Digging up Madder 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.

March in the Dye Plant Garden

On March 15th I did a little spring cleaning in my school’s dye plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm. Here is the “before” picture:

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:

Welcome, spring!

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:

Continue reading “November 21st 2018 Woad Vat”

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:

Continue reading “Flax 2018-More July Happenings”

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:

Continue reading “Flax 2018-Late June and Early July”

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.

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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. Continue reading “Flax 2018-What Happened in May”

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:

Continue reading “Swamp Milkweed Update”