story short, I didn’t plant my flax until the Monday of Memorial Day Weekend, May 28th.

Here’s what the site looked like on May 28th:

I grew flax at Amethyst Farm again this year. I am more grateful than I can say to Bernard at Amethyst Farm for generously sharing his land and to Ryan at Many Hands Farm Corps for working me into his crop rotation and tilling the site this spring. I am also grateful for their encouragement and advice every time I have encountered difficulties.

This year I decided to grow out twelve types of fiber flax from the USDA that my flax and linen study group acquired in 2015. We originally got something like 30, but in 2015 half of the beds I planted were devoured by rodents with nothing to show for it. If you don’t recall the sad story, you can read about it in this post.

In 2016 I grew the six tallest types, but I didn’t get much seed from that crop either. I wrote a long series of posts about the devastation caused by chewing that year, too. Here you can read about the day I decided to pull up that whole experiment and give up.

In 2017 I only grew Electra and none of the USDA types.

So, this year I decided to grow the twelve types that had *not* been eaten by rodents, and to cover them with isolation tents once again.

Here are the beds all made and staked out on May 28th:

I also grew a bed of Electra again. I planted REALLY densely this time to compensate for the age of the seed and lower viability.

I had different quantities of each type of seed, so I decided to make each bed a different size, depending on how much seed I had. I planted all the seed I had from each type. In retrospect, this wasn’t a sensible way to approach it. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” seems to be a lesson I need to learn repeatedly. Spoiler alert. Or, foreshadowing? I guess I was feeling optimistic and confident, which are good things to feel, but when it comes to flax I should know better by now.

Swamp Milkweed Update

Ever since I planted my swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in 2014, it has suffered from yellow aphids. I thought I had mentioned this problem in an earlier post. However, when I went back to look for it, I found that comment was buried in a lot of other information about praying mantises and pesky garden bugs. So, here’s a post dedicated to my swamp milkweed and how it’s doing this summer.

There are many dimensions to the life of any plant, so I divided this up into sub-categories.

Yellow Aphids

I did a better job this year checking the plants for aphids. For most of the summer I didn’t notice any, and the plants seemed happy. I had been worried they wouldn’t come back because some of the plants were very badly affected by yellow aphids last summer. They had sad withered stalks and gave up the ghost early in the season. Last week, I noticed aphids for the first time, and promptly washed them off with water. I am used to squishing bugs, and tiny ones like aphids don’t gross me out too much. So, I employed a “rinse and squish” method of physical removal.

Here are yellow aphids on the base of the stalks, close to the ground:

The resolution isn’t that great, but you get the idea. That long swath of yellow stuff is tiny sap-sucking bugs.

Here are two images of yellow aphids on younger plants, up near the top of the plant on the tender growing tips:

The resolution on these is good enough to see their little black legs and “cornicles”. That’s a word I just learned. I found awesome information and graphics about what an aphid cornicle does on The Bug Chicks page. This page from The Natural History of Orange County, California has some interesting information about the oleander or yellow aphid lifecycle. This page from the Entomology and Nematology Dept. at the University of Florida is also informative.

I will check back for repeated rinses and squishings as we head into late summer and fall around here.

Monarch Food Source

When I was looking up ways to deal with aphids last summer, I found several websites that listed swamp milkweed as one of the food sources of monarch butterflies and one of the host plants for caterpillars. I hadn’t seen monarch butterflies visit my plants, nor any caterpillars eating them. So, I continued to categorize swamp milkweed as “awesome fiber-bearing plant”, and prioritized that potential over its “useful-to-monarchs” potential. I tend to be a “gotta see it to believe it” person; if something I read contradicts my own experience, I let it stew until I get more evidence. Please refer to this post to understand the picture I have in my mind when I think about swamp milkweed’s sparkling fiberous beauty.

This summer I have observed and documented: 1) monarch butterflies feeding on swamp milkweed flowers; 2) what looks like a monarch butterfly depositing eggs on a swamp milkweed leaf; *and* 3) monarch caterpillars eating the leaves!

Butterflies are a beautiful sight, so I took waaay too many photos (and videos, which I will spare you):

In this image, I believe the butterfly is depositing eggs on a swamp milkweed leaf. 

And here, on those younger plants I mentioned, are two monarch caterpillars:

They seem pretty plump, so I hope they are finding the food to their liking. Gotta see it to believe it!

Transplanting Swamp Milkweed Babies

Not only were the swamp milkweed plants happy this summer, they made babies! Babies are always exciting, but they also raise questions and concerns about the best ways to care for them and ensure that they survive and thrive. A couple small swamp milkweed plants popped up close to the parent plants, amidst the ambitiously spreading Amsonia tabernaemontana.

Another emerged on the opposite side of the garden amidst the ambitiously spreading madder. And yet another managed to be growing at the very edge of the lawn around the garden plot. What to do?

