Flax 2018-What Happened in June

In June the flax was happily growing. By June 2nd seedlings were emerging. I was excited and took a lot of pictures. To identify the beds, I wrote my nickname for each type on a stake at the corner of the bed. The name is on the left and the photo of that type of flax is on the right of each pair of images:

From west to east along the strip of land, I organized the plots from smallest to largest. Sometimes I can’t remember why I made certain decisions when I look back on them. But that’s what I did.

The day after I planted it was 90 degrees. Overall in June it wasn’t too hot, but we had some spells of warm (mid 80s) and dry weather, so I watered every few days to make sure the seeds germinated. If I had planted back in April, watering might not have been necessary. That said, many times in the days immediately after I plant flax we seem to have a heat wave, even in April or early May.

Flax is often promoted as a crop that needs very few inputs. I’m sure that’s true compared to cotton, specifically cotton grown under conventional agricultural systems. However, in my experience, flax isn’t a hassle-free crop. For one thing, it really needs moist or damp soil to thrive. Note I said, “moist or damp” not “sodden or saturated”. Second spoiler/foreshadowing!

I took some photos that show the difference between watering and not watering in the early stages of flax growth. Granted, late May is sub-optimal as a planting window, so this is slightly quirky data. But here’s my data nonetheless:

Above you can see the Rolin bed and the Viking bed on June 10th. By this time I had watered these beds three times (May 30, June 2, and June 10). It had also rained on June 4, and overnight June 5-6).

In contrast, I did not water the Electra bed on May 30. I watered it on June 2nd with 20 gallons of water. Here’s how it looked before watering on June 10th:

See the difference? Now, maybe the Electra seed was older and slower to get going compared to the others, but I suspect that water was a major factor. Here’s a view of the whole strip on June 10 after I watered, with the Electra in the foreground:

You can clearly see a flush of green in the beds to the west, and a non-flush-of-green in the foreground where the Electra was planted. I watered again on the morning of June 14, while it was still cool and shady:

Drink up, Electra!

Flax 2018-What Happened in May

I usually aim to plant flax in mid-April. Sometimes it is snowy at that time, so I have to wait. Sometimes I just don’t get everything organized in time. This year was a case of the latter. Well, it did snow during my vacation week in April, but that wasn’t the main obstacle. It took me a long time to winnow all my seed and to figure out what I wanted to do this season. Long story short, I didn’t plant my flax until the Monday of Memorial Day Weekend, May 28th.

Here’s what the site looked like on May 28th:

I grew flax at Amethyst Farm again this year. I am more grateful than I can say to Bernard at Amethyst Farm for generously sharing his land and to Ryan at Many Hands Farm Corps for working me into his crop rotation and tilling the site this spring. I am also grateful for their encouragement and advice every time I have encountered difficulties.

This year I decided to grow out twelve types of fiber flax from the USDA that my flax and linen study group acquired in 2015. We originally got something like 30, but in 2015 half of the beds I planted were devoured by rodents with nothing to show for it. If you don’t recall the sad story, you can read about it in this post.

In 2016 I grew the six tallest types, but I didn’t get much seed from that crop either. I wrote a long series of posts about the devastation caused by chewing that year, too. Here you can read about the day I decided to pull up that whole experiment and give up.

In 2017 I only grew Electra and none of the USDA types.

So, this year I decided to grow the twelve types that had *not* been eaten by rodents, and to cover them with isolation tents once again.

Here are the beds all made and staked out on May 28th:

I also grew a bed of Electra again. I planted REALLY densely this time to compensate for the age of the seed and lower viability.

I had different quantities of each type of seed, so I decided to make each bed a different size, depending on how much seed I had. I planted all the seed I had from each type. In retrospect, this wasn’t a sensible way to approach it. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” seems to be a lesson I need to learn repeatedly. Spoiler alert. Or, foreshadowing? I guess I was feeling optimistic and confident, which are good things to feel, but when it comes to flax I should know better by now.

Swamp Milkweed Update

Ever since I planted my swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in 2014, it has suffered from yellow aphids. I thought I had mentioned this problem in an earlier post. However, when I went back to look for it, I found that comment was buried in a lot of other information about praying mantises and pesky garden bugs. So, here’s a post dedicated to my swamp milkweed and how it’s doing this summer.

There are many dimensions to the life of any plant, so I divided this up into sub-categories.

