Anti-Rodent Action

After I discovered the rodent catastrophe at our community garden plot, I fearfully headed over to the other site at Amethyst Farm to assess the situation there. Some damage had already occurred, but it was really minor in comparison.

Here are some chewed up stems from the type nick-named 448, and another variety that I apparently forgot to make note of below that.

448 chewed stalks July 24July 24 Amethyst Farm chewed stalksI planted at Amethyst Farm 13 days later than the community garden, so maybe there was less damage because the plants were less mature. Or, maybe it was because it’s more exposed to predators. I see and hear red-tailed hawks there regularly, and have seen owls as well. Whatever the reason, I was relieved. It gave me a chance to devise a plan to protect this crop of seeds.

Since the isolation tents provided cover to the rampaging rodents, I first removed a few of the isolation tents from the varieties that seemed to be done blooming. However, I realized over the next couple days that the plants were actually still flowering prolifically. I’d been there in the late afternoon on the 24th and hadn’t seen any flowers, but I hadn’t taken into account the fact that flax flowers drop off after about noon or so. So, back on went the tents.

The Brennans had harvested their garlic right around that time, so some of that mulch, i.e., protected habitat, was gone. Here are the bare garlic beds next to the asparagus.

July 24 garlic harvestI figured step two was to weed thoroughly alongside the flax beds and remove the rest of the ground cover. This took a few days because I had not been keeping up the with weeding in July, so it was a big job.


July 24 weedsAfter:

July 29 no weedsPractically bare ground!

July 29 weededHere’s one of the piles of weeds. There was another one the same size on the other end of the plot. For comparison, the isolation tents are about three and a half feet tall and three feet long.

weedpileI felt bad about disturbing this poor toad, who was slowly ousted over the course of a few days. But I figured, if the ground was too exposed for a toad then maybe it would be too exposed for whatever small creatures I was trying to outwit.displaced toadMeanwhile, I’d been over to check on the various plantings at school and at Bramble Hill Farm. All the while I was thinking unkind thoughts about rodents, and the following story unfolded. First, I saw a snake in the compost bin at school:

snake in compost binIt had been happy and warm, and didn’t seem pleased that I had lifted up the cover and poked my nose in. Mere minutes later, I came across a snake skin in the tansy alongside the wall of my classroom:snake skin at school I thought, “Gosh, snakes everywhere! I wish there had been snakes to eat all those rodents at the garden. Where are snakes when you need them?” With unkind thoughts about rodents in mind, I headed over to Bramble Hill Farm and what did I find? A sad drowned mouse in one of the watering cans by the dye and fiber plant garden. I didn’t take a photo because that seemed disrespectful. Poor little thing. I couldn’t help but feel bad for causing the death of that mouse by leaving water in the can, even though moments earlier I had been thinking violent thoughts about rodents. Welcome to my brain.

Farmer Hans over at Bramble Hill had rigged up a perimeter of coyote pee to keep the woodchucks and rabbits away from the Common School’s pumpkin patch.

Here’s the set-up:

July 26 coyote urineAnd here’s what it takes to maintain a perimeter:

July 26 perimeterI thought about coyote pee, and how one might possibly entice a coyote to pee into a jar, and suspected it was most likely not a cruelty free exercise. So, no coyote pee for me. I already had an accidentally dead mouse on my conscience.

Sammy cat to the rescue! Our new cat Sammy (well, we’ve had her for a year and a half now) has an odd habit. Once in a while she pees in the bathtub. We think it’s very considerate, when one thinks of all the places a cat might choose to pee. So, thus far it had just been a quirky habit of little consequence. The thought occurred that cat pee might perhaps be as off-putting to rodents as coyote pee. So, I soaked up some of Sammy’s pee at the next opportunity, using little scraps of cloth, and safety-pinned them around the flax. Over the following week or so, I was able to add a second, and then a third, cat pee-saturated scrap of cloth.

cat pee rag 2cat pee ragAs of today, August 19, I can report so far so good. I have noticed very little additional rodent chewing and the seeds are maturing nicely. Phew!