The amsonia next to the swamp milkweed has increased and multiplied very successfully. While I am happy for its success, it is cramping the style of the comparatively shorter Asclepias incarnata. The amsonia is the sprawling plant with tons of long seed pods (it blooms first thing in the spring):

So, I wanted to get those swamp milkweed babies out of there and into a more spacious environment.

I wasn’t sure if mid-summer transplant operation was wise. The Nasami folks advised against it. I also consulted this article on the Monarch Butterfly Garden website, which has some useful information about transplanting swamp milkweed.

Both sources recommended transplanting asclepias species when the upper parts are dormant, either in the fall or spring. In addition to my aforementioned “gotta see it to believe it” attitude, I figured would add “you never know until you try” and take my chances. I tried to move the babies, and it worked!

I dug up and moved a few of the young plants to a new spot with plenty of compost and water. The one with the twisted stalk had been managing to survive among the grasping madder. I figure it’s at least a year old, so it must be a very determined plant!

I think it worked to transplant these in July because they were still pretty small and the roots were not extensive. I had been prepared for the shock to cause them to go dormant, or at least to skip flowering this season. But no!

Not only did they thrive, these are the plants where the monarch caterpillars are currently living.

 

 

Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft 2018

On Memorial Day Weekend I did a dyeing demonstration at Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Fair in Cummington, MA. I’ve done demos there before, but this year was special. I was dyeing hand-spun yarns from a variety of sheep breeds, spun by Lisa Bertoldi of Weft Handwoven Linens, and supported by a grant from the Northeast Handspinners Association.

Here was the table with examples of my own naturally dyed handspun yarns, some of my favorite books, fliers for the Northeast Handspinners Association, and a 6-pack of marigolds:

Next to that I set up the portable electric burners and dye pots:

The jar on the left contains powdered madder roots that I weighed out and soaked in water the day before. The other dye plants I used that day were weld, marigolds, and black walnut hulls.

On a bench beside the pots I set out the tools, dried dye plants, tubs, measuring spoons, and other supplies, mordants and other additives that I would need:

I scoured and mordanted all the skeins ahead of time using aluminum sulfate. I transported them damp, and kept them in a tub of water to pull out and use as the day went along. In addition to Lisa’s skeins, which weighed about 13 ounces all together, I had prepped some mini-skeins from Green Mountain Spinnery in Vermont (from their end-of-the-run stash) and some natural colored wool yarn from Bartlett Yarns in Maine (a very light gray-brown).

Since my demo ran all day this year, I had plenty of time to make the dyebaths as well as dye the yarns. In each case, the dye plants heated in the dye pots for approximately an hour, then I let them cool off a little before straining out the plant material and putting in the yarn. Usually I like to let the fiber cool and soak overnight, but in this case I wanted to keep the process moving along fairly quickly.

Once the crowds arrived I took no pictures whatsoever! It was a busy day with lots of curious visitors, great questions and conversations, and a couple unexpected but pleasant surprises regarding color.

Some of the skeins that Lisa had spun were naturally colored browns and grays. I felt a little bad dyeing them, since they were already very lovely. But, that’s what I had to work with, so I just went for it.

Some of the visitors came back multiple times during the day to check on the progress of the dyebaths, and I was able to get suggestions from them about which skeins to try in which pots. One young visitor was especially engaged and came back several times. At the end of the day, I let that young person pick the ones they liked the best. Hence, I do not have photos of those skeins (a madder skein and a weld skein).

Here are the details for each dyebath:

Madder

The day before the demo, I weighed 3 ounces of powdered madder root from Dharma Trading and soaked it in plain tap water overnight in a tall glass jar. The day of the demo, I poured the whole jar into a pot with some additional water, heated it to 150 degrees F, and maintained that temperature for an hour.

Because the powder was very fine, it was hard to strain. The remaining dyebath was still a little sludgy. I added 1/2 a teaspoon of calcium carbonate and a glug of soda ash solution.The pH was 11, which is much higher than I was going for. So, I added more water and brought the pH down to 9. It also cooled off the bath a little.

In the first, strongest madder dyebath, I dyed a charcoal gray skein, at the suggestion of the young visitor I mentioned. The color turned out to be a very interesting shade of purple! I wish I had a photo of that one, and it’s an experiment worth repeating. The charcoal gray skein weighed about 2 ounces. That first bath heated for an hour, around 150 degrees.

Next, I put in two of the tiny Green Mountain Spinnery wind-offs (approx. 1 oz. each). The first exhaust bath heated for an hour. Alas, it got busy and I wasn’t watching the pots carefully. The first exhaust bath overheated and got up to a boil, but the color stayed pink nevertheless.

After the hour was up, I pulled those two out, and put in two more tiny Green Mountain skeins, plus a 4 oz. Bartlett skein. I heated them for 30 minutes.

At this point I added another of Lisa’s handspun skeins to the pot, a 1 oz. gray-brown skein.  All the skeins stayed in the pot together for another 30 minutes, then I turned the heat off and pulled it off the burner to cool.

