Seeds and Life and Death

The fiber and dye plants at my plot at Bramble Hill have done a brilliant job of setting seed this fall. It’s very exciting. Since it is nearly All Hallows Eve, or Samhain, or El Dia de los Muertos, depending on your tradition, I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between the dead and the living.

Harvest and abundance, frosts and death. Seeds carry us through from one season to the next, from the death of fall to the life of spring.

Orange cosmos are usually prolific, but this year seemed especially so. Here are some images of the cosmos plants back on October 19th when I harvested the Japanese indigo. A chaotic tangle of flowers, stalks, and seeds. Death and rebirth.

orange cosmos chaos

Here is a different perspective on the state of things, with dead stalks and seed heads alongside bright flowers still in bloom. In the background is the Holyoke Range, a defining feature of our local landscape. The mountain in the center, with the steep downward angle on its left and long slope on its right, is Mt. Norwottuck. The round-topped mountain to the right of it is Bare Mountain. The dip between them is locally known as The Notch.

October cosmos with Mount Norwottuck

Here is a lone seed head against the cloudy autumn sky on that windy day.

cosmos against the sky

And here is a seed head that has already lost several of the long, delicate seeds. I think the structure and color of cosmos seeds is gorgeous.

partial cosmos seed

Another plant that set a lot of seed this season is madder. Typically madder is propagated by roots or below-ground stems. Madder is a bedstraw-relative. New plants will grow up from the nodes of the stem or stalk, and pretty much any fleshy part of the root. I assume that it can also be propagated by seed, but alas I cannot vouch for this from personal experience. I tried planting madder seedlings one summer, but this is my only record:

madder seed experiment

It dates from July 7, 2011. No, it is not a lot to go on. I do not seem to have made any notes about it, so I’m guessing nothing germinated. That little green two-leaf seedling is probably a tomatillo. These are ubiquitous in everything we grow thanks to our home-made compost, which consists of a lot of salsa-making detritus.

If something noteworthy happened, I think I would have taken a photo or written about it in the garden log, but I can’t find anything. So, I am not sure if madder seeds are good for anything, but I sure have a lot of them! Exactly my kind of wealth.

Here are some madder berries. I don’t know if that’s botanically accurate but I think it’s descriptive. They are the dark purple spheres amidst the stems and foliage.

October madder berries

And here are some that have dried right on the stalks:

dried madder berries

I opened up a berry that was still juicy. You can see the slight staining on my hand. No, I do not plan to try madder berries as a dye source. The pulp is on my index finger and the seed on my middle finger.

madder seed and pulp

I scraped the skin off a dried berry, and the tough seed inside was almost the same size as the berry itself. Here’s the seed. A little world dense with potency.

madder seed

I’m not precisely sure how to tell when madder seeds are mature. Both the seed from the juicy berry and the seed from the dried berry felt very hard.

I’m inclined to think that the one from the wizened berry is more mature.

Senescence–the over-maturity of a fruit and the beginning of its decomposition–is a characteristic that often indicates seed maturity.

Seeds teach us that biological life is cyclical, not linear.

A seed is both the destination and the source.


Japanese Indigo Harvest

Why two blog posts in one night, you may wonder? I am typically a binge-blogger. Once I finally sit down to deal with photos and organization and writing, I get in a groove and it’s fun to keep going. Tonight, however, I am killing time while I wait up for a tansy dye bath and a wool mordanting bath to get done. Tomorrow I am doing a natural dye workshop for Mass Ag. in the Classroom at their day of hands-on gardening skills. I have been absurdly busy with one thing and another all week, so tonight was my sole free night to wind skeins, scour, mordant, and make the dyebath. It’s more than I usually try to do in a night after work, and makes for a later night than usual. Anyway. I am not actually writing about that. I am writing about my gorgeous Japanese Indigo plants.