Yellow Aphids

I did a better job this year checking the plants for aphids. For most of the summer I didn’t notice any, and the plants seemed happy. I had been worried they wouldn’t come back because some of the plants were very badly affected by yellow aphids last summer. They had sad withered stalks and gave up the ghost early in the season. Last week, I noticed aphids for the first time, and promptly washed them off with water. I am used to squishing bugs, and tiny ones like aphids don’t gross me out too much. So, I employed a “rinse and squish” method of physical removal.

Here are yellow aphids on the base of the stalks, close to the ground:

The resolution isn’t that great, but you get the idea. That long swath of yellow stuff is tiny sap-sucking bugs.

Here are two images of yellow aphids on younger plants, up near the top of the plant on the tender growing tips:

The resolution on these is good enough to see their little black legs and “cornicles”. That’s a word I just learned. I found awesome information and graphics about what an aphid cornicle does on The Bug Chicks page. This page from The Natural History of Orange County, California has some interesting information about the oleander or yellow aphid lifecycle. This page from the Entomology and Nematology Dept. at the University of Florida is also informative.

I will check back for repeated rinses and squishings as we head into late summer and fall around here.

Monarch Food Source

When I was looking up ways to deal with aphids last summer, I found several websites that listed swamp milkweed as one of the food sources of monarch butterflies and one of the host plants for caterpillars. I hadn’t seen monarch butterflies visit my plants, nor any caterpillars eating them. So, I continued to categorize swamp milkweed as “awesome fiber-bearing plant”, and prioritized that potential over its “useful-to-monarchs” potential. I tend to be a “gotta see it to believe it” person; if something I read contradicts my own experience, I let it stew until I get more evidence. Please refer to this post to understand the picture I have in my mind when I think about swamp milkweed’s sparkling fiberous beauty.

This summer I have observed and documented: 1) monarch butterflies feeding on swamp milkweed flowers; 2) what looks like a monarch butterfly depositing eggs on a swamp milkweed leaf; *and* 3) monarch caterpillars eating the leaves!

Butterflies are a beautiful sight, so I took waaay too many photos (and videos, which I will spare you):

In this image, I believe the butterfly is depositing eggs on a swamp milkweed leaf. 

And here, on those younger plants I mentioned, are two monarch caterpillars:

They seem pretty plump, so I hope they are finding the food to their liking. Gotta see it to believe it!

Transplanting Swamp Milkweed Babies

Not only were the swamp milkweed plants happy this summer, they made babies! Babies are always exciting, but they also raise questions and concerns about the best ways to care for them and ensure that they survive and thrive. A couple small swamp milkweed plants popped up close to the parent plants, amidst the ambitiously spreading Amsonia tabernaemontana.

Another emerged on the opposite side of the garden amidst the ambitiously spreading madder. And yet another managed to be growing at the very edge of the lawn around the garden plot. What to do?

The amsonia next to the swamp milkweed has increased and multiplied very successfully. While I am happy for its success, it is cramping the style of the comparatively shorter Asclepias incarnata. The amsonia is the sprawling plant with tons of long seed pods (it blooms first thing in the spring):

So, I wanted to get those swamp milkweed babies out of there and into a more spacious environment.

I wasn’t sure if mid-summer transplant operation was wise. The Nasami folks advised against it. I also consulted this article on the Monarch Butterfly Garden website, which has some useful information about transplanting swamp milkweed.

Both sources recommended transplanting asclepias species when the upper parts are dormant, either in the fall or spring. In addition to my aforementioned “gotta see it to believe it” attitude, I figured would add “you never know until you try” and take my chances. I tried to move the babies, and it worked!

I dug up and moved a few of the young plants to a new spot with plenty of compost and water. The one with the twisted stalk had been managing to survive among the grasping madder. I figure it’s at least a year old, so it must be a very determined plant!

I think it worked to transplant these in July because they were still pretty small and the roots were not extensive. I had been prepared for the shock to cause them to go dormant, or at least to skip flowering this season. But no!

Not only did they thrive, these are the plants where the monarch caterpillars are currently living.

 

 

Paper Making

In my retrospective of the past 9 months, I somehow skipped over January. Oops! Here it is:

In January I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon learning how to make paper with May Babcock of Paperslurry. If you are interested in hand-made paper, especially paper from your own local plant material, then check out her website. She has lots of excellent, clear tutorials and links to fabulous resources and inspiring projects.

