Bloody ‘ell!

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

all going on

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

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

Here is the giant mint that encroaches more every season:

giant mint

Here is how it looked after chopping and raking:

crew cut

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


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

Pennyroyal Oil Is Not a Deterrent

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

I saturated some strips of row cover:

pennyroyal oil on strips

Then I tied them to bamboo stakes:

strip tied to stake

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

stake in position

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

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

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

Something is Chewing my Flax

Something is chewing my flax. I am pretty worried. This happened last year and I really do not want to repeat the disaster. Here’s the evidence:

It fells a stalk. Some of the stalks are chewed on an angle, but some are chewed straight across:

sawed stalk

Then it chews the stalk into little pieces:

June 14 chewed stems close

June 14 chewed stems

It leaves a pile of chewed up stalks on the ground:

debris on ground





Planting Flax 2016

In this post I will show some photos of the beds I dug for planting flax this year, and some photos that reflect my desperation as I waited for signs that the seeds were actually germinating!

I decided to focus on 6 types this season. I selected the ones that had the tallest height at harvest last summer. This doesn’t account for branching habit, days to first flower, signs of disease, or any number of other relevant factors in selecting fiber flax seed. On the other hand, it’s straightforward and uses the data at my disposal, so I feel OK about it.

It took me a while to figure out the planting density I wanted and what size to make the beds.  I had a little over two ounces of seed for five types: 1602, 5NN, Peynau, Rolin, and Lisa, and about one ounce of the type Ariane. I decided to plant at a rate of 2 ounces per 20 square feet. For the Ariane, the bed is about 10 square feet. This is less dense than the Zinzendorfs recommend (one pound per 100 square feet, which would translate to 2 ounces per 12 square feet) but more dense than some other sources recommend, including an old article I have from Coggeshall Farm (one pound per 225 square feet or 2 ounces per 28 square feet). Now that the seed has actually started coming up, I think I made the beds too big, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

As you may have read in my earlier posts, I spent a few days of April vacation processing flax fiber from my flax-stash, and a few days processing seed to plant. I also spent a few days digging in the garden, which is one of my absolutely favorite things to do. We had a relatively mild winter and early spring here, so there were plenty of other plants up by the time I started digging. Here’s how it looked when I first got going:

digging over a bed

My favorite digging tool is actually a hay fork, and it’s suffered from overly heavy use (I broke a tine while digging up madder roots one fall), but I still love it:

my favorite hay fork

Here are some prepped beds:

prepped beds

The soil at our community garden plot is sandy and does not retain nutrients or organic matter. I used a soil test device that indicated nutrients were low but pH was fine. I didn’t spring for proper soil tests at a lab this year. I got all the beds made during April break, and added some composted cow manure and an organic nutrient blend. I ran out of time to plant, however, and had to wait until the following Saturday.

My usual method is to scatter the seed, rake it in, sprinkle more soil on top, stomp it down flat by stepping on a 2×4, and watering. I followed the same steps this year. Here are two beds all planted and watered:

planted and watered

And here are a couple shots of the beds after I marked them with flagging tape to discourage dogs from running through:


a planted and watered bed

Each bed is labeled with the type and planting date, which by the way was Saturday April 30th.

For the next seven days it was very cool and rainy. Cold, even. On the one hand, this is fine. Flax likes cool weather, and it was certainly less work for me, since I didn’t have to water at all. Last spring it was very hot the week after I planted and I had to water daily to keep the seed beds moist. On the other hand, the cold wet weather made me worry that the seeds would just rot. I anxiously checked on Wednesday May 4th and there was nothing. On May 7th there were some signs of life. These poor seeds obviously weren’t buried deeply enough:

germinating flax seed

another germinating flax seed


Because the seeds are visible, though, I can tell they are flax. Sometimes at the two-leaf stage it is hard to tell if a plant is what you hope it is. These two seedlings look promising:

two leaf seedling

Is it flax?

OK, so something was growing. Fingers crossed and hoping for the best.

Winnowing and Wine Bottles

OK, so I said earlier that I am bad at winnowing. This is still mostly true. I also said that on the next sunny weekend day I would use the wine bottle method to get the seeds off my flax in an efficient way. This is only a bit true, but it’s “truthy” in a way that can be explained with details and isn’t a lie.

This post is about how I spent a significant portion of April vacation removing the seeds from six varieties of flax from last summer, and got it cleaned up for planting. I know that ostensibly my blog is about dyeing, but I have been flax-obsessed lately. You might have noticed the flaxy-flaxy-flax-flax theme…. So, yeah. Flax. Again.

