We have had a relatively cool and rainy spring here in western MA. Good flax-growing weather, at least for this phase of the growth cycle.
I planted on April 19th, which was a Friday. There was a lot of rain the following week, so I didn’t have to water. I tried to be patient, and waited until April 27th to check on the germination, eight days later. I got excellent germination! Here’s the exciting flush of green across the whole bed:
I guess I was worried about sowing too close to the edge of the plot, so it’s totally bald at the edges:
Here’s a close up of the plants busting through the soil. They’re pretty crowded:
Maybe I should have planted less densely. We’ll see.
On the whole, the weather stayed cool and wet for the first couple weeks, though we had some warm and sunny days. Here’s the plot on May 5th (Sunday):
Those bald edges are even more prominent, which illuminates the fact that my planting density is actually a tad higher than I thought. Out of a five foot bed, I sowed more like four feet. OK.
Here are the chipper-looking seedlings doing their thing two weeks after planting:
Most recently, I checked on the plot on Sunday May 19th. We had a bit more sun and warmer temperatures last week. The vivid green of flax is such a cheering sight. Exuberant! Uplifting! Joyous! Buoyant!
Back in April I cleaned up some Japanese indigo seeds from plants I grew in 2017.
Here’s the little bag I stored them in as I cleaned them:
On April 7th I put them inside damp paper towels to sprout, as I’ve done before. You can read about earlier Japanese indigo sprouting efforts in my earlier posts here and here.
Here’s what one hundred Japanese indigo seeds looks like:
From what I’ve read and experienced, Japanese indigo seeds do not stay viable for long. You’re supposed to use them in the next growing season. if you try to store them longer than that, expect poor results. Since I do not plant Japanese indigo every year, my germination rate is always pretty low. I set up a sheet with 100 seeds to make the math easy.
This year I bought a seedling mat to keep them warm. I thought it might help with germination. Here’s the type I bought:
Here’s how I set it up:
The mat certainly worked to keep things toasty. In fact, I added a towel on top of the mat to keep the seeds off the direct heat. But as it turned out, I got way too impatient to wait for the seeds to sprout on the paper towels.
On Friday April 19th I planted flax. This year I’m growing a type called Suzanne, courtesy of Jeff Silberman at Fashion Institute of Technology’s Textile Development and Marketing department. Once again, I am very grateful to Bernard at Amethyst Farm and Ryan at Many Hands Farm Corps for giving me space to pursue my flax endeavors. I put in seven pounds of seed.
This year my plot is right in the heart of the Many Hands CSA pick-your-own field and share pick-up barn. Here are the signs as you pull in to that part of the farm:
Ryan kindly tilled the strip for my plot on April 17th. Here’s what it looked like on Friday afternoon:
The plot is 5 feet wide by 140 feet long. Each of the vertical stakes along the right hand edge measures 20 feet in length. To help me plant evenly, I divided the seed into two pound bags. Here’s what two pounds of flax seed looks like:
After a series of mailing mishaps, I was eager, happy, and grateful to greet the postal person carrying the box of flax seed to the door of my apartment around 3pm on Friday. I zoomed over to the plot to plant as quickly as I could that afternoon.
In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have felt like I was in such a rush, but I had my reasons. First of all, it was April vacation week and I was hoping to get the flax in before the week was up. Second of all, I had regrets about planting so late last year. If I had planted in mid-April when I should have, all that heavy rain and mold nonsense in late July and August last summer wouldn’t have been a problem. So, I really wanted to get it planted by the middle of April this year. Third of all, it was supposed to rain for many days starting on Friday evening, and I figured I had a small window to get the seed in before all the wet weather rolled in.
So, I weighed out the seed in two pound bags ahead of time, but the rest of the measurements took place at the site. Fortunately, 5 feet wide by 20 feet long makes for easy calculations.
I planted one pound of seed per 100 square feet, or two pounds per 200 square feet. Using a hand-broadcast method, I spread two pounds at a time across forty feet. For the last twenty feet, I divided the last two pound bag in half. Then I raked the seed in with a hard-headed rake.
The cover crop that Ryan put in for the winter was peas, oats, and radishes (if I recall correctly). It left a very nice straw, which significantly cuts down on erosion. After I raked the seed in, I pressed down the seed bed with a combination of methods. I started with a wooden board, which I stepped on to press down the soil.
This has been my tried and true method for smaller plots, but for 140 feet it was tedious. Ryan offered me a roller, which was more efficient, for sure:
The roller wasn’t very heavy, though, so I went over the whole thing with repeated passes of the roller, the board, and my own vigorous foot stomping. Here’s the finished seed bed, all planted and smooth:
Here’s a close up:
The raking removed quite a bit of the cover crop straw, which I regretted when we got hours of pouring rain on Friday night and Saturday. We had intermittent showers on Sunday, too. However, the bed is in the middle of a very smooth and flat field. When I checked this evening (Sunday) I didn’t see any rivulets of run-off or other soil disturbance from the heavy rain.
The weather is supposed to be warm (50s to 70s F.) and lightly rainy for the next few days. Finger crossed for a good crop this year!