High quality linen paper is nothing new, though in the past it would have been made from linen rags. I don’t have a lot of old linen rags kicking around the apartment, but I do have a lot of tow!

Tow is the name for the shorter fibers in the flax process. The long fibers are called line. When you process flax, you end up with a lot of tow, and proportionately less line. Line is special, so small-scale growers such as myself reserve it for spinning a fine thread. Tow is good for spinning, too, but can also be used for many other things.

May had generously offered to help me make paper with my own flax tow. She walked me through all the steps, and in one afternoon we turned a handful of tow into several sturdy sheets of paper!

First, we weighed out 3 ounces of tow. We snipped up the fibers into short pieces, between a half and three quarters of an inch long. We dropped them into a 5 gallon bucket of water:

While we snipped, May explained that flax has several unique properties as a papermaking fiber. It expands more than other fibers when it’s wet, it’s stickier, and it shrinks more than other fibers when its drying, unless it’s constrained while it dries (i.e., is dried while attached to a physical backing and under a weight).

Then, May set up her adorable little Hollander beater.

The fibers go through a crushing, smooshing, beating process inside that gray cylinder in the center. Inside is a roller and a plate with teeth and grooves. The numbers taped up on the wall behind the beater are May’s guide for how many times she has to turn the mechanism that sets the plate and rollers at the height she wants. Raising and lowering the mechanism increases or decreases the pressure on the fibers.

In the beater, the fibers are compressed and squeezed, not chopped, so that they stretch out until they are very fine and create a lot of surface area. The fine strands are called fibrils.

Then she turned the Hollander beater on. It’s really loud!

Then we gradually added the wet, snipped-up pieces of tow.

Underneath the table is a bucket for catching drips.

The motor is powerful, but the fibers can get bunched up when they are first going through the beater. May monitored carefully and broke apart the clumps to keep things moving smoothly.

Here’s the beater running once we added all the tow.

Every 20 minutes or so, she scooped out some of the fibers, stirred them in a jar of water, and held it up to the light. This was to check how finely the fibers had been broken down. Then she adjusted the height of the plate. When things seemed right, we set the timer and let the beater run for an hour. Meanwhile we went to the back of her studio to look at some of her beautiful paper samples and talk about plants.

When the hour was up, May filled up a tub with water and wetted down the supplies we’d be using the make the sheets of paper. It being January, it was pretty cold, so we used warm water for comfort.

On the right of the tray are pieces of army blanket that we used as felts between the sheets of paper.

May added some of the flax pulp to the warm water.

Then she stirred it around until the ratio of water to pulp was right. This step is called hogging. Then our slurry was ready!

At this point I stopped taking photographs because my hands were wet. I got a chance to pull several sheets of paper using a beautifully crafted deckel and mold. I made two sheets with inclusions, which involves placing an item between two thin sheets of paper. I used a long strand of flax that May had grown, and some of my un-cut tow.

May explained that one of the properties of linen in papermaking is that it is “slow draining” so you don’t need to add anything to the slurry. Other fibers require a mucilaginous or viscous “forming agent” so that the water will drain through the screen at the right speed.

This is a stack of sheets of interfacing. I pressed the papers onto these, pre-dampened, as they came off the screen.

After I pulled a few sheets of paper, May put the stack of felts and interfacing into a small book-binding press and squeezed out a lot of the water.

After about 15 minutes, we took them out of the press. We peeled the strong, sticky sheets of paper off of the wet interfacing and placed them on dry sheets of interfacing and felt. We stacked them up between pieces of thick corrugated cardboard inside her drying rack. Then she put a heavy weight on top of the stack, turned on two fans behind the whole set-up, and left them to dry.

After the papers were dry, she mailed them to me. Here are three that were constrained while they dried so they are relatively flat and smooth:

Here’s a close up:

Here are the two sheets with inclusions:

This one was dried without constraints so it is more shrunken and wrinkly:

It reminds me of a motto that my Flax and Linen Study group considered at one point, “Wear your wrinkles with pride!” To make a linen textile smooth and shiny requires a lot of pressure and labor. To whit, starch and the mangle (an admittedly obscure but interesting and not straightforward topic in North America).

However, being smooth, supple, and shiny is only one of linen’s magical modes. The strength and beauty of linen reveals itself in so many other ways, including crinkly, shrunken, dry, and indestructible! Linen as crone.