I already wrote about the very slow method I had been using to separate flax seeds from flax debris. Even the fabulous illuminated magnification didn’t really speed things up. It just meant that I could see what I was doing. As the days of vacation went by, I got anxious that I wasn’t making significant progress on cleaning up seed, and I was running out of time for planting. To speed things up, I decided to try a modified form of winnowing. I crushed seed bolls into the lid of a pot (wide, shallow, metal) and blew off the chaff.

Here are two photos of me performing this feat indoors:

blowing away chaff 1blowing away chaff 2

My method in the photos above was as follows: 1. Crush up the dried seed bolls that I had painstakingly snipped off the plants last July and August. 2. Direct the air from my mouth against the outer edge of the lid so that the chaff goes outwards. 3. Blow across the metal lid with sufficient force to send the dried, crushed shells of the seed bolls (and other chaff) flying away. 4. Rotate the lid with each exhalation. 5. Tap the seed together into a pile periodically as the seed gets cleaner. 6. Continue blowing around the edges to remove the lighter-weight material. 7. Decide when it looks clean enough to be done. 8. Tip the seed into a labeled plastic baggie.

What I learned from doing this was that a very small number of seeds were lost in the process. I could see them on the table after each lid-full was clean. I lost about 2-3 seeds per lid-full, sometime less and sometimes more. It seemed an acceptable loss considering that it was much faster and less tedious than my earlier method. I also noticed that sometimes the surface area or curved shape of a partially crushed boll would be enough to send it over the edge. They were large enough to notice, so I could double-check them and remove one or two more seeds that had remained snuggled up inside.

After a while I felt ready to take my show on the road, so to speak. In this case “the road” was outdoors. The weather over April vacation was absolutely spectacular. Low humidity, as I mentioned earlier. Sunny, most of the time. Longer daylight hours. Happiness.

Here are some photos of me blowing chaff off of flax seeds in the back yard:

Step One–Bag of seed bolls:

bag of seed bolls







Step Two–Crushed up bolls with seeds and chaff mixed together. N.B. I did not do the whole bag at once. This is a palmful of seed bolls:

flax seeds plus chaff







Step Three–Blowing at the edge of the lid to remove the chaff:

blowing at the edge of the lid







Step Four–Blowing some more, aiming my breath at the edge of the lid. The tan-colored shells of the bolls make a nice contrast with the grass, so you can see the chaff flying away:

aiming my breath at the edge of the lid







Step Five–Tap the lid to shake the seeds together and blow away the lighter-weight chaff (dried leaves, which look a bit darker against the lid):

blowing off the dried leaves







Step Six–Cleaned-up seed:

pretty clean flax seed







Step Seven–Put the seed in a labeled bag and weigh it (this is about 2 ounces):

labeled clean flax seed







OK, so what about the wine bottles? After I cleaned up four types of flax, I decided that four seemed like a skimpy number to grow out this year considering that we had started with 30 or so last year. I wanted to clean up seed from two more types as quickly as possible. I already knew that pulling the bolls off of the bundles of dried flax was too time consuming. A certain quantity of seed could be obtained from the dried bolls I snipped off last summer, as I mentioned. However, the majority of seeds were still attached to the bundles of straw, which were still wrapped up tightly in the crafts room. I had to get the seeds off of the straw. Normally, by the way, this step is known as “rippling” and it is accomplished with a rippling comb. I do not possess such a thing, so I figure out other ways to do what I need to do. I guess I should have mentioned that earlier. Anyway….

One evening, as it was getting dark, I was like, “Right, time for the wine bottle method!” This is my current equivalent of mass-production: a wine bottle. I looked around the house and in the recycling. No empty wine bottles. We are mostly a beer-drinking pair, Matthew and I. We have beer bottles around, but beer bottles are way too small.

I was excited to find a full bottle of wine which I believe my mother had left here on a recent visit. So, I used that. And it worked out great! It was 750 ml, which isn’t that long or wide, but because it was full the extra weight helped to crush the bolls. Since it was almost dark I did not take any photos. You will have to picture it in your mind’s eye: I laid out the bundle of straw on top of the pillow case or sheet that the bundle had been wrapped inside, and crushed the upper portions of the straw. The bolls released their seed and I collected it in the cloth. Then I could bring it inside to process after dark, or the next day…. Done!

Cleaning the seed collected by the “wine bottle” method was accomplished in the same way as I documented above. The difference was that more of the chaff was dried leaves and less was the shell of the seed bolls.