OK, yes, the title is just an excuse to use a pun. In reality, once they were dry, the madder roots I harvested were not very heavy at all. But they did prompt me to do quite a bit of thinking and math about the yield of this “crop”.
In my last post I shared an image of four trays of roots, rinsed off and set up to dry on Saturday March 30th. Here’s a refresher. I love how they glisten and glow:
On Sunday March 31st I dug up three more trays just like them.
When they were freshly harvested, and before I rinsed them, the roots weighed just over 15 lb. I weighed them again after I rinsed them, thinking that the loss of soil weight would give a more accurate measurement. But instead, the added water weight increased the overall weight, which didn’t really help me figure out how heavy the roots were by themselves. So, I’m sticking with 15 lb. for this math.
Over the next couple weeks the trays sat in the apartment, outdoors, and in the van, depending on the weather. By Thursday April 18th they were dry and crispy. Plus, I was on April vacation and had time to deal with them.
Here are some photos of the trays before I broke up the roots. There were seven trays altogether, but I figured four images is enough to get the idea.
Here are some close-ups. I took a ridiculous number of close-up photos because the closer I looked, the more amazing all the intricate tangles, textures, and colors were. Matthew characterized them fondly as “dusty sticks” and we agreed that happily examining dusty sticks is pretty typical of the way I like to spend my free time. So, here are some images of dusty sticks for your enjoyment:
In this photo below, you can see that my rinsing method wasn’t very thorough. There’s a clump of gritty soil lodged in the center of a curly twist of root. The pale straw-looking pieces are above-ground stalks:
In the photo below I’m interested in the dried skin that’s flaking off. It would be good to understand more about what’s happening there.
I like how the broken end in the root in this photo below looks like a mouth. The maw of madder.
The total weight of dried snapped-up roots was only 2 lb. 6 oz (or 38 oz).
Here is the inside of the bag:
If my math is right, that’s approximately an 84% loss in weight. I ended up with about 15% of what I started with.
This surprised me, and made me wonder what the overall yield from the whole plot might be. The area I dug up that weekend was 115 square feet. This works out to about .33 ounces of dried roots per square foot. (38 ÷ 115 = .330 and to double-check, 115 x .33 = 37.95).
The remaining area that I haven’t dug up yet is 25 square feet, which means I could get 8 more ounces from that section (25 x .33 = 8.25). Which means the yield from the whole plot would be 46 ounces, or 2 lb. 14 oz. That’s almost 3 lb. if we’re rounding up. So, 140 square feet can yield just below 3 lb. of dried roots. Which doesn’t seem very productive to me, especially because you have to wait three years to harvest them, theoretically.
However, since I don’t really have anything to compare it to, I don’t really have a basis for judging whether .33 oz per square foot is a good yield or a bad yield. I decided I’d better do some reading. This is my first foray into this question, so I may come up with different and better information in the near future.
This article from a book on Google Books called A-Z vol. 4 supplement, written by Andrew Ure and Robert Hunt, published in 1878 by Longmans, Green, and Company, reports on page 160: “The quantity of fresh roots obtained in France from one arpent of ground (of 48,000 square feet) varies from 4,000 to 6,000 pounds.” The authors cite other units of measurement in other countries (units like morgens and cwts) but I didn’t have the patience to find out how to translate them to things I understand. So, let’s stick with France for now.
If 48,000 square feet yields 4,000 lb. of fresh roots, one square foot would be .0833 lb. or 1.33 oz.
Using my 15% figure for the dry weight, that would be .995 oz. of dried roots per square foot for the low range of the harvest. If 48,000 square feet yields 6,000 lb. fresh roots, that would be .125 lb. per square foot fresh, or 2 oz. and .3 oz. dried. Ha! Maybe my yield is actually as good as a French madder farmer in the 1870s! Phew, that’s a relief.
If you’re checking my math and you find it’s nutty and wrong, please email me.
Madder roots are currently on sale for $21.95/lb at Aurora Silks, $19.78/lb. at Dharma Trading, $40/lb (sold by the ounce) from Long Ridge Farm, and $28 for 500g at Botanical Colors (just to name a few vendors that I could check on line quickly this afternoon). So, that means every three years a madder bed filling 140 square feet of garden space could grow somewhere between $60 and $120 worth of roots.
On Saturday March 30th and Sunday March 31st I dug up a good portion of my madder bed. I already posted about the other garden clean-up I did that Saturday. This post is about digging up the madder roots, specifically, so I’m telling the story a slightly different way.
You are supposed to harvest madder roots when the above-ground parts of the plant are dormant. I always think that I will dig roots in the fall once the tops have died back. My notion is that after a season of growth, the roots will be fat and juicy and full of color. For some reason, that fall harvest time seldom happens.
More often, I dig up roots in the spring when I’m trying to curtail the spread of the madder into the pathways and adjacent beds in the dye plant garden. That’s really more like “weeding” than harvesting. I worry sometimes that after a cold winter of storing up nutrients to help the plants survive, there’s not a lot of oomph left in the roots to yield good dye. Nevertheless, given my work constraints and other factors, that has been my typical pattern.