Back at home the next day, I finished exhausting the madder dyebath using another 4. oz skein of Bartlett’s. Before adding the wool, I added a little more soda ash solution and a half teaspoon calcium carbonate to get the pH back up to 9. I heated the pot to 140 degrees, and maintained that for an hour.

Here are the exhaust skeins after they were all rinsed and dry (the one on the far right is walnut-dyed):

Weld

For the weld bath I used 7 ounces of dried weld (whole tops, including stalks, leaves and flowers). Normally I would soak this ahead of time, too, but for the demo I weighed out the plant material while people were watching, and only extracted it once. After the pot got up to about 150 degrees, it heated for hour. I only cooled it a little before straining. Then we added calcium carbonate and soda ash solution to get pH9, and I put in two of Lisa’s handspun skeins (total weight about 2 1/2 ounces). They heated for an hour. It was a very strong bath and we got vivid yellows!

One of Lisa’s white handspun skein weighing about 2 ounces went into the first weld exhaust bath. It was also bright but not quite so neon-electric as the first two. That skein also went home with the young person who was very excited and engaged with the whole process.

Back at home a couple days later, I exhausted the weld bath. It was pH 7, so I added half a teaspoon of calcium carbonate and some dissolved soda ash to get the bath to pH 9. Then I dyed a 6 oz. skein of my own handspun, mordanted with aluminum sulfate.

The top rack shows the weld-dyed skeins on the left hand side. The marigold skeins are on the right:

Marigold

I used 4 oz. of dried marigold flowers, all types of colors mixed together. People often ask me whether different colors of marigold give different shades of yellow or gold. I don’t actually know because I’ve never bothered to separate them. My hunch is that they all give basically the same color, but it might be worth it to test this out sometime.

The procedure for making the dyebath was the same as the weld, but I didn’t add any pH modifiers or other amendments. The first skein to go in the bath was a 6 oz. skein of Lisa’s. The skein heated about an hour, and turned a rich old gold color. In the marigold exhaust I put in two of the Green Mountain wind-offs, total weight just over 2 oz. They also yielded an old gold shade, but a little bit brighter. You can see the marigold-dyed skeins on the top right hand side of the drying rack above.

Black Walnut Hulls

I used 3 oz. of dried black walnut hulls for this demo. I usually use them fresh, and I wasn’t quite sure how dark of a bath this would give. The answer is, not very. I also only extracted them once: I brought the hulls and water up to about 150 degrees (could have been hotter, but that takes longer), held that for an hour, then strained out the hulls. In this short amount if time they probably didn’t have enough time to really soak and release their dye.

Nevertheless, the result was interesting. I used one of Lisa’s light brown skeins, about 2 oz., with a lot of gray. I didn’t think to take a “before” picture, but what happened was that the walnut shifted the grayer, cooler tone of the original skein to a warmer more yellow tone. You can see the skein in the image above, on the far right of the bottom rack with the madder dyed yarns. The pinkish-brown skein from madder exhaust is next to it.

Because color looks so different depending on the lighting, I also though it would be interesting to show how the skeins looked on the drying rack in the shade:

The weld exhaust looks so pale in this lighting, when in actuality it’s much brighter.

Grow Flax Everywhere

In 2015, my flax and linen study group got 29 types of different fiber flax seed from the USDA. I’ve been doing my best to keep them isolated as I grow them, though I’m down to 12 types now that I’ve been able to keep going. Many earlier blog posts document my successes and failures with this project thus far.

My “beer bottle” method for removing flax seeds has some draw-backs. Hunching over like Gollum while I work is one of them. I have specific goals when I’m working with these seeds, which lead to specific practices that have (hopefully) specific outcomes. Namely, I am trying to keep the different varieties of flax isolated so that I can grow them out and increase the quantity of seed that I have from each type. When I’m taking the seeds off, I make an effort to keep the types separate.

My strategy with the beer bottle method is to crush the bolls onto a piece of cloth like a sheet or pillowcase. Whatever seed I can definitively confirm came from a specific stalk of a specific type, I deem worthy of saving. If a seed falls onto the ground, it is lost to me. I can’t guarantee which plant it came from, so I don’t keep it. Between each type of flax I sweep the path and do a careful visual inspection to be sure that the surface of the next sheet of cloth is clear.

My method also has some unintended outcomes, it turns out. I didn’t really realize how many seeds I was losing by this method until early June. The lawn out in front of the apartment was getting nice and lush, and I noticed a familiar feathery-looking plant amidst the blades of grass:

There’s plantain, dandelion, gill-over-the-ground, and oh yes, flax!

Here’s our cat Sammy checking out the scene.

Flax even started to grow through the crack in the sidewalk!

There was a lot of flax in the lawn. I got a really good germination rate! It’s not a good place for flax to grow, since it was repeatedly mowed, and eventually it couldn’t survive. I was pretty impressed that is was able to compete with the other plants for as long as it did. But from a seed conservation perspective, I obviously need a new approach.