Rodent Apocalypse

I’ve been putting off writing this post for a while because the events I’m about to relate are extremely regrettable and sad. Well, to me anyway. I cried a lot. However, it was also an opportunity to learn about the perils of seed saving first hand, so I am now ready to reluctantly admit that it was a learning experience.

Back in July I was very busy. I was in a National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute for K-12 teachers at UMass on the history of Native Americans in New England. We met from 9-4 each day, and at night I worked on the reading, homework, and culminating project. It was an excellent program and I was very grateful for the opportunity to learn from fantastic, creative scholars and activists. However, it also meant that I didn’t have time for other things, including flax. I’d been checking on the flax periodically, but didn’t devote as much attention to it as I would have liked. So, I was very excited when the institute was over and I could re-prioritize my flax experiment.

On the afternoon of Friday July 24th, I went over to our community garden plot to check on the flax. I was instantly suspicious that something was amiss when I saw that one of the isolation cages had come loose from the landscaping staples and was no longer secure at the bottom.

suspicious gapI had never left row cover on something for so many weeks, and I had only put the staples through a single layer of fabric. I didn’t realize that the staples would just pull out after a while, like so:

The rusty marks show where the metal was pushed through the cloth, but I hadn’t secured them firmly enough, so wind and rain, etc., had pulled the cloth up in some places and left the staples in the ground.

For a few moments I was just worried that my isolation system had been insufficient and the plants might have cross-pollinated, but gradually the magnitude of the disaster unfolded.

I took off the fabric from one of the little test patches and there were absolutely no plants there. Instead, it was like a miniature clear-cut forest. Little creatures had chewed up all the stems and eaten all the seeds. Here’s a glimpse of some of the chewed up stalks of Belorusskij:

Belorusskij chewed stalksThe harvesting procedure appeared to be sort of beaver-like: chew the stems, topple the plant, eat the seeds. The seeds were nowhere near ripe, so I’m not sure what was so very appealing about them, nor why the stalks were chewed up into such short pieces. The plants were still in bloom, as you can see from the sad little petals on the ground here of the types called Hermes.

Hermes stalks and petalsThe seed pods or bolls were totally chewed up and there was debris scattered all over the ground inside each isolation tent. Here’s the debris from the type called Pinnacle:

Pinnacle seed debrisI gradually realized that the isolation tents themselves had been the reason for the total devastation. They provided a nice, protected space for small creatures to sit undisturbed by potential predators, eating away to their hearts’ content.

Most of the tents were actually still intact, it turned out. Inside these, the seed and poop debris collected along the inside fold of the fabric at the bottom. Here’s the bottom edge of the inside of the Pinnacle tent:

Pinnacle debris on row coverAnd here is the mess inside the tent of type 590:

590 seed debrisThe few remaining stalks held either chewed up bolls or green, immature seed heads. I went home to sob, and then consulted Carolyn, the botanist in our New England Flax and Linen Study Group. Since there was no hope of saving seed from this batch, she suggested pulling up the remaining plants so we could assess them for fiber quality. I went back to the garden, pulled them up, labeled, and dried them. The yield of intact plants was pitiful.

These are the important lessons gleaned from this sad experience:

First, rodents love flax seed, even unripe flax seed.

Second, isolation tents provide cover for rodents.

Third, weeds and other plants growing around the isolation cages also provide cover for rodents.

Fourth, growing out flax seed while maintaining isolation requires an anti-rodent defense system.

Fifth, check your flax every day while the seeds are ripening.

Fortunately, I had divided my experiment between two different plots. I never get things right the first time, so even at the beginning of the experiment I had anticipated a high likelihood of some kind of failure. Dividing it up seemed prudent, and in fact it was. I was immediately able to put my new information to use at Amethyst Farm and was able to save the second half of the experiment from the same rodent fate.

Flax Pollination and Isolation Part Two

After deciding that I would use a physical barrier to keep the flax varieties isolated, the next step was to design and build the isolation tents. I wanted to use supplies that could be re-used for other purposes in the future, which ruled out building cages with hammer and nails. Instead I bought 108 4-foot wooden stakes from Amherst Farmers Supply (four stakes for every little bed). To me this is a lot of stakes, and I thought I might have to place a special order, but no! They have literally thousands in stock, so I was able to pick them up the very same day I went in.

