Flax 2018–Too Much Rain in July and August

“Better late than never” is my middle name, apparently. Here’s the belated installment about my flax in late July and August 2018.

In late July and early August of 2018 we had lots and lots of rain. I’m grateful to live in a place where it *does* rain, but too much rain and heat causes trouble. Fungal and bacterial diseases grow and spread, roots can’t take up nutrients, and plants rot. After a spectacular start in May, June, and early July, it didn’t turn out to be a great summer for flax here in Amherst.

It wasn’t just me. Local farmers struggled with rot and disease. Here’s a link to an article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette and here’s a piece in the Greenfield Recorder.

I am lucky that I do not depend on my flax for income. Nevertheless, it is frustrating and discouraging to put work into getting plants growing in a healthy, happy way, only to watch them struggle and fail. It also raises concerns about the prospect of flax being a viable crop on a larger scale around here.

According to my notes, it rained every day between July 22nd and August 4th, and rained heavily. We continued to have high humidity and periods of very heavy rain until August 13th.

Here’s the state of the field on August 11th:

All that water was very conducive to fungal growth. I took photos of more types of mushroom than these, but the rest all came out blurry. Here are some teensy things which I assume are fungi on Aug. 11th:

The once-lush plants had experienced significant rotting and die-off. This is the type nicknamed 1807 on August 11th, 2018:

Here are two other sad scenes on August 12th:

Most of the seed bolls had not filled in or ripened. Some of the immature bolls had just dropped off their stalks. Here’s what I wrote in my notes on Tuesday August 7th, 2018:

“It doesn’t look like I will get any seed from some of the USDA plots. This year it’s not mice/chipmunks/rodents. I think it might be too much rain. The ones on the end that were so lush, esp. 1787, have very spindly stalks that have lodged pretty badly. There are practically no seed bolls, and the ones I can see are tiny. Some of the other plots have a few more seeds. When we get past this hot spell and next round of rain I’ll inspect more carefully.”

Here’s what the lodging and subsequent die-off looked like:

And similarly:

The plants had not gained any height since the water-logging began, so for fiber this year everything was useless.

It turned out that I was able to collect some seed from some of the plots. Here are a few ripening bolls:

It was really very dismal, though, with all those shriveled and withered tips. I did manage to collect and dry some seed bolls, but the amount of mature seed inside was minimal:

I think I have less seed now than when I started. When I first began this project in 2015, I had a notion that I’d be able to select the fiber flax varieties that did well in the growing conditions here in Western Massachusetts. In 2016 we had a drought, and in 2018 we had this excessive rain. I’m honestly not sure where to go from here.

November 21st 2018 Woad Vat

Yesterday I ran a woad vat! This is worthy of an exclamation point because all day yesterday, I was sure that it was the latest date I had ever run a woad vat.

Normally by this time of year, all the dye plants have been killed by frost and the gardening season is over.

As I started writing this post, I decided to consult my records regarding late-season woad vats. It turns out I was wrong about the latest date of my woad vats in years past. Here’s the proof:

It turns out that I had run a woad vat on the exact same date in 2011. The two closest contenders for “Latest Woad Vat” were October 29th, 2013 and October 23rd, 2005.

Luckily, I write things down and do not have to depend on my bad memory. It was actually kind of amazing looking through all my dye notebooks to find the “Latest Woad Vat” date. I’ve been dyeing since 2000, and have filled up a lot of notebooks.

Here’s the story about yesterday’s vat. Back in mid-October, we had a warning for a hard frost. Light frost won’t hurt woad, but I wanted to protect it from a heavier frost until I had a chance to harvest and use it. I had planted it really late this year, and it wasn’t even ready to pick until mid-September. I hadn’t had time to use it by the middle of October, but a year without a woad vat is a sad thing, so I covered it up and hoped for the best.

Then we had rain and more rain and many more frosty nights, and my schedule didn’t get less busy. On Friday Nov. 16th, we got 8 inches of snow. I figured the fall was over, and I should just go take off the row covers and admit defeat.