After a few frost warnings this month, during which I covered the Japanese Indigo with several layers of sheets, the forecasted temperatures on October 19th were in the 20s. I figured the time had come to cut all the Japanese Indigo and hang it up to dry. You may recall that I had decided to let the plants get as big as possible, and to try to save as much seed as possible, rather than harvest the leaves for dyeing this season. I had brushed off seeds as the flowers stalks matured and dried out, so I already had a pretty nice stash of seeds. But, I read in Dorothy Miller’s seminal book Indigo From Seed to Dye that you can cut the whole plants and allow them to dry, and the seeds will continue to mature. Since I know this is true of flax and some other plants, I was pretty confident that it would work.

Here are some of the plants right before I harvested them. You can see that the late fall coldness has settled on the marigolds, and they are getting ready to die. Pretty much everything in the dye plant garden was transitioning into decline by then.

Japanese Indigo plants at harvest Here are some close ups of the flowering stalks.

Japanese Indigo flower stalks at harvest

Aren’t the burgundy-colored stems next to the pink flowers just so luscious?

Mature Japanese Indigo flower stalkI cut the plants right down to the soil-level. For a few days now they have been hanging upside down from the clothes rack in our downstairs half-bath. The heat in there is controlled on its own thermostat. I turned it up to about 75 and closed the door. Already the flower stalks are drying and turning white and brown, and the seeds are loosening. So, I should get a good amount of seeds, I hope.

I’m not sure how I will start these seeds in the spring. The seedlings need to be started well before the last frost, which for us can be as late as Memorial Day weekend. I will have to find someone with a greenhouse and hit them up for some space.

Weld Harvest

Way back on October 5th, a Sunday, we had a frost warning. I had a shift at the Shelburne Arts Co-op that day, so my time for gardening was limited. In the morning I went over to the garden at Bramble Hill to assess the situation and do triage. I decided to go back to the garden after my shift to cover the Japanese indigo plants because I was hoping to nurse them along for a while to let the seed mature. More on that later.

I did not think it would be possible to cover the hugely tall weld plants, and I could also tell that plenty of seeds had matured on the weld already. I think I have written about this before, but just as a refresher I will remind readers that weld flowers keep growing off of the same stalk throughout the season. At harvest time, the tips will still be in bloom while the oldest seed heads at the base of the flower stalk will be mature. Only black weld seeds are viable. Every other color of seed, from brown to yellow, gets tossed in with the flowering tops, leaves, and stalks for the dye pot.

So, that morning I clipped off the most mature-looking seed heads and put them in a brown paper bag to dry. I cut down all the plants that had bolted, tossed them in the van, and drove to the co-op. The weld basically filled up the van. Well, it filled up the part that wasn’t already full of flax. The plants stayed in the van for a couple days until Matthew declared them too stinky. I am inured to many strong smells, and weld is no exception. To me it smells like asparagus. I think it’s a nice smell, usually. One year my crop smelled like cat pee as it dried. That was intense. Matthew thinks it smells like pee after you’ve eaten asparagus. Strong, weird, and worrisome until you remember that you ate asparagus. I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned this, but we are a one-car (or one-van) household, so obviously the weld had to dry elsewhere.

We don’t have a lot of space at our apartment, so drying options were limited. I moved the weld from the van into the “crafts room” where my loom is. It took up a good portion of the room. However, the door can shut and the windows can be opened, and the weld dried pretty well in there without contaminating the rest of the apartment with stinkiness.

Here I am holding the harvest after it has dried and shrunk down quite a bit, two weeks after harvest. You can see the delicate yellow flowering tips at the ends of some of the stalks.

weld harvest 2014I will have a lot of seed from this harvest. I used to think that you had to direct-seed weld. I’d read that it didn’t like to be transplanted because it has a long taproot. It is frustrating to plant it directly into the ground because germination is uneven and it takes a really long time. It’s not easy to keep the seed bed moist over days and weeks while the seeds germinate (or don’t), so for many years I found weld kind of tricky to grow.

However, I have discovered that it transplants just fine. I grew a lot of seedlings this summer, which I transplanted at our Amethyst Brook garden plot this fall. I put them in the bed we had used for red onions. This is the kind of “crop rotation” we can manage in a small garden plot. I didn’t think weld would suffer from any of the same pests as alliums, though I’m not positive about this. Transplanting the seedlings that actually germinate is much more efficient and much less of a waste of time. With luck, I will have a giant crop next year. Yellow, anyone?





Fun at the Faire

Last weekend I went to the Colonial Faire & Muster of Fyfe and Drums in Sudbury at the Wayside Tavern. Alas, the event is no longer posted on their website but I gather it is an annual event hosted by these folks. I’m not a guns-n-war sort of person, no matter what era, but I went because some friends of mine were demonstrating the flax to cloth process in their period costumes with their antique tools. Continue reading

Japanese Indigo Is Flowering

Way back on Memorial Day weekend, I was lucky enough to find some Japanese indigo seedlings for sale at the Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Fair. I had been wanting to grow this plant, Polygonum tinctorium, for many years, but it’s not that easy to find seeds and we don’t have a good set-up for growing seedlings anyway here at the apartment. I had never come across seedlings before. In a fit of excitement, I bought out the vendor’s entire supply (11 plants) and planted them in the front bed at my dye and fiber plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm with maximum southern exposure. Continue reading

I Am Pleased With My Linen Yarns

This is just a short post to say that I’m pleased with my stash of linen yarns. Here they are:

linen yarnsThe pink colors at the top come from madder roots, and also the little orange skein on the left. The browns are from black walnut. The light orange in the center is from orange cosmos. The blues are from woad. The greens are from weld with woad on top. The yellows are from weld. This modest-sized basket represents a ton of work, and I am very satisfied!

Continue reading

Weld is Flowering and Proliferating

Weld is a biennial. The Latin name for weld is Reseda luteola. Luteolin is the molecule in weld that makes yellow. A plant that is a biennial typically lives for two years, and only flowers and sets seed in the second year. These weld plants were planted this spring, but as of July 18th several of them have already sent up tall stalks. They look suspiciously like they are starting to flower. This does happen sometimes, but it is still a little puzzling to me.

Below is a view of the weld bed with all the tall plants.

bolting weld

Continue reading

Flax Dressing Photos

After I wrote about our gloriously low-humidity weather, which provided the perfect climate for dressing flax, I realized I had not included any photos. Here are some illustrations of my modified “hardware store tools” technique, including a new innovation since last time I posted about using this method.

The hardware store tools that I use are a paintbrush cleaning tool, a 3-inch-wide joint compound knife, a wooden cutting board, and a flick carder designed for wool. And a dust mask. And gloves. The gloves are new, but my hands have been a lot more sensitive this summer.

I’ve been dressing largely under-retted flax which has already been broken with a flax brake. The bundles I made to dry and ret the flax are too large to handle all at once using this method, so I separate them into thirds or even fourths. The reason I think the flax is under-retted is that the cuticle, or skin, of the stalk is really hard to get off, and the fibers stick together in ribbons. The lighter colored, papery-looking pieces below are the cuticle.

cuticle closeup Continue reading

Asclepias incarnata and Amsonia tabernaemontana

I wrote earlier this year that I wanted to add Amsonia tabernaemontana and Asclepias incarnata to my fiber and dye plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm. They are both bast fiber plants native to North America. Bast fibers are found in the stems of a plant (rather than around the seeds, like cotton, for example). I was introduced to the fiber potential of amsonia by fellow flax and linen study group member, Carolyn Wetzel, who brought some gorgeous, creamy-colored fibers to a meeting one night. A. incarnata was the “mystery cordage plant” from my sister’s parking lot that she helped me identify in 2012. I have finally managed to acquire both plants! Continue reading

Low Humidity is Good for Dressing Flax

We are being visited by some gloriously cool, dry weather here in Amherst. The humidity has been relatively low for the past several days, so I’ve taken the opportunity to chip away at processing (otherwise known as “dressing”) my enormous back-log of flax.

I’ve been growing flax since 2004, and I’ve grown some every summer since then (except for one year). I have yet to spin any of my own fiber, mind you, let alone weave it. Very slow cloth. After all this time, the part of the process I still find the most difficult is retting. Continue reading