For a while I was stuck on what material to use for the screening. Then, as I mentioned, I was very fortunate that Ryan at Many Hands Farm Corps was willing to let me use most of a row of Agribon at no charge, which was very generous indeed.

Here’s the roll in front of our apartment. In the foreground is a glimpse of the measuring tape. The little green thing is a spool of thread, and the scissors were for cutting.

roll of AgribonMy attempts to determine the necessary dimensions of the row-cover tents led me to some calculations about the surface area of hypothetical rectangular prisms. This was fun because I really haven’t had an occasion to use the formula for surface area in recent years. Most of my math is weaving math, so this project was a fun foray into geometry. However, since I wasn’t planning to actually construct a box, in the end I just had to ball-park the measurements. I determined that 13 feet in length was sufficient to sew a tube that could go around the stakes. The width of the roll was sufficient to gather up at the top and secure it at the base.

So, I cut 13 foot lengths, folded them in half, and sewed the two short ends with a running stitch to form a tube.

running stitchHere’s the stack of tents I made for the plots at the community garden (fifteen of them):

isolation tent tubesAs each variety began to flower, I covered them up. This meant checking every day for a week or two until they were all in bloom. The flowers only bloom in the morning, and by mid-day the petals drop off.

Here is variety 448 at Amethyst Farm on June 19th with the stakes in place:

448 June 19 blooming and staked outAnd here it is with the tent on it:

June 19 448 isolation tentTo construct the tents, I slid the tube of cloth down over the stakes, and then I cinched up the top and tied it tightly with twine. The bottom edges were secured with a combination of garden staples and rocks.

Here are some of the test plots with the tents on them at the community garden:

Sussex in isolation tent

flax tent ghostsThey remind me of ghosts. They seem animate and have character.

After a few weeks I noticed that the corners were wearing thin, and the stakes had poked through some of them:

hole in the isolation tentI cut squares of row cover, folded them in half, and sewed on little patches at the corners:


patched corner 1patched corner 2I did not have a problem with holes at the corners at the community garden, thankfully. The plots there are square, whereas the plots at Amethyst Farm are rectangular. I think the rectangular shape put more tension on the corners. Also, the site at Amethyst Farm is a lot more exposed, and so there was probably more abrasion from wind. When the wind blows the tents billow and flop, which adds to the animate effect.

The row cover is very sheer, so it lets plenty of light and rain through. Here’s a graceful stalk:

sheer row coverBelow you can see the color of the flowers. All the types I’m growing have either blue or white flowers. I gather these are the most common colors of fiber flax flowers, though I’ve read about other colors, too.

white flowers inside isolation cageblue flowers inside isolation cageIt’s a shame to cover the plants up because flax flowers are so beautiful and the plants in bloom are incredibly elegant. But, I’m pretty sure it has worked to keep the insects off. And the gauzy row cover has an aesthetic of its own. Maybe this one could be called “Behind a Veil”:

flower behind a veilI could call this one “Wrapped Flax-Scape” because it’s sort of Christo-like:

Christo flax

Flax Pollination and Isolation Part One

I am so far behind on writing about my flax project that it’s hard to know where to start. If you and I have spoken in person since last Friday, you already know about my rodent apocalypse. However, rather than skipping too far ahead in the story here on my blog, I will try to reconstruct events chronologically in the next few posts.

Back in April I did a lot of reading about flax pollination, because the two main goals of our study group’s flax germplasm project this year were:

1. To increase the quantity of seed we have of each of the varieties Carolyn requested from the USDA (they send 200 seeds).

2. To prevent the varieties from cross-pollinating so that we can grow them again next year and evaluate the different cultivars for a number of traits including height, branching, and fiber quality.

When I first began to think about how to keep the varieties isolated, I started with my own observations and assumptions. I have many photos of bees and other insects visiting my flax flowers (and many more pictures of blurs or nothingness which I swear *were* bees or other flying creatures). You can see an earlier blog post about that here. So, I imaged that I needed to separate varieties as far as a bee might fly. Well, honey bees can fly really far, like 5 to 7 miles, which would mean I would need to plant each type of flax in a different town! When I visualized myself driving to twenty-five to thirty far-flung places around Western MA to weed, water, photograph, etc., it became obvious that it wasn’t a feasible design for this project.

So, I did some research, and enlisted the help of Carolyn, the USDA folks, and other flax growers. It was extremely interesting and informative to read up on isolation but also frustrating. We encountered a very wide range of recommendations and practices.

Despite many years-worth of experience and observations in growing flax, I have practically no experience with saving flax seed and none at all with isolating different varieties from one another. However, I’m familiar with several strategies that seed savers use to keep vegetable varieties isolated. For example, you can separate plants by distance, use physical barriers, or separate by the timing of planting and flowering. I had hoped to find a “best practices” set of guidelines for fiber flax, but alas I did not encounter such a thing.

In our research, the distances cited to prevent cross-pollination included (from least to greatest): 10 cm, 5 feet, 3 meters, 7 meters, and 35 meters. These were just distance recommendations, without any physical barrier. A couple of the studies were concerned with out-crossing of GM oil-seed flax crops, not fiber flax, and were specifically trying to measure a phenomenon described as “gene flow”. To my knowledge, no one is trying to create GM fiber flax, thankfully. However, I figure the research is still relevant insofar as we’re trying to prevent two types of plants from crossing by keeping them separated in an effective way.

Botanists regard flax as self-pollinating, and flax flowers are considered “perfect” (which is a sweet way to put it) meaning the structure allows for self-pollination and does not rely on other factors. There does not seem to be a consensus on the role of other factors such as wind or insects except that it’s variable from year to year and site to site. Flax pollen is considered “heavy” and thus not especially wind-borne, and on the whole flax is not considered very appealing to insects. I did find mention of honey bees, bumble bees, and thrips, but no definitive ideas about how much their visits contribute to pollination. (NB Recent conversations with a local entomologist have only complicated matters, because apparently flax *is* preferred by some species for nectar, but it’s unclear how much that might impact pollen transfer. Also, my closer observations of insects on flax this summer suggest that actually bumble bees and teeny, delicate flying creatures are the main visitors, not honey bees after all).

It was helpful to know that much lesser distances than 5-7 miles could keep the varieties isolated. However, with such a wide range of guidelines, it was difficult to know how to proceed.

Long story short, I decided to use a physical barrier, and to build isolation cages. In theory, these would prevent both wind and insect pollination, allowing me to plant a lot of different varieties in close proximity. That’s what I did.

At the USDA station in Ames, Iowa, they construct isolation cages with mosquito or no-see-um netting, and these are inside greenhouses. I was hesitant to order either of these types of netting because I honestly wasn’t sure how much I would need or exactly how I would make the “cages”.

Fortunately I found an alternative that allowed me to tinker and experiment. A million thanks to Ryan at Many Hands Farm for his generous contribution of a roll of light-weight Agribon row cover, and to Bernard at Amethyst Farm for putting us in touch. The row-cover worked fine for keeping insects off. As Ryan pointed out, it also may have had the added benefit of slightly shading the flax to off-set the heat of July.

Next up, photos of cutting, sewing, setting up, and repairing the isolation “cages” ….

Woad, Weld, Rain and Humidity

It is now mid-July, a time of year which is inevitably humid here in Massachusetts and often rainy. It is also a peak time of year for harvesting many dye plants. The problem is, when it’s humid and/or rainy, where do you hang them up to dry? Not outdoors….

Here are the woad seeds I saved from the dye plant and fiber plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm. This was from just two or three plants, harvested on July 2, 2015. We had been having a dry spell and they had almost entirely dried on the plants before I cut them off. Yes, I do already have a lifetime supply of woad seeds, and yes, they stay viable for a pretty long time. But here’s my crop of woad seeds for 2015. They are very beautiful, in my opinion.

July 2 woad seed harvestHere’s a close up. I love the combination of yellow-green and purple-black. Plus they are so glossy!

July 2 woad seeds closeupA couple days later, on July 5, I decided it was time to harvest the weld. I had weld growing in two places this year. One large bed at Amethyst Brook, our community garden plot, and one small bed at Bramble Hill Farm. Here’s a view of the bed at the community garden. I’m letting the milkweed grow in case a monarch butterfly should happen to come along.

July 5 Amethyst Brook weldI know the weld is hard to see against the backdrop of giant mint and other plants in the background. The plants at the community garden had a very vertical growth habit, without a lot of branching. The flowering stalks with maturing seeds are the most prominent feature in this photo.

Here is that crop hung up to dry.

July 5 Amethyst Brook weld dryingAt this point I thought, “Well, while I’m at it, I may as well harvest the rest of the weld.” This actually did turn out to be a good idea, because at the time the plants were free of moisture. Since then we’ve been in a rainy weather pattern.

Here’s the dye plant and fiber plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm on July 5, 2015. The weld is the tall plant in the foreground.

Bramble Hill garden July 5Here’s a closer view of the weld bed.

weld Bramble Hill July 5The plants here were more branchy and inclined to flop over, so I propped them up with bamboo stakes. The tallest ones were well over my head.

Here’s the weld crop filling up the middle of the van!

weld in van 2015Once I got this home, I had a very large quantity of weld indeed. Now, I have probably mentioned this before, but weld has a very strong odor. Matthew describes it as a combination of pee after you’ve eaten asparagus combined with compost. Rainy weather was on the way, so the weld had to come into the apartment, but we didn’t want the whole place to be infused with eau d’weld.

Matthew very kindly rigged up an arrangement in the downstairs half bath using the dehumidifier. We could shut the door, contain the odor, and create a dry environment. Here’s the set-up on July 7th after it has already dried quite a bit.

July 7 weld in bathroomAnd here it is this morning (using the flash this time). Thanks to the humidity in the air, it’s not as crispy as I’d like, so I’m waiting a little longer to bag it up for storage.

weld in bathroom July 15I cut off the most mature seed-bearing stalks and am drying those separately in contained paper bags. I now have a zillion weld seeds.


Another Flax Update

Here’s another post about my excellent flax project. Last time I wrote, I posted some images of the little test beds at our community garden plot at Amethyst Brook Conservation Area. This time, I will talk about the beds at Amethyst Farm. The reason both sites have the word “Amethyst” in them is that they are both named after Amethyst Brook, a stream which runs along the valley bottom in our neighborhood. It is a tributary of the Fort River, which in turn is a tributary of the Connecticut River.

Way back on May 9th, I built the beds and planted the second group of flax varieties. Here’s the site. Bernard Brennan of Amethyst Farm was kind enough to plow it all, so I just had to pull up weeds and build the beds. Thanks, Bernard!

May 9 2015 beds at Amethyst FarmYou can see that the beds at this site are more rectangular. This is because the strip of land is long and narrow, so longer, narrower beds made sense. Each little bed is the same number of square feet (3 square feet) as at the beds at Amethyst Brook, since I wanted to have a relatively consistent planting density.  So, these are one foot by three feet. I planted twelve varieties here. Eleven are from the USDA germplasm system, and one is from seed saver Laura Harris in Washington state. There were 200 seeds in each package from the USDA.

Here are the beds after sowing and watering, tucked under row cover to keep the birds off. The beds at the far end of the photo are covered by a thicker type of row cover, which is why the color is more white and less translucent.

May 9 2015 rowcover at Amethyst FarmI didn’t buy a thicker type on purpose. When I bought it, I didn’t realize it was any different than the type we’ve bought in the past. The kind we usually buy is very sheer, and we can water right through it. The packaging on this new type specifically stated that you could water through it, but actually I could not. I put it down before I realized this, and then just had to work around it.

We had a very hot, dry spell after I planted, so I watered every day until the seeds germinated. When I watered, I pulled up the thicker row cover, and replaced it when I was done. Despite this inconvenience, there was an unexpected advantage to the thicker row cover: water couldn’t go through it in either direction, so it prevented the water from evaporating as quickly. The beds under the thinner row cover dried out more quickly and the beds under the heavier row cover stayed damp longer. I’m not sure how much of  difference this made to the flax seedlings, but it’s something to keep in mind for the future in terms of conserving water.