Yesterday I had the day off school, and finally had time to visit the dye plant garden and take off the row covers. To my total surprise, all the snow on that side of the hill had melted. Even more surprising, the woad looked perfectly fine.

Not at all dead. Totally alive. A little bit flat, but very green.

Here was the view in the other direction:

I decided to harvest it and run the vat that afternoon. The weather when I started out was cloudy and about 35 degrees. Over the afternoon the temperature was going to drop, and the low last night was forecasted to be in the single digits, close to zero. Today’s high has not exceeded 18 degrees (I’m writing around 3:30 pm). No time like the relatively-less-frigid present.

Here’s a bed after I harvested all the leaves:

Here’s the bag in which I collected the leaves:

I harvested a little over 3 pounds of woad leaves. They were muddy and mixed with a lot of pine needles and dried tree hardwood leaves, so I rinsed them in warm water:

I tried to separate out as many pine needles and leaves as possible. Here was the muddy rinse water afterwards:

Normally I shred the woad leaves but I was racing to get as much done before dark as possible, so I left the leaves intact:

I poured boiling water to the top of the bucket and pressed on the lid. To keep the vat hot, I did this step in the kitchen. The leaves extracted for one hour.

Then, I took the operation outdoors, where it was getting really cold and windy.

Here was the scene outdoors in our parking lot:

We have had a lot of rain and other precipitation over the recent weeks and months, so the ground is totally saturated. I set out milk crates along the front walk to keep things out of the mud.

I strained out the leaves and squeezed out as much liquid as possible. There was a little blue staining on the lid where the leaves had been pressed at the top of the 5 gallon bucket, which I took to be a good sign:

I added ammonia until the pH was between 9 and 10, then I aerated the vat by pouring it back and forth between two 5-gallon buckets:

The foam on top lightened to a creamy color after a while, so I figured that was sufficient. I sprinkled on one and a half packages of RIT Color Remover (which contains the reducing agent sodium hydrosulfite) and stirred it in to help it dissolve:

I let the vat reduce for 45 minutes. By this time it was dark out and really, really cold. I couldn’t take pictures in the dark. I overdyed some yellow skeins (alpaca and wool dyed with weld and marigold), a woad-dyed cotton t-shirt of Matthew’s, and some woolen woad-blue skeins from 2016.

Did I say it was getting cold? When I set the skeins out on milk crates to oxidize, they froze. When I put Matthew’s t-shirt out on the milk crates, it froze:

Here are the skeins oxidizing in the bathtub this afternoon:

The greens were in the vat for 10 minutes each. I left the darkest blue skein in overnight. I haven’t washed or rinsed them yet.

Around 8 pm I moved the vat into the downstairs bathroom to keep it from freezing:

Flax 2018-More July Happenings

In July, the flax started blooming. Usually my flax is blooming in June, but I planted really late this year. I decided to cover the beds again this year to keep the varieties isolated. Depending on whose advice you follow, covering isn’t strictly necessary. It’s labor intensive, admittedly, but it gives me a sense of security that the seed I’m saving from the types I originally got from the USDA are as true as possible to the way that I received them.

The earliest type to start flowering was the one nicknamed 448, which started to flower on July 4th, 37 days after planting. It’s a white flowering type:

Here’s the whole patch:

As each variety started to bloom, I covered it with a tent made of Agribon and staked it down around the bottom to dissuade pollinating insects from getting in. I will spare you the detailed photos I took of each and every type as it started to bloom. Here’s the short version: the earliest variety flowered at 37 days after planting, and the latest at 58 days on July 25th.