There are tiny pieces of straw in my paper because I hadn’t carded and cleaned up the tow for spinning. More careful preparation of the fiber ahead of time would have led to a smoother texture, I think. That said, the papers are really strong!

It was an incredibly fun and inspiring day. I was excited to learn yet another way to use the amazing and versatile properties of flax, Linum usitatissimum: the most useful. Thank you, May Babcock!

Swamp Milkweed Sightings

I first learned to identify swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in 2012 after discovering some lovely fibers near my sister’s apartment in Maryland. In 2015 I acquired some plants from Nasami Farm in Whately, MA for the Common School‘s fiber and dye plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm. For all this time, I have been keeping an eye out for it “in the wild” but haven’t seen it. Until now!

This month I have been spotting swamp milkweed all over the place. The first place I noticed it was in the bluebird field at Amherst College on July 6th. Admittedly, these photos are a bit like photos of Big Foot: blurry and indistinct. Trust me, though, it is swamp milkweed!

The next place I caught a sighting was in the Lawrence Swamp area of the Norwottuck Rail Trail in Amherst. It was right in the swamp, aptly. We could see several plants further out, but ran into the same blurry Big Foot photo problem. This one was close to the edge of the trail:

Continue reading “Swamp Milkweed Sightings”

Apocynum cannabinum on the Hadley Dike

In my Fiber Fiber Everywhere post back in April, I noted that there are fiber plants all over the place where I live in Western Massachusetts. Recently I noticed a new one!

On June 26th, while walking along the dike in Hadley, I noticed a potential fiber plant that I had never noticed there before. I am pretty sure it’s Apocynum cannabinum, sometimes called common dogbane, hemp dogbane, or Indian hemp. The UMass Extension website has some helpful information for identification here. If I turn out to be wrong I will let you know. It is possible that some of the fibers I’ve seen on the trail by the river are from old dogbane stalks, and I just never realized it before.

Here’s a view of the whole plant in situ:

The flowers are white:

Continue reading “Apocynum cannabinum on the Hadley Dike”

Old Austerlitz

On Sunday July 30th I will be doing a flax processing demonstration at the Blueberry Festival at Old Austerlitz in Austerlitz, New York. I’ll be there from 9-4. Admission is $7 for adults, and children under 12 get in free. There will be lots of demonstrations and vendors, including an area dedicated to natural fibers with fiber farmers, weavers, feltmakers, etc.. Two fellow flax-enthusiasts will be there, Emily Gwynn from Hands to Work Textiles and Jill Horton-Lyons from Winterberry Farm. Stop by if you are in the neighborhood!

I haven’t been to the Blueberry Festival before, but I have been to Old Austerlitz. On September 17, 2016 I did a similar flax processing demo for their event Intersection Austerlitz. It was very fun and I met a lot of interesting people.

Here are some photos of my set-up last fall. I will have a similar display this Sunday with the same set of tools, which I own collectively with the other members of the New England Flax and Linen Study Group.

Here’s one of my display tables. In the photo below, I’m pointing to two commercially produced sticks of flax, one of which was dew-retted and the other water-retted. Retting is the decomposition process that separates the fibers from the rest of the flax stalk. Dew-retting produces a silvery gray color. Water-retting produces a pale yellow or cream color. The u-shaped bundle of fiber in front of me is some of my own home-grown and hand-processed flax (also water-retted).

Continue reading “Old Austerlitz”

Fiber Fiber Everywhere

When I’m describing the steps involved in extracting fiber from a fiber-plant such as flax, people often ask, “How on earth did anyone ever figure that out?” I have thought about this question a lot. I have many ideas about it. Some can be backed up with references and citations, and some are just hunches based on my personal experience.

I believe that we humans come from a long line of brilliant thinkers and observers, experimenters and creators. The human use of flax fibers in Europe dates to at least 34,000 years ago. Humans and our human-like relatives and ancestors have been really smart and really creative for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years. Furthermore, primates in general are really smart, so I am happily willing to accept any kind of habitat-modifying, tool-using, culture-teaching behaviors dating back 2 or 3 million years, at least. Which is all very deep. It is admittedly hard to have a clear mental picture of what life might have felt like for a hominid so long ago. Continue reading “Fiber Fiber Everywhere”