Skipping ahead a few weeks, here is the site on June 12, sorely in need of weeding. The plants with the silvery leaves are lambsquarters. Yes, I did pick some to eat. Yum.

June 12 2015 Amethyst Farm before weedingHere’s a view of one of the beds after I weeded them all. Nice and tidy.

June 12 2015 Amethyst Farm after weedingEach of the types from the germplasm system has a six digit acquisition number. Each one also has a shorter name or number to identify it. For the ones that didn’t come with a name (e.g., Lisa, Viking, Ariane, etc.), I’m just using a short number from the package to identify it. So, in my idiosyncratic system, this one is called 448 for short. The white piece of paper in the picture is a little notepad on which I jot down observations as I take photographs of the growth at different stages. 448 had good germination and was a nice height at this point.

At Amethyst Farm, most of the varieties have some kind of wilting on the tips of the plants. In contrast, very few plants at Amethyst Brook were affected. I’m not sure what that is all about. Hopefully I will get more information about it and then I can pass that along. It’s possible that it’s a disease. Flax is subject to a few diseases, and disease resistance is one of the qualities that varieties are selected for. Here’s one of the stems with the wilting affliction:

June 12 2015 withered tipSkipping ahead even further to the middle of June, the flax is starting to bloom. The earliest variety at Amethyst Brook began flowering on June 14th. Recall, those were planted several days earlier than the ones at Amethyst Farm. The earliest one to flower at Amethyst Farm was 448, which started to bloom on June 19th. It has white flowers.

448 June 19 blooming and staked outIn this growing season, I am trying to increase the amount of seed I have because 200 seeds is not a lot. It’s only enough for 3 square feet, after all. I want to grow out these same varieties in greater quantity next year, so I want to keep the different varieties from cross pollinating. Issues and questions pertaining to flax pollination are totally fascinating, and will be the subject of my next post.



Exciting Flax Project!

I have been meaning to write about my absolutely fabulous, spectacularly exciting flax project for weeks now, but life has been busy. The more excited I am about something, the less succinct I am capable of being. This will be a long story, so sit back, and welcome to the first post about it!

As you may know, I am in a flax and linen study group, which started meeting a little over three years ago. I love this group of folks–amazing, passionate people–and I love being part of it. Recently, we donned the official name “New England Flax and Linen Study Group” in preparation for an event we are planning for August 20-21, 2016. We are organizing a symposium entitled “Flax and Linen: Following the Thread from Past to Present” which will be co-sponsored with and hosted by Historic Deerfield. In the coming days, weeks, and months I will post much more information about it, but meanwhile put it on your calendar!

We conceived of the idea for the symposium in August of 2014. At the very same time, we conceived of the absolutely fabulous, spectacularly exciting fiber flax project that is the subject of this particular post.

Here’s a teensy bit of background. Fiber flax is specifically bred to produce fine, long fibers from the stem, which can be spun into linen yarns and woven into linen cloth. It grows tall with minimum branching, and doesn’t set a spectacular quantity of seed. The Latin name for the species is Linum usitatissimum. In contrast, the main job of oil seed flax, the type one might eat, is to produce as many oily seeds as possible. So, it is shorter, branches a lot, and produces a lot of seed pods. Oil seed flax is the same species as fiber flax, but does not necessarily produce good quality fiber for yarn or cloth.

There are not a lot of different varieties of fiber flax seed available to the small-scale grower in the U.S., and even fewer are domestically produced or untreated. This is a source of frustration for folks like me who would like to grow local, organic, high quality fiber flax.

The fiber flax cultivars that are currently available are lovely as far as they go (for example, the Marylin I’ve been growing is willowy and tall, has high germination rates, and is not susceptible to disease). But when one considers the mind-bogglingly fine linen threads that went into antique and ancient textiles and laces, one has to wonder what glories we have lost, and what treasures might lurk in the less popular commercial varieties and/or extant historical varieties.

Dozens, probably hundreds, of fiber flax varieties have been developed worldwide. For centuries–millennia, even–flax was the preeminent fiber of Europe and western Asia. Many varieties have been lost to the ravages of time. As far as I know, fiber flax does not enjoy anything like the “heritage” or “heirloom” status among seed savers that other plants of economic importance enjoy. Nevertheless, many varieties have been preserved in seed banks around the world. The USDA germplasm system preserves a large number of fiber flax varieties. Carolyn (fabulous lace-maker and botanist, among other things) in our flax and linen study group informed us of the existence of the germplasm system last summer, and offered to request a bunch for us to grow.

When deciding which ones to request, Carolyn prioritized qualities such as height and disease resistance. She ended up ordering 30 varieties. Back in April we received 30 little packages of seeds. A treasure trove. Each came with 200 seeds, and information describing various traits such as height, time to flowering and maturity, disease resistance, flower color, etc.

Long story short, I am growing 14 varieties from the USDA at our community garden plot at Amethyst Brook and 11 varieties across the street at Amethyst Farm, courtesy of the Brennans. I am also growing three varieties that I acquired through the Seed Savers Exchange. This makes a grand total of 15 at the community gardens, 12 at Amethyst Farm, and one type in the garden of my friends Liz and John in South Deerfield. There is a very interesting reason for this, which I will explain in the next post.

The plan is to grow out these little plots to increase seed this season. Ironically, I planted less densely than I normally would for fiber, to allow for branching and greater seed production. Next spring we will hopefully have a larger quantity of seed, and will select some promising candidates to grow to evaluate fiber quality.

Here are some photos of the little test plots at Amethyst Brook, which I built over April vacation. Each little plot is approximately 3 square feet (21 by 20 inches).

flax test plots at Amethyst Brook After building them I mulched between the little beds.

flax test plots with mulchHere I am part way through mulching.

me part way through mulchingAnd here’s what it looked like after it was all planted and watered on Sunday April 26th. The flagging tape describes the acquisition number from the germplasm system as well as a more common name or shorter identification number for each one.

flax test plots planted and wateredHere’s a close up of label.

example of flagging tape labelIn the next post I will explain my study design a little more, including what I learned over April vacation about preventing cross-pollination in flax and why I have a plot in South Deerfield. I will also post photos from my other test site at Amethyst Farm.

Exciting, right?!

That Time of Year

Wood thrushes are back! I heard one this morning in the wee hours before it was light. I thought maybe I was dreaming and just wishing it was true. But, I heard one again this evening on my way home from watering flax at Amethyst Brook, fully awake. To me, the song of the wood thrush is a sound of beauty, a perfect point between grounded earthiness and soaring transcendence. It is officially spring in my person calendar.

Japanese Indigo Take Two

After realizing my mistake with the first attempt at growing Japanese Indigo seedlings, I tried again. On April 25th, I laid out some seeds to sprout in damp paper towels. I’ve used this technique with beans before, but I didn’t think to try it with the Japanese indigo seeds until I heard from Laura Harris, a fellow Seed Savers Exchange member to whom I sent some of my seeds earlier in the spring, that she had done it. And ta da! Success!

Here are a couple photos of the seeds once they germinated.

May 1 Japanese indigo seeds sproutingMay 1 Japanese indigo seed germinationHere are several sprouted seeds placed gently into potting soil (store-bought, free of tomatillo seeds!). After I put them into the pots I covered them with a little more soil:

May 1 Japanese indigo transplantsAnd here they are popping up on May 3rd:

Japanese indigo seedlings May 3The newly planted seeds are in the 6-packs on the left, with the darker soil and no vermiculite.

Meanwhile, I started pulling up all the obvious tomatillo seedlings from the 6-packs on the right, and noticed that some of the newer, shorter seedlings looked a little different. The leaves were more round, and the stems a little more pink. In the cell on the lower right you can see one that I’m pretty sure is not a tomatillo. In contrast, in the cell right above it there are some taller tomatillos, and a very short tomatillo. The leaves are pointy. But in the middle of that cell you can see a couple seedlings with rounder leaves:

possible Japanese indigo seedlings May 1Could these be my original batch of Japanese indigo seeds finally beginning to sprout? Let’s hope so!