Because I made each bed a different size this year, sewing the covers was tricky because each bed had a different circumference. Fortunately, it’s not like custom tailoring and my crude imprecision was not an issue. Here’s the cover in place on the 448:

Originally I just draped the covers over 4 foot hardwood stakes, but I knew that the areas where the Agribon abraded against the sharp corners of the wood were prone to tearing. So I hit on an ingenious solution, if I do say so myself. I padded the tops of the stakes. At first I used some rubbery material that is sold for padding kitchen cabinets (but which I use to keep my reeds from slipping inside the beater on my loom):

I didn’t have a lot of this stuff, and a little did not go a long way. It seemed foolish to spend money on this kind of a temporary hack, so next I turned to my basket of long un-used scrunchies (from the days when I had enough hair to wrap in a scrunchy) and my basket of un-paired and worn out socks:

I have no need of scrunchies these days, plus the elastic is shot. The padding worked amazingly well, and I had practically no tearing or abrasion over the season.

The second design challenge I encountered was the effects of high winds and heavy rain. We had a very thunderstormy month in July. I was disappointed but maybe not too surprised after the first big storms to find that the tents had collapsed:

I figured that the wind was causing the tents to billow like huge balloons and pull too hard on the stakes. So, I added extra stakes on the outside, and wrapped twine across the top to keep the Agribon from billowing out too far:

After a couple more storms, I added twine to the south side of the beds (the beds were more exposed on the north side). With these reinforcements, the tents lasted through the rest of the rainy, wet, stormy month:

I’ll write more about the rain in another post.

Flax 2018-Late June and Early July

This summer we had extremely pleasant weather in June. My flax was very happy.

It was a busy month. The school year was wrapping up, I had year-end reports to write, a sweet little fiber arts summer camp to teach, and we had some old friends visiting from Texas. I managed to water my flax during the dry spells, but that was about it. Unsurprisingly, this was the scene on June 30th. 

I knew that there were flax seedlings in there somewhere! Can you see them? They are the small feathery-looking plants in the center of the staked-out square below. This type is called Ariane:

June 30th also happened to be the beginning of a heat wave that lasted about 8 days. “Heat wave” around here means highs in the mid to upper 90s. I know that’s normal in a lot of places, but it’s hot for western MA. Or maybe it’s just hot for me!

Despite the heat, I undertook an epic weeding campaign that week. By working early in the morning, I managed to avoid the worst of the heat. It was also humid, with several thunderstorms and heavy rain. The wet soil made it easy to pull out the weeds (mostly just lamb’s quarters and grass this year, almost no campion). The down side was that a lot of soil clung to the roots, and I couldn’t avoid pulling up some of the flax plants as I weeded.

I worried that once the shade and support of the taller, leafier plants was removed, the comparatively small and fragile flax would suffer from shock, shrivel up, or flop over. Luckily that did not happen.

Here’s the Ariane after I weeded:

Ariane was the type that I had the least seed from, so it was in the smallest bed. I think I mentioned earlier that I arranged the beds from west to east, smallest to largest. So, this was the furthest to the west.

My calculations (well, OK, estimations) regarding the weight of seed I had and the size of beds I should make turned out not to be very accurate. The smallest beds grew in too sparsely and the largest beds came in too densely. You can see what that looked like in the early stages of growth in the images in this post.

Only a few types grew in the way I had expected, at the density I was imagining. The pair of images on the left below is the type nicknamed 1602 and the pair on the right is Rolin:

In contrast, the Cascade was tightly crammed:

It looks lush and beautiful at this point, but when the plants got bigger it became a problem.

Here’s the larger bed of Electra before I started to weed:

And here’s a close up proving that there really is flax underneath all that:

After a few days of weeding it was all looking much better. From left to right it’s the Ariane, 1602, Rolin, and Cascade beds on July 5th:

In early July there was some worrisome withering at the tips of a lot of the stalks. It seemed like possibly a tiny, brown, flying insect was sucking out the juice just below the tender tips, but I couldn’t get any good photos of the bugs.

Weeding the Electra took a while, but luckily it was on the easternmost side of the plot, which was in the shade until about 10:30am.

On July 5th I had to call it quits around 11 am even though I was so close to being done!

I finished up the next day, July 6th:

Of course, the weeds all grew back again later in July, but at least I gave the flax a fighting chance against the competition.

Bronze Fennel and Swallowtail Butterflies

About four or five years ago, I planted bronze fennel in the dye and fiber plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm. I planted a small six pack, thinking that it would be a one-season plant, in the same way that one might buy marigolds or basil. But no!

As a dye plant, bronze fennel makes a light but bright yellow-green with alum mordant on wool, which can be shifted further toward green with a copper afterbath. Maybe it doesn’t sound that exciting, but if you like chartreuse, you might understand the appeal.

As a garden plant, it is utterly fantastic. It is a perennial, it grows really tall, and it changes color and texture in a lovely way over the season. It smells amazing, tastes amazing, and every part is edible. The flowers, though not showy, attract a lot of pollinators.

Early in the season, the foliage is dark and bronze-green (hence the name). It’s dense and feathery, and can tolerate a lot of neglect. For example, if you don’t get around to weeding until the beginning of June, it is undaunted and continues to make a statement:

After you get around to weeding and filling in the annuals, it makes a gorgeous color contrast with other shades of green or purple:

Alas, the purple basil didn’t thrive (i.e., survive) this year, but the eucalyptus is doing well.

One of the most amazing things about bronze fennel is that it is a host plant for swallowtail butterflies. The downside is that the caterpillars eat the leaves. The upside is that there is so much plant material, you really don’t care. You just want the caterpillars to be happy and turn into butterflies.

Here are some photos from June 20 that show older caterpillars:

The first and the last image, I’m pretty sure, are the same caterpillar from different viewpoints. So, let’s say there were two caterpillars on the mature bronze fennel on June 20th. I had noticed them in past summers when they were about this size, but hadn’t thought much about what happened before or after this stage of growth. Honestly, I didn’t even look further into what type of caterpillar it was. They came and went, no harm done.

At some point this summer, I decided I ought to hold a dye plant sale. So, rather than just weeding out the bronze fennel seedlings that had sprouted up around the parent plants, I dug a few of them up and put them into pots. For many days, the potted-up babies sat in the shade next to the garden, but eventually I got all the necessary factors lined up to put the plants in the back of the car and bring them home. Well, we didn’t go straight home from Bramble Hill Farm, because once you are out and about doing errands with the car, you may as well multi-task. So, they were still in the back of the car when I pulled into the parking lot of Stop and Shop. I looked in the rear-view mirror, and could clearly see that one of the plants had been chomped.

Well, it was obviously caterpillars. But these were plants I was hoping to sell, and I didn’t want them to be eaten! Who is eating my fennel? Here’s what I saw when I looked more closely:

This wasn’t the only one. There were three of these little creatures.

Even without knowing exactly what they were, I was sure this wasn’t your average “pest”. I decided to move them back to the mature fennel plants at the garden so they could keep growing. It is surprisingly hard to get my phone aka camera to focus on small insects, so all my photos of the resettlement project came out blurry except this one:

OK, this one is blurry too. But the point is that I moved the teensy caterpillars onto different plants, and hoped they would continued to grow and develop.

There are a lot of websites that have information about swallowtail butterflies’ lifecycles. I found the images by Bob Moul on this site very clear. This website from the University of Florida also has clear images and information. This Mass Audubon site has information specific to Massachusetts.

It turns out that there are a lot of different types of swallowtail, and even different types of black swallowtail. I think that the teensy caterpillars I noticed in the Stop and Shop parking lot are the first instar of eastern black swallowtail caterpillars. That’s as specific as I could get at this point.

Up here in the Northeast, from what I can gather, there is only time for two generations of butterflies to grow and mature in a summer season. After that, the next generation has to overwinter and emerge from its chrysalis in the spring. I may be oversimplifying this, so I intend to do more reading and observations on the topic. Some folks protect the chrysalises over winter, but I am hoping they will be OK in situ.

