Ten More Pounds of Electra

While I weeded the flax plot on May 6th, I was simultaneously glad for the opportunity to dig out the campion, and worried about weed pressure later in the summer, and worried that nothing had come up yet. So, I decided to spread another ten pounds of seed. There were a few reasons for this. First, I was worried that I hadn’t accounted enough for the possibility that I’d get a really low germination rate. Second, the more densely the flax is planted, the less the stalks ought to branch as they grow. Third, the more crowded the plants are, the finer the stalks will be and theoretically the finer the fiber will be. Fourth, a dense stand of flax might, hopefully, crowd out weeds.

I decided to just hand-broadcast the new seed. Then, I worked it in with my newly acquired Garden Weasel, procured from Hadley Garden Center. In the photo below I am about a quarter of the way down the plot. The darker soil to the right has been worked over:

As I worked the Garden Weasel through the soil, I became more intimately familiar with the crops that were grown on that site last year:

The side of the field where I planted the Electra had been planted with beets last year. The bed right next to it was planted with Brussels sprouts. The Brussels sprout stalks are really impressive. They remind me of a piece of cholla cactus wood:

Once I had worked over the whole plot, I walked around on it to pack it down more firmly. There were still quite a lot of seeds on the surface of the soil, but I hoped that the majority had been worked under. Recommended planting depth for flax is between a half inch to an inch. Any deeper than that and they might not be able to emerge at all. So, I decided to err on the side of too shallow.

That night, it rained heavily again, which was a relief. For the rest of the week, I worried about whether I had disturbed the seeds from the first sowing date, and perhaps made matters worse with all my fussing and re-working of the bed. The weather was dry but very cool. Finally this morning, May 13th, there are some seedlings emerging!

 

Weeding Out Campion

On May 6th, after the rain stopped, I stopped by the flax plot to see how things were going. There were no flax seedlings, but there was a lot of some other plant that I didn’t recognize.

They were big, robust, and had very deep and spreading roots. Since the flax hadn’t emerged yet, I decided to seize the opportunity to weed out as much of these deep-rooted plants as I could. So, I got a pitchfork and began digging.

Here are some of the uprooted plants:

I noticed some dried seed pods in the soil, and it reminded me of a familiar wildflower. At the time, though, I couldn’t remember the name. Here are the seed pods:

Fortunately, Ryan from Many Hands Farm Corps came along, and stopped for a brief chat. I asked him what the plant was, and he identified is as campion. He also said it is the most significant weed he deals with in those fields. I can see why! It is incredibly hard to dig out.

The Minnesota Wildflowers page has some great information and photographs. I think this type is white campion, but I’ll know more once it blooms. According to my favorite weed identification guide Weeds of the Northeast, the Latin name is either Silene alba or Silene latifolia (it lists other synonyms, too). Here’s a plant that’s getting ready to flower right at the edge of my plot:

Campion is a very pretty wildflower, and once it starts blooming (which will be in May), I’m sure I will be happy to see it. Which really just underscores the fact that a weed is only a plant that is growing where you don’t want it to.

By the end of the evening, I felt pretty satisfied with the results of my weeding:

Planting Electra

On Sunday April 30th I planted this year’s flax crop. Thanks to the generosity and support of Bernard Brennan at Amethyst Farm and Jeffrey Silberman in the Textile Development and Marketing Department at Fashion Institute of Technology, I am going big this year. Well, big for me. Up until now I have never grown much more than 225 square feet in a given season. This year I have planted approximately 1500 square feet!

Last summer at the Flax and Linen Symposium, Jeff donated a 25 kg box of flax seed to our study group. That’s about 55 lbs. if you’re more of an imperial measurement person, like myself. It is a type called Electra which was grow at Biolin in Saskatchewan, Canada. It is from 2012, so it is a little on the old side, but Jeff has been growing crops from the same shipment since then, and it has worked well for him.

Jeff recommended planting more densely than usual to account for the decreased germination rate that one might expect from older seed. At the rate that the Zinzendorfs recommend (a pound per 100 square feet), I would have put in 20 lbs. for a 2000 square foot plot. I decided at first to plant 20 lbs. in 1500 square feet, and hope that was dense enough.

Bernard was kind enough to disc harrow the plot in mid-April, in a plot next to some of Many Hands Farm Corps‘ CSA fields. He went over the plot again with a spring tooth harrow and culti-packer on April 29th, and we met on the morning of April 30th to plant.

Here I am measuring out the plot:

We marked the corners with stakes. I decided to try spreading the seed with a seed spreader rather than broadcasting by hand, as I usually do. I thought it might be quicker and might help me to spread more evenly. When I do it by hand, I tend to get clumps and bald spots. Bernard lent me a spreader for the occasion. You hang the bag around your shoulders, and can adjust the size of the opening through which the seeds fall out the bottom. On the left you can see the gauge for adjusting the opening. On my first pass I had it set too small, so I opened it a little wider for the rest of the process. You turn a crank on the side to spin a little blade that disperses the seed as it falls:

Becoming skillful with this tool would take some practice. Since this was my first time using it, I am not sure if I was able to sow any more evenly than usual. But, it was a good learning experience. I walked up and down, around and around, and back and forth until all the seed was spread. Twenty pounds of Electra filled 4 gallon sized zip-lock bags, in case you’re wondering. Each bag weighed 5 lbs. I started with a 5 lb. bag, then put in 10 lb. for the next pass, and the last 5 lb. bag for the third pass.

Then, Bernard went back over the whole thing a few times with the spring tooth harrow plus culti-packer  to work the seeds down into the soil and press the seed bed to make it a little flatter.

Here’s a closer view of the equipment:

Later that day it poured with rain, and we had cool, rainy weather all week, which meant I didn’t worry about water. I took this as a good omen!

Japanese Indigo Seedlings

Back on April 16th, I set up a germination experiment with about 300 Japanese indigo seeds from 2014. I put them between layers of wet paper towels inside a zip-lock bag and placed them on top of the hot water heater. It took a really long time for any of them them to sprout. Here’s what they looked like on April 24th:

Nothing had germinated, but there was a lot of gunky moldy stuff developing. I decided that more warmth was needed, and that they needed a fresh start. So I moved all the seeds to new wet paper towels, and rested them on top of a facecloth on the heater in the bathroom. We can close the door to the bathroom and keep the heat in. It would have been more efficient to have a seedling warming mat, but this method worked OK.

Here’s what they looked like on April 26th. Right in the center of this image is a little sprout:

 

By April 29th quite a few had sprouted. I was very excited, but the overall germination rate was terrible! Out of 310 seeds only 22 actually sprouted, which is about 7%. On the other hand, 22 is much better than nothing.

I potted them up on April 29th:

I put them in the wagon so I could pull them inside at night. For the first week of May we had a cool spell and it was very rainy. Not the best weather for tender starts. So, I scouted around for a way to create a make-shift greenhouse. Fortunately, that week our May Day celebration at school involved catering platters, so I was able to rescue a couple from the recycling bin and repurpose them:

It has worked pretty well so far. We put the platters out during the day and bring them in at night. Four pots didn’t fit, so they are just faring as well as they can in a milk-crate. As in previous years, our compost is full of tomatillo seedlings, but this year I was prepared for their emergence. On the left are some pots with a whole lot of seedlings, including tomatillos and a lone morning glory. On the right are the pots after weeding:

I am familiar enough with Japanese indigo seedlings now that I can tell them apart from the tomatillos. The Japanese indigo seedlings have pink stalks. Their leaves are rounder, more succulent-looking, and are a slightly darker shade of green. In this photo the leaves also have a pinkish tinge:

 

The Japanese indigo seedling is right in the center of the image above. My other identification trick was to place a single sprouted seed in the center of a pot, so I knew exactly where to look for emergence. So far, so good. If all goes well, I will have 22 Japanese indigo plants to transplant come June.