Flax Springs Eternal

Last week, April 20-24, was April vacation week for those of us who are K-12 teachers or students here in Western Massachusetts. I am in the former category. My flax aspirations for the week were astronomically high. I am happy to say that I came very close to meeting my aspirations, and it was utterly thrilling. I did research and learned a lot of new things (which I will write about later). I dug in the soil with a pitchfork, used a rake, a shovel, and a hoe. I planted and watered seeds. These are many of my favorite things, so it was pretty much a perfect week.

Flax is best planted as early as the soil can be worked in the spring, which is typically mid-April around here. Ideally I aim to plant flax during April vacation. Well, technically I might be able to plant earlier, but during April vacation I have time to dig beds, pull out grass roots, purchase and haul soil amendments, etc., so the timing is good.

On Saturday April 25th I actually managed to plant some flax! Consulting my records, calculating and measuring the square feet, digging, healing from blisters and stiff muscles, finding the bamboo stakes from last year, pressing up some little walls of soil to keep in the moisture … all those steps take a while. By the time I got around to actually getting the seeds into the ground on Saturday, the hour was growing late and the shadows were lengthening.

Here are my beds. Last year this area was used for woad, onions, and tomatoes. Crop rotation, such as it is.

flax beds for MarilynThis year, I planted this particular patch with the variety called Marilyn, acquired from Johannes and Christian Zinzendorf at the Hermitage in Pennsylvania (thanks to fellow flax and linen study group member, Lisa!). Marilyn is one of the few varieties of fiber flax that is available in any quantity to the small-scale grower in North America. It is imported from Holland. It is tall and lovely.

In the past I have had trouble with lodging when growing Marilyn. Lodging is when the plants flop over and get all bendy, and can never be induced to stand up straight again. To counter this problem this year, I planted fewer seeds per square foot than the Zinzendorfs recommend. Typically they suggest planting at a rate of 1 pound of seed per 100 square feet. My two plots are 12 feet by 4 feet, so 48 square feet each. I used 6 ounces of seed per plot (approximately 12.5 oz. per 100 square feet). Here are my pre-measured seeds:

6 ounces of seeds per containerThe reason to cram in the seeds so densely is to force them to grow tall and slender, and to prevent branching. A lower planting density means thicker stalks and coarser fiber, but the stalks ought to be a bit stronger and less prone to flop over. When the stalks fall over they are not that useful. So it is a trade-off between fineness and floppiness. Also, I chose not to add any compost this year. Too much nitrogen contributes to lodging. Too little nutrition and the plants may be stunted. We’ll see how it goes.

pressed and stompedAfter scattering the seed, I tried a teensy experiment. In the left hand bed, shown above, I pressed the seed down (after covering it with soil) by stepping on boards, then packed the soil down more firmly by stepping directly on it with my feet. In the right hand bed (shown below) I sowed, covered with soil, and then just stomped with my feet. The right hand bed is slightly more lumpy. I am curious to see if there is any effect at all on the flax.

stomping onlyAfter watering, I covered the beds with row cover to keep off people and, hopefully, dogs. Our garden plot is at the community gardens at Amethyst Brook conservation area, so there are lots of passers-by going on walks and enjoying the scenery. Also, we are still having frosts round here. Flax is frost hardy, but I like to give it a little protection.

left hand bed coveredright hand bed coveredBeds were sown, watered, and tucked in under blankets. Satisfaction! Then, I glanced up from my labors and saw this magnificent sight:

glorious treesNow that it is truly spring, the trees are beginning to bloom around here. There are small red flowers on the maples, and the sky was dramatic to boot. I thought, “Wow, it must be really late but the sun hasn’t set yet. I wonder how close it is to the horizon?” I turned around to check, and this was the spectacular sight I beheld:

sunset while planting flaxWhat a fabulous way to leave the garden, under the protection of the setting sun. As I headed out to the road, the light still caught the tops of the trees while the trunks were in shadow:

setting sun on treesGoodnight flax seeds.