In sum, I cleaned up about 2 ounces of seed from 5 types of fiber flax, and an additional ounce from a sixth type. Thanks goodness for April vacation.


Low Humidity! April Vacation!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you want to process flax, you’d better do it while the humidity is low. I am not entirely positive why this is so, but I know from experience that it is true. If you try to break or scutch your flax while it’s humid, the stalks just bend and the shives cling to the fibers for dear life. You do not hear the gratifying crackling, snapping sounds that should accompany such activities. It is arduous and futile. Well, maybe not futile, but it’s certainly a lot easier and more successful when the humidity is low.

I suspect that this is related to one of the properties of linen that make it a desirable fabric. Flax fibers are hydrophilic, meaning that they absorb water easily. I am sure someone has done research on how being damp also makes flax want to stick to itself. If you know of good resources on this, shoot me an email.

For the past several days here in western Massachusetts, we have had very, very low humidity. Well, low for Massachusetts. It’s been anywhere from 30-50% in the morning, dropping to about 18% in the afternoon. The weather has also been bright, sunny and warm. And best of all, it is April vacation! So, I have had time to sit and process flax! Everything I’m working on this week is the variety Marilyn, though I’m chipping away at bundles from various years.

I have been doing the equivalent of scutching and hetchling using my “hardware store tools” method. Since I have written about that before, I will skip the photos this time. Instead, here are some silly vacation photos. Don’t you like my hair? Flaxen locks!

don't you love my hair?

hands-free hair

Or a flaxen moustache!

walrusy moustache

Magnification Technology Mach 2

Apparently one of the unforeseen functions of my blog is to document the decline in my vision over the decade of my forties. I have written about it here and here. Despite my attempts to be philosophical about it, I still find it annoying (at best) and unsettling (at worst) that I can’t see as well as I used to. Fortunately, magnification technologies come to my rescue at opportune moments. So honestly I cannot complain. Here’s a great example of such a rescue.

I’ve been stripping the seed bolls off of my flax from last summer, and sifting through debris for individual seeds. Flax seeds are shiny and glossy, and they stand out amidst the beautiful but comparatively lusterless dried leaves, flowers, and other bits of plant debris. Well, they stand out a *bit*. They do not stand out a *lot*. The chaff and other debris are highly textured and multicolored, and even glossy, shiny seeds can get lost in the mix. Especially with my not-so-awesome eyesight. The other day I was stripping the seeds off of the variety called Ariane. I’d removed all the seed bolls from the plants. Yay. However, I had a huge pile of debris to sift through with loose seeds mixed in. Sigh. Time to double down.

The time-honored way to separate seeds from chaff is winnowing. I am not good at winnowing. Seeds and debris seem to sail away with equal abandon. In fact, I wrote about the problem of winnowing weld seeds in my first post. I am sure I could improve with practice and guidance. Flax seeds would no doubt be more sensible than weld seeds to practice my winnowing skills on, since they are not as mind-bogglingly teensy. However, until I actually become good at it, I do not want to waste my hard-won seeds from the flax plants that actually managed to survive and thrive last summer.

N.B. As a step down from winnowing, I sometimes crush several bolls in my hand and then blow gently across my cupped palm to blow the debris away. This works pretty well, and I can modulate the strength of my breath much more precisely than a fan or the wind. However, it means a lot of exhaling and controlled breathing, which can get tiresome.

Meanwhile, I developed a system of moving a small quantity of the debris in front of me with a kitchen knife and scooping up the seeds with a spoon. I scraped a thin layer of debris across the row cover, not too thick to see through. I was wearing my reading glasses, so the magnification was hands-free. However, it was insufficient. It was slow going. Then came the brilliant thought! Well, it was more like a useful memory.

Actually, I can’t retrace the exact thought pattern that sparked the memory, but at some point I recalled that Matthew’s mom had bestowed upon us a lighted magnification lens such as one might use for embroidery or other fine crafts. I knew exactly where it was in the otherwise chaotic crafts room upstairs. I ran upstairs, grabbed it, took it out of the box, put in a lightbulb, and noodled around trying to get the lens set up in an effective position. Fantastic! Once I could spread the debris under the lens at the correct angle, I could see the seeds clear as day. The knife and spoon looked humongous! Triumph!

View from above:

double magnification

View from my perspective:

magnified seeds!