Even with these annual curtailment efforts, the madder has gradually taken over more and more of the garden.
This spring, though, I have aspirations of planting a lot of Japanese indigo and woad, so I wanted to open up some space for additional beds. The weather smiled upon me on Saturday March 30th. The forecast had called for afternoon rain, but at 3 pm it was still gorgeous, 60 degrees, and not in the least rainy. The snow had all melted, the ground had thawed, so I seized the opportunity.
Here’s the “before” photo of the madder bed. Nothing to see here.
With the very first pitch-fork-full of soil, I struck roots. Well, OK, technically the tool I prefer is a hay fork, but it’s pointy and slightly curved and perfect for digging.
The thin pinkish-purplish squiggle in the photo above is a worm. The slightly thicker orange-red squiggles are madder roots. Below is a particularly impressive knot of roots demonstrating its power and sentience:
I was excited to find such a big knot because (brief detour from the narrative)….
This madder bed has been in place for about ten years. Most of the sources I’ve read agree that madder roots are ready to harvest after three years. I have harvested from this bed several times since its initial three-year growth period, but I’ve often been dismayed at the thickness of the roots. They are nowhere near as thick as the commercial roots I’ve bought from places like Aurora Silks or Tierra Wools. They are, in fact, thin.
I have given this matter (a madder matter) quite a bit of thought. First, I suspect that three years of growth here in Western MA is not the same as three years of growth in a warmer climate with shorter winters. In my garden, the plants are dormant for much of the year. They aren’t early to rise in the spring, and they are the first plants to die back in the late summer. Presuming that above-ground photosynthesis is necessary for below-ground root growth, my roots don’t have a lot of growing time. Comparing three-year-old madder roots from a longer-season climate with three-year-old roots around here might be like comparing human years and dog years.
Second, I do not have any way to determine or control the age of the roots I dig. Madder is a bedstraw. The plants send out new runners and put down new roots all the time. Old roots bust out with new shoots. Even in one area of the bed, old and new roots must get jumbled together. It’s likely that a lot of the roots I’m digging up aren’t actually three years old, even though the bed is much older than that.
Third, I have been woefully negligent about testing the soil or adding amendments to the madder bed. The roots would probably grow thicker with additional compost or manure.
OK, back to the narrative. I was thrilled to find thick roots. Finally! Here is a close up of that exciting knot:
Madder is exciting, in part, because the roots are like veins of lava. They look all earthy and rock-like, but inside there is fire!
On Saturday I dug up the west and south sides of the bed. In the foreground are the four trays that I filled that afternoon:
I brought home those four trays to weigh, rinse, and set up to dry. Here is an unwashed tray of roots. Sentient, right?
Here I am scrubbing the roots in a 5-gallon bucket of water to remove as much soil as possible:
Here are some of the wet roots in the bucket:
Here is the Saturday harvest all rinsed and set up to dry:
And here is the bucket of muddy water. I am not sure whether the pink tinge comes just from the soil or from the color that rinses off the roots:
On Sunday I went back again to do more digging, but this time I was racing the rain. The forecast called for rain starting at 11 am, and this time they were right.
In the morning on Sunday, I dug up the east and north sides of the bed. Here’s the “after” photo:
I didn’t take the time to photograph the rinsing process that morning, because at exactly 11am the rain began.
That morning I pulled up the dead marigolds (bed furthest to right) and orange cosmos (bed furthest to the left).
The woad was up, but something had been nibbling it. I suspect rabbits, but I can’t be sure.
I checked back on things on March 27th. I noticed that one of the woad beds was faring a little better than the other (longer leaves) but was still suffering from some chomping:
Here was the bedraggled stand of amsonia on March 27th:
I didn’t get back over there until March 30th. I cut down the amsonia, which I grow because it is a bast fiber plant. Some years I cut it down earlier in the fall or winter, but this fall I obviously didn’t get around to it. Yay, the Amsonia fit in the back of the car. Barely!
I also cut down the dead bronze fennel, which was not worth saving at that point. Once I cut away the dead stalks and cleared away the fallen leaves, I was excited to see that there was already new growth!
If you bought some of the bronze fennel plants at my plant sale last summer at Sheep and Shawl, check to see if they’re up!
One of the things I love about gardening and dyeing with plants is the way that it requires me to look closely and be attentive. Close up, you can clearly see the new growth. It is eye-poppingly bright and practically shouting its presence. You can also see the architectural ruins of the old stalks, some darker blotches on the fresh fronds, which I think must be frost damage, and so many other intriguing details. At every stage of its growth, the fronds of the bronze fennel are just so soft and feathery.
However, from the view point five feet off the ground, there’s nothing that would catch the eye or demand that you stoop to look more closely:
On that last remaining stalk in the bronze fennel bed, I found an egg case. I think it’s another praying mantis egg case (ootheca!) so I didn’t cut it. Here’s the close up:
“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.
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:
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.
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:
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: