More About Flax Seed Maturity

This is a follow-up to my recent post about fiber flax seed maturity. After I posted it, I realized that I have a lot more photographs depicting the things I was trying to describe. So, here’s a bit more visual detail.

Let’s revisit the problem of dehiscence. This would mean that mature/over-ripe seed pods, bolls, or capsules would a) fall intact from their teeny withered stems onto the ground or b) shatter, pop open, and drop their glossy seeds willy-nilly on the ground. As a seed-saver, I was not in favor of either of these possibilities.

Here’s a glimpse of my initial attempt to bag up the seed pods, as suggested by Carolyn (though I do not blame her for my inadequate design!):

attempting to bag seeds Aug 13 2015As you can see, it looks like I am making bizarre and potentially offensive puppets. Moreover, my tubular bags didn’t actually enclose all the ripening seed pods. Wind and other forces allowed the bags to move upward on the stalk, so eventually they were not entirely covering the flowering portions of the plants. I visited the plot (almost) daily and could pull them down and adjust them, but it was not a perfect solution so I didn’t bother to sew these little bags for any of the other mini-plots.

What do truly mature fiber flax seed pod look like? They look like this:

Aug 14 Viking seedpodsThis photo above is the variety named Viking on August 14th. I think it is, or was, commercially available in Canada, but I’m not so sure about the US. Click on the image for a close-up, and hopefully you’ll be able to see:

The brown/tan color of the seed pods (they also feel dry and sound rattle-y to the touch, but I doubt you can feel or hear that from a photo)

The deep brown, shriveled appearance of the little stalk that connects the brown seed pod to the main stem (sorry I don’t know the botanical term for that).

The thin, dark splits along the length of the pod/capsule.

The teeny opening at the pointy tip at the top of the pod.

Below is a wider view of the stand of Viking plants:

Aug 14 Viking plantsThe type nick-named 5NN was at a similar point on August 13th. A lot of seedpods were mature, but a lot were still green, and the stand was still producing buds and flowers:

5NN Aug 13, 2015When I looked on the ground inside each isolation tent, I found whole ripe pods that had dropped off, but I couldn’t see individual seeds. This may just be a problem with my middle-aged vision, or it may indicate that fiber flax seeds drop off intact rather than splitting open. Either way, I maintained my seed-pod snipping protocol for each mini-plot, as described in the previous post.

Some varieties seemed to mature more consistently than others. For example, here’s the type nick-named Soctoss on August 14, 2015:

state of Soctoss Aug 14 2015It seems to be mostly done flowering. There are certainly a few lush flowers:

Soctoss flower Aug. 14, 2015But there are not that many new buds, and on the whole the plants seem to be moving past the active growth phase.

A similar thing was happening with the type nick-named Lisa:

Lisa flower Aug 14, 2015There were certainly new flowers between August 13th and 14th. However, most of the seeds were ripe as evidenced by the fact that something had clearly been trying to eat them. The photo below shows a chewed-up Lisa seed boll, and illustrates another problem of seed maturity: predation by intelligent creatures looking for oil-rich food sources!

Lisa chewed seed pod OK, fine, I’m not sure whether the stiffness of the mature seed pods and their supporting stalks were sufficient to poke through the Agribon and expose the seed pod, or whether an intrepid seed-eater used its beak or other physical attributes to cut through the fabric.

Either way, the seeds were exposed and taken advantage of:

Lisa seeds Aug 14 2015I obviously cannot claim to have solved all the problems pertaining to seed maturity!

Saving Flax Seed: Days to Maturity

This is the next installment about the USDA germplasm project I have been working on this year. In this post I will discuss the definition of “days to maturity”, which was one of the pieces of information I was supposed to be tracking for the USDA. I will also share some of my thinking around how I decided to harvest seeds this summer.

Since there has been a significant lapse of time since my last flax-related post, I will quickly recap. In this first season of the project, I was hoping to increase our supply of seed. I tried to prevent cross pollination by using isolation cages made out of lightweight Agribon and wooden stakes. Half of my project suffered utter crop failure in mid-July due to predation by rodents (or possibly other unidentified flax-stalk chewers and flax-seed eaters). Luckily, the other half of the project escaped largely unscathed, thanks to better weeding, daily monitoring, and cat-pee soaked scraps of cloth pinned to the isolation cages. You can read my earlier posts from April to August of 2015 for more details.

Between late July and early September I devoted a lot of time and energy to maximizing the seed yield from the remaining plants. I wanted as much mature, viable seed as possible. During this time, two closely-related questions emerged.

First, how exactly does one measure days to maturity for flax plants? Second, how does one determine when flax seed is mature? Neither of these questions was as simple to answer as you might think (assuming you think about these questions at all, which I’m assuming you do if you are reading my blog).

The main reason that these questions aren’t straightforward is that flax is an indeterminate plant. When you hear indeterminate, you might think of tomatoes, but other plants share the same characteristic. Basically, it means that the plants just keep on happily blooming away until some external force makes them stop. And it’s true about flax. Here’s what it looks like in action:

1602 various stages all at onceThis is the variety nick-named 1602 on August 13th, 2015. It’s still blooming, and new growth is burgeoning from the tips of the stems and stalks. Some seed bolls are green. Some are yellow, and some are brown. Some seeds are mature and some aren’t. The height is really tall, but the plant isn’t done growing. If I didn’t pull it up, it would just keep getting taller and keep flowering and setting more seed.

Here’s another, closer view of the same plot:

1602 indeterminateYou can see that there are quite a lot of brown seed pods, but the plant is still blooming away merrily. It’s a white-flowered variety by the way. In the photos below you can see that there are still new flower buds forming:

1602 white flower

1602 all phases of seed maturityFrom a seed-saving point of view, the more the plant branches, flowers, and sets seed, the better. Since I wanted as much seed as possible from each little plot, it was clearly in my best interests to just let the plants keep growing for as long as possible. Even if a plant were “mature” in terms of pulling it up for fiber, I wanted to let the plants grow past that point.

Up until this summer, I have always harvested my flax with the intention of retting it and processing it for fiber. Once the lower third or so of the stalks turned yellow, I harvested the whole crop at once by pulling up the plants by the roots. This usually happens roughly 90-100 days after planting, but you have to watch the plants and see what they look like. You can’t just count the number of days from planting because there are a lot of other factors that influence the timing. For example, if it’s been exceptionally hot or dry, you may have to pull it earlier. If you’re going for very fine fiber, you might want to harvest the stems when they are still green. Anyway, the point is that I have pulled the whole crop when it looked ready. Since I wasn’t trying to save seed in the past, it didn’t matter to me whether the seed was mature or not.

When the USDA sent us the seeds, each packet came with a stated number of days to maturity. It seemed nice and clear-cut at first, but when I was faced with the decision of actually pulling up the plants, I realized that the definition wasn’t clear to me. I wasn’t sure whether the USDA had prioritized seed maturity or fiber readiness when determining days to maturity for each type. Their definition of “maturity” was relevant because it was something I was supposed to be keeping records about.

Carolyn our resident botanist helped me clarify what I needed to know. Laura Fredrick Marek, the oil seed crop curator at the USDA in Ames, who we’ve been corresponding with during this project, sent some helpful information about their harvesting procedure.

She said that they harvest when a good portion of the bolls appear mature and before too much has been lost to dehiscence. Dehiscence can mean different things, but with flax it means either that the seeds pods fall off because they are mature, or the seed pods pop open and the seeds fall out when they are mature. She said that they harvest the entire plot by cutting the tops off.  Depending on the season and time of first harvest, they may be able to harvest twice in this manner. The uniformity of the plot is noted. She also said that the data regarding days to maturity were received with the collection of fiber flax seeds when it was transferred to Ames from the station where the flax research had previously been conducted.

OK, seed maturity was the main criterion. Check. Uniformity of the plot was also of interest, so take notes. Check.

However, I didn’t want to cut the tops off the plants because we’re interested in their maximum height and growth habits, including branching. Admittedly, from a fiber point of view, the additional height that is gained by allowing the plants to continue branching and blooming isn’t of any benefit. When you ret and process the plants, anything above the point where the plant branched and made smaller flower-bearing (and seed-bearing) stems just breaks off. I wasn’t growing for fiber this year, but I figured we might want to ret these little samples anyway and see if we could determine anything about fiber quality. I’ve read that cut ends of the stalk can make retting uneven, so I wanted to avoid that. I had to figure out another approach.

It seemed obvious that the more brown and dark the seed pods were, the more mature they were. However, I couldn’t just leave the ripe pods on the plants indefinitely because of the problem of dehiscence. If the over-ripe seeds just fell off that didn’t help me.

Carolyn suggested a couple ideas. One was to tie a bag around the seed pods as they matured in case the seed pods fell off or the pods popped open. This proved not so easy in practice.

Her other suggestion was to snip off the seed heads as they matured, and to leave a little piece of stalk attached so that the seeds could continue to draw whatever they needed from the plant as they finished maturing and dried. This is what I ended up doing.

1602 stemsIn the photo above you can see that the stem of the seed pod that’s still green is also green. The stems of the seed pods that are brown are starting to turn brown. Below is a closer image of the same thing:

1602 stem colorEach day I uncovered one little plot at a time and searched the plants for the most mature-looking pods. I was looking for stems that had started with look withered closest to the seed pod, and were either brown all the way down or getting yellow at the base. I snipped the stem down to the point where it joined the larger stalk.

1602 snipped stemsThen I spread these out to dry in a tray, and then bagged them up labeled with the variety and date. It was insanely time consuming. However, I think it was effective.

The Hurrier I Go

Life has been very busy. Back in July I kept thinking, “July is the month of everything.” Dye plants blooming, flax needing to be harvested, NEH summer institute, NEWS, family weekend at Queen Lake, hiring a new co-worker at school…. I did a lot, but since I can’t do everything, I had to let a lot of things go. No goldenrod or Queen Anne’s lace dye baths this year, and I missed Peggy Hart‘s talk on the history of NEWS, for example.

Then when August came, I thought, “No, August is the month of everything.” Even *more* dye plants blooming, flax *really* needing to be harvested, prepping for school, getting to know my new co-worker….  I did a lot, but ditto July. I had to let a lot of things go. No flax retting experiments. No purple loosestrife or black walnut experiments, despite an absolutely ridiculous abundance of wild dye plants. Very few orange cosmos flowers were collected and frozen. No woad was cut or dyed with. The flax and linen study group website was not updated.

September was a total blur. All I know for sure is that it’s over now. I gather that we are well into October at this point.

So, on the one hand, I have been super-busy. On the other hand, I haven’t posted about anything since August. It’s not that I haven’t done anything dye-, flax-, or weaving-related lately. I just that I haven’t had time to write about it.

I think it was Bumpa, my paternal grandfather, from whom I first heard the phrase, “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.” I’m not positive about my recollection of this, but it fits with the other sayings of his that I found mysterious as a child. For example, “You scream, I scream, we all scream for ice cream.” Also, “Mares eat oats and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy. A kid’ll eat ivy too. Wooden shoe?” None of these made sense to me at the time. But now that I am older, “the behinder I get” may as well be my personal slogan. Behind on life, and behind on writing about my life.

One thing I *did* do in September was run a second vat of Japanese indigo. September 6th, to be exact. Even there, though, the photo-documentation is lacking and signs of distraction are evident. It got hot. My brain stopped working. I can’t actually recall what happened. Cats are cute.

I do have photos that demonstrate a few useful piece of information.

First, the Japanese indigo plants I had harvested in August for my first vat were happy and perky. All their energy was still going to their vegetative stage of growth, despite hot weather and no water. Observe:

happy Japanese indigo in the vegetative stageI conclude that harvesting Japanese indigo promotes more growth and prolongs the life cycle of the plants.

Second, the plants I hadn’t harvested in August were droopy. They had been hard-hit by the hot weather and my inattentive watering habits. Their energy was going into flowers and ultimately seeds, and lack of water was making them sad. Behold:

droopy Japanese indigo trying to flowerI conclude that not pruning the plants leads to a quicker transition to flowering and seed-setting, and plants put their energy toward that. It stresses the plants, or maybe makes the plants less resilient to environmental stress. I hypothesize that it shortens the life cycle. Both of the above photos were taken on the same day within moments of each other, under identical conditions. Pretty remarkable, right?

Third, new growth definitely does grow from the nodes or joints. Witness:

new growth from the jointFourth, even a faster, hotter heating process on our kitchen stove (because my portable electric stove was giving me shocks–not good) doesn’t produce any detectable shift in color in the leaves when they are extracted inside a closed canning jar. To whit:

green leaves after extractingFifth, once you allow air into the closed jar (and you poke it) you can see that something’s going on with the extraction (this is a replication of my data from August). See here:

blue-green color when air is addedSixth, the brown/tan color was again evident at the bottom of the jar where there was presumably less air than at the top of the jar:

less air in liquidAnd then, it’s all about the Sammy Cat. I know I dyed a lot of yarn that afternoon, but apparently the cat was a lot more interesting. I have many photos of her curled up next to the chili plants under the spruce behind the apartment (where Matthew gathered them to keep them shaded and cool):

Sammy and chilisSammy is the black curl in the foreground on the grass. She is a ninja and hard to see.

Apparently, my marigold garlands were also more interesting than my vat that day:

MP with marigold garlandThis is a fun way to pass the time in between dyeing steps.

It’s not that I wasn’t excited about my vat. I was. And it’s not that it wasn’t successful. It was. I overdyed the lightest skeins from the first Japanese indigo vat, and got excellent dark blues. I overdyed a lot of tansy-yellow skeins from my Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom demo last fall and got great greens. But you wouldn’t be able to tell that by looking at my photos. I thought I took photos, but apparently not.

You *can* tell which birds we were trying to feed at the time:

September bird feedersThe hurrier I go the behinder I get. Or at least, the more distracted I get. What shall I conclude from this?


Japanese Indigo Vat At Last

Last year at the Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Fair I bought several Japanese indigo plants (Polygonum tinctorum, though I’ve heard that perhaps the name has changed). I was very excited and intended to dye with them, but then next thing you know, summer had raced past and they were blooming. I was worried that they would have lost a lot of their color once they started to bloom. And I was worried that I might have a hard time finding plants or seeds again. I decided I’d save them for seed and not use them for dyeing after all. You can recap a couple posts from last year here. And here.

This spring I successfully grew about 40 seedlings, half of which I put in at Bramble Hill Farm and the other half at our community garden plot. I guess I was in a “don’t put your eggs in one basket” mode this spring. Very wise, as it turned out.

The plants at Bramble Hill thrived, and on August 16th I decided that the time had come to try a vat.

Here’s the gorgeous bed:

japanese indigo Aug 16Here is more of a plant’s eye view:

plant's eye view Aug 16Some had already begun to flower, but I forged ahead anyway.

starting to bloomThe plants in the bed were about two feet tall:

two feet tallI re-read all my books on dyeing with fresh Japanese indigo leaves and was dismayed but not surprised that each dyer recommended a different harvesting procedure, weight of goods to fiber, method of extraction, temperature and duration of extraction, type and amount of alkaline and reducing agents, etc., etc.. I had to use their signposts to make my own way, as usual.

Here’s what I decided to do for harvesting. I cut above a leaf joint, as one might do when harvesting basil. New growth clearly emerges from these joints, so I was pretty confident that the plants would just branch at that point after I cut them. Here is a teeny leaf popping out of a joint, and below that is a slightly bigger leaf:

new growth at jointsleaf at jointsI cut the tops of the stems off right above a joint. Hopefully you can see the flat area on the stem where I made the cut in the photo below:

cut above jointHere are some of the decapitated tops:

japanese indigo topsAnd here’s a bag getting full from harvesting:

one bag fullI couldn’t really weigh the leaves at the garden, but I had already selected the heat-proof glass jars I would use for extraction so I could eye-ball the quantity I would need by volume.

After I snipped the leaves off the stems, they weighed one pound five ounces. I had scoured a pound of woolen yarn (a soft, relatively fine 4 ply mill end from Webs) put up into four ounce skeins, but I wasn’t sure how much I would actually be able to dye. The quantity of Japanese indigo leaves seemed small compared to woad, which is my usual source of blue.

Most dyers recommended extracting the leaves using a modified double-boiler method, though Dorothy Miller seems to skip this when dyeing with fresh leaves. Since I have found that keeping the air out while you extract the leaves is crucial with woad, I decided to use canning jar with the lids on to extract the leaves, and figured the air would just escape as the jar heated up. I crammed as many leaves as I could into each jar, and filled the jars with warm water. Oh, yeah, did I say that different dyers recommend different temperatures of water when covering the leaves, ranging from “cold” to “hot”? I went with “medium” aka warm.

I’m not sure who originally came up with the double-boiler method. I think one purpose of the double-boiler must be to regulate the temperature and to prevent scorching on the bottom. My jars rested directly on the bottom of the dye pot, but I’m not sure how much that helps. Here are my four jars, two 8 cups jars and two four cup jars:

four jarsI put them into two dye pots, one taller and one shorter. I filled up the pots with water, but left quite a bit of headroom:

jars in modified double boilerWhen extracting the leaves, the temperature matters a lot, though no one seems to agree on exactly what the best temperature is. Recommendations included 120, 140, and 160 degrees F. They all agree that one needs to raise the temperature slowly. I figured I’d pick a point in the middle, and never let the thermometer get over 140 degrees F. Of course, it was measuring the water in the pot, not the water inside the jar. I don’t know whether there was a difference.

After two hours nothing much seemed to be happening. Depending on who you read, extracting the leaves can take 2 to 8 hours. So I just kept checking. The leaves are supposed to turn a metallic reddish brown when they are ready to strain out. After two and a half hours, this jar was getting blue-green, but the leaves did not look brown or coppery.

slow extraction I had planned to Skype with Gina from the flax and linen study group at 6pm and it was already almost 4pm. Arg! Running out of time….

After three hours, I ran out of patience and decided to just strain the leaves. This is what they looked like:

finally extractedI would not personally describe this as metallic or dark or brown or really anything noteworthy. There were some brown tinges.

When I first strained out the leaves from one of the jars and looked at the liquid, I was appalled.

one jar extracted liquidWoad, when the fresh leaves have been extracted, makes a juicy, dark pinkish-red liquid, and I was expecting something similar from the Japanese indigo. The strained leaves had changed color but I still wouldn’t call it brown or metallic.  one jar strained leavesHowever, I could see that in the other jars I cracked open, the exposure to the air was making something fantastic happen:

a bit more like itThis rainbow of shiny color is the kind of thing I would expect from an indigo-bearing plant, so I continued on with the process. I think the exposure to the air turned the liquid an intense blue-green. It was not at all what I was expecting, but it was a step in the right direction.

Here is some of the extracted liquid before any pH modification:

extracted liquid in a jarI suspect that the greener color on top is due to air hitting the liquid, and the browner color on the bottom is because it hasn’t been exposed to as much oxygen. I checked the pH and the liquid was pH 7.

Here’s a pot with two jars of extracted liquid in it:

half way thereI used my usual ammonia to adjust the pH (I know, it’s pretty harsh) and four tablespoons got it up to pH 9. Then I aerated by pouring the liquid back and forth between two dye pots. Here’s what it looked like after five minutes or so:after aeratingThe temperature was still good despite all the waiting around. I was aiming for about 110 degrees F. (between 100 and 120 degrees). I couldn’t really tell what the color of the liquid was. Normally with woad at this point it would be dark, murky green-brown. I thought this photo was cool, though:

darker with ammoniaAnother point on which the various dyers did not agree was the quantity or type of reducing agent. Obviously I am not making a natural fermentation vat here. Recipes that include sentences like, “After fourteen days at 83 degrees…” cannot realistically fit into my lifestyle, as much as I would wish them to.

I used my usual RIT Color Remover because I can buy it retail and it accommodates my not-planning-ahead schedule. I started with a teensy quantity (a teaspoon) because I only had one and a half gallons of liquid to reduce. With a reducing agent, you’re trying to get the oxygen out of the water in the vat, and so the more water you have the more reducing agent you need. I dissolved a teaspoon of the powder in some hot water and poured it into the pot.

After 45 minutes nothing had happened. A reduced woad vat becomes yellow-green in color and translucent. So I added another teaspoon of reducing agent dissolved in water, and waited 15 more minutes. Nothing. Then I added a tablespoon. After two hours, it was 5:45pm and the vat still looked like this:

reduced ishThe color isn’t what I would expect, but the clarity seemed promising. Anyway, I was supposed to be talking to Gina in 15 minutes. So, reduced or not, I decided to stick some yarn in and see what was going on.

Color was going on!

in the vatI left this four ounce skein in for an hour or more while we talked, and then pulled it out. The expected oxidation started to happen, which was a big relief and a thrill:

oxidizing skeinWith indigo-bearing plants, the color is usually turquoise while it is first oxidizing, and then it turns a darker blue:

proper blueVoila! I proceeded to successively dip the other three skeins of wool over the course of the evening. It’s getting dark earlier these days, so I couldn’t really see what I was doing after a while.

I let the skeins oxidize outside overnight, then rinsed them in alternating baths of cool salt water and a vinegar solution over a couple days, then hung them to dry. Not very much color rinsed out.

Here I am with the four four-ounce skins after it was all said and done:one pound of woolNot bad for a first try.



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.