Or, If it’s April It’s Time for Snow

On Sunday morning after I took all the photos for my last post, I woke up to this snowy scene:

Sunday snow sceneIt was just a dusting, but it came along with some much colder temperatures. Maybe it isn’t really spring? Here’s another view of the back yard yesterday morning, including kitty paw prints:

paw prints in the snowAnd here’s a view of the woods a bit later in the day when the sun came out. It’s like spring in the foreground where the sun melted the snow, and winter in the woods where it was shady:

winter woodsThis morning, Monday, we had snow for real:

van under snow

So, I am a bit less anxious about the fact that I haven’t planted my flax yet!

If It’s April It Must Be Time to Plant Flax

It is, in fact, April. No foolin’. I am excited that it’s spring but, as usual, I’m ill prepared. Even though we had a mild winter here in terms of temperatures and snowfall, it was still winter. And I was still surprised by the sudden acceleration of the hours of daylight around the spring equinox. Winter winter winter winter winter, then, ta da, spring!

The other day I read on a blog post from one of the Vävstuga students that they had planted flax as part of the Väv Immersion class (tip: hit the back button to get back to my post from these links). What? I felt a sudden panic. I am not ready to plant.

I have been slowly chipping away at removing the seeds from the fiber flax varieties I grew last summer. We have had plenty of warm, dry weather over the past couple months. For example, on the last Sunday of February I gave my FIBERuary presentation at Sheep and Shawl. It was about 60 degrees that afternoon, and we set up the brake, scutching board, and hetchels outside for people to try their hand at. Fun! Warm! Dry!

On Friday afternoon it was a balmy and sunny 70 degrees. However, it seems that whenever I have free time to deal with my flax seeds, it’s raining, cold, or dark. Lo and behold, on Saturday it was raining, but I hunkered down indoors to work on flax. When I’m stuck in the apartment, I try to minimize the mess of dealing with flax straw. By “mess” I mean dried soil that stuck to the roots, teensy shriveled little fibers that fall off the roots (well, they’re small root hairs, I guess), dried leaves and flowers, and dried seed bolls that fall off and get into the carpet and everywhere. Here is a photo of what I’m talking about:

dried flax debrisIt’s very pretty, actually, but very messy. In fact, it was evocative of summer and handling the plants was very pleasant. There were lots of little dried flowers that looked very sweet. This type is a white-blooming variety, and the teeny dried blossoms had an antique quality sort of like baby’s breath:

white flax blossomsHere are some dried flower buds still on the plants:

dried blossoms on the flax strawTo store the bundles of flax over the winter, I wrapped them up inside the row-cover that I used to make the isolation tents. I keep the bundles nestled in those while I pull off the seed bolls.

unwrapped bundle of 5NNIt has been working pretty well, but pulling off the seed bolls is a very, very slow process. Thus far I have removed the seed bolls from the 3 tallest types from last summer, the ones nicknamed 1602, 5NN and Peynau. Matthew took these photos while I worked on Saturday, so you can see the set-up.

handling seed bollsThe bundle is resting on a 6 foot table and I have a floor lamp and desk lamp for light.

pulling off seed bolls

separating flax stemsThe tips of the stems are really prickly and sharp. My right index finger is especially scratched up now. You can see the ziplock baggie on my right where I’m putting the bolls.

A much faster way to do it is to crush the bolls with a wine bottle, and then sweep up all the debris:

wine bottle methodI was able to use this method this summer to quickly remove a lot of seed that I wasn’t planning to save. I was worried about attracting mice, though, so I got off all the seed before I stored the straw. I will employ this method on the next dry weekend day. Meanwhile, I’m pulling off bolls by hand.

crushed seed bolls using wine bottle








Here’s a close-up of the dried seed bolls on the stalks. They are at different stages of maturity. I’ll have to do some germination tests to see if the color of the boll affects how viable the seed is.

dried flax seed bollsLast, but not least, below you can see a photo of some of that beautiful, messy debris with the precious objects of all this labor hiding within it like jewels. Flax seeds are really shiny. You can see a few glossy brown seeds gleaming here amidst the chaff:

Can you see the seeds?In case you need help seeing them, there are a couple seeds between the dried white flower bud and the tan-colored boll right in the middle of the photo. If you click on the image it should open up a bigger image that might be easier to see.


FIBERuary in Western Massachusetts

In case you haven’t heard, it’s FIBERuary here in Western Massachusetts! Carole Adams, of Whispering Pines Fiber and Herb Farm in Colrain, came up with the idea as a way to promote local fiber farmers. She was inspired by an initiative in the UK called Wovember which encouraged people to think more deeply about where wool comes from, to celebrate the incredible diversity of British wool, to wear 100% woolen garments, and to knit with British wool. Continue reading