9/2/18 Edited to add: This blog post on Our Habitat Garden has very clear photos of the entire lifecycle of Eastern Black Swallowtails. Upon re-reading it, I think the caterpillars I found were an early instar, but not the first. The authors also explain how and why you might need to overwinter a chrysalis in the northeast.

As of August 30th, I haven’t seen any chrysalises yet. If I do see a chrysalis at Bramble Hill, I will let you know!

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.

 

 

Grow Flax Everywhere

In 2015, my flax and linen study group got 29 types of different fiber flax seed from the USDA. I’ve been doing my best to keep them isolated as I grow them, though I’m down to 12 types now that I’ve been able to keep going. Many earlier blog posts document my successes and failures with this project thus far.

My “beer bottle” method for removing flax seeds has some draw-backs. Hunching over like Gollum while I work is one of them. I have specific goals when I’m working with these seeds, which lead to specific practices that have (hopefully) specific outcomes. Namely, I am trying to keep the different varieties of flax isolated so that I can grow them out and increase the quantity of seed that I have from each type. When I’m taking the seeds off, I make an effort to keep the types separate.

My strategy with the beer bottle method is to crush the bolls onto a piece of cloth like a sheet or pillowcase. Whatever seed I can definitively confirm came from a specific stalk of a specific type, I deem worthy of saving. If a seed falls onto the ground, it is lost to me. I can’t guarantee which plant it came from, so I don’t keep it. Between each type of flax I sweep the path and do a careful visual inspection to be sure that the surface of the next sheet of cloth is clear.

My method also has some unintended outcomes, it turns out. I didn’t really realize how many seeds I was losing by this method until early June. The lawn out in front of the apartment was getting nice and lush, and I noticed a familiar feathery-looking plant amidst the blades of grass:

There’s plantain, dandelion, gill-over-the-ground, and oh yes, flax!

Here’s our cat Sammy checking out the scene.

Flax even started to grow through the crack in the sidewalk!

There was a lot of flax in the lawn. I got a really good germination rate! It’s not a good place for flax to grow, since it was repeatedly mowed, and eventually it couldn’t survive. I was pretty impressed that is was able to compete with the other plants for as long as it did. But from a seed conservation perspective, I obviously need a new approach.

 

Rippling and Winnowing Flax Seed

Over the years that I’ve been growing flax, I have written several verses of a silly, imaginary song. Each verse tells you about something you shouldn’t do, inspired by my own trials and failures. One verse goes like this: “Don’t store your flax with the seeds on/For it will attract lots of mice./They’ll get fat on the seeds/And leave lots of debris/Don’t store your flax with the seeds on.” Yes, this is based on a true story.

Despite this good advice to myself, it often takes several months or even years before I get around to the next step in the process. On April 20th, in anticipation of my 2018 growing season, I finally finished removing the seeds from the flax I grew in 2016.

Here I am using the “wine bottle method” or in this case, the “beer bottle method” for crushing the seed bolls and removing the seeds. This sequence of photos made me laugh. At first I’m just doing my thing out on the front walkway. Matthew kindly thought to document the moment:

When I realized someone was behind me, I apparently turned into Gollum, jealously guarding “my precious” flax seeds:

Then when I realized I was acting suspiciously, I pretended to be a normal person, but I’m not very convicing:

Fast forward a few weeks to May 5th, when the optimal time for planting flax had already passed and I needed a faster way to clean the chaff from my seeds. In the background below you can see me engaged in my usual method for cleaning flax seed, which works OK for small quantities. I blow the lighter-weight plant material off the edge of a round metal lid. I tilt the lid as I turn and blow, so the heavier seeds stay in the center. In the foreground you can see our cat Sammy, herself acting a bit like Gollum jealously guarding a pot of catnip.

With spring moving along apace, I needed a faster method of winnowing. So, I brought a fan outside. With a little trial and error, I got it set up at a speed and distance that blew the chaff away but allowed the seeds to fall back into the lid:

Here’s a close-up that shows the pieces of seed boll, dried leaves, pedicels, and other bits of plant debris flying away on the breeze: