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:

FIBERuary 2018

Since it has been so many months since I last posted, I am trying to catch up in chronological order. My last series of posts was from December 2017. This one is from February 2018.

Thanks to the efforts of Carole Adams of Whispering Pines Farm, and Liz Sorenson of Sheep and Shawl, among others, we have a new local tradition here in Western MA called FIBERuary. During the month of February, Carole features local fiber farmers and fiber artists on the FIBERuary blog, and Liz hosts a speaker series at her shop in South Deerfield, MA. 

I have been a contributor to the FIBERuary blog on a couple occasions, and a speaker at their speaker series. In these hot and humid days of August, I decided to share an expanded version of the post I wrote this February. It’s about one of my favorite dye plants, weld:

Growing Weld

If you are a gardener who is interested in dyeing with plants, there are many interesting dye plants that you can grow in your garden. Weld (Reseda luteola) is one of them. It is originally a Eurasian plant, and its use dates back to antiquity. It has not naturalized here in New England, unlike so many other Eurasian plants. So, if you want to use it, you have to grow it yourself or buy it from a natural dye supply company. It is relatively expensive to buy, but it’s very easy to grow, so I encourage you to grow your own. Weld produces a very lightfast source of yellow, thanks to the luteolin that is present in all the above-ground parts of the plant.

Starting Seed

I find that it is difficult to direct-sow. The seeds are incredibly small, and need to be kept consistently moist while germinating. I usually start the seeds in small pots and transplant them when they’re big enough. I am fairly certain that only the black seeds are viable, but it is hard to to separate the green, yellow, and tan seeds efficiently, so I just plant a pinch of mixed seed and thin the seedlings if necessary. The photos below show the results of a germination test I ran in 2011. You can see that none of the yellow or brown seeds germinated, but the black seeds did:

The plant has a taproot, so transplant carefully. Weld prefers alkaline soil, and you can add chalk or lime to your bed if your soil is acidic.  Wherever you put it in your garden, be sure to leave space for much larger plants in the second year.

Weld is a biennial, which means that its lifecycle takes two years. In the first year, the plant grows low to the ground in a round clump or rosette.

The leaves are long and thin with wavy edges. You can use the leaves in the first year by cutting them close to the center of the plant. The quantity of plant material that you can gather in the first year is relatively small, though, so I usually wait until the second year to harvest weld.

In its second year, weld sends up a tall woody stalk that can get as high as 5 feet.

It produces tons of tiny creamy-colored flowers that are attractive to bees and other insects.

It is easy to save your own seed, though cleaning it can be a chore. Some dyers find that letting the plants go to seed produces an unwanted abundance of volunteer weld seedlings. In my experience, I get at most one or two volunteers a year, which is manageable.

To harvest weld, cut down the entire stalk in full bloom.

If you are saving seed, wait until you can see dark colored seeds at the lowest part of the flowering stalk before harvesting. The flower stalks keep adding new flowers at the tip, while the seeds mature at the base.

You can use weld fresh, or dry it for future use. I hang it upside down from a laundry-drying rack to dry. In some years, I have noticed a strong smell as the weld dries. It is not to everyone’s liking, so be prepared to dry it with ventilation or move your drying set-up if the smell becomes objectionable.

Once it’s dry, chop up the plant material to reduce the bulk, and store it in a dry location until you are ready to use it. The dried stalks can be extremely hard and woody, so I use garden clippers. I store dried weld in a paper bag to absorb any condensation when there are temperature fluctuations, and seal that inside a plastic bag. It also keeps well in a cardboard box.

Weld is known for producing extremely clear, bright yellows. It combines beautifully with indigo, Japanese indigo, or woad to make greens, and with madder to make oranges.

Icy Queen Anne’s Lace

On Christmas Eve my family went sledding on a snow, icy hill in New Hampshire. My sister Denise captured these beautiful images of Queen Anne’s Lace encased in ice after an ice storm.

You can see the seed heads at the tops of the plant stalks, still standing despite the weather. Here are a couple close-ups:

Queen Anne’s Lace is a beautiful plant in any season, at any phase of growth, but the ice adds a glistening sparkle! Below you can see the seeds pretty clearly. They are oval shaped with little hairs all over them. You can also see the remains of the structure of the umbel from when it was flowering.

I have been meaning to do a post about identifying dyeplants at different times of year. Knowing where plants are going to come up in the following season is very helpful. You can watch for their emergence and check back at favorite spots to see when they’re ready to harvest. I think it’s fun and exciting to understand what plants look like at different phases in their lifecycle.

Until I get around to writing that post, I recommend two books. My favorite guide on this topic is Weeds of the Northeast by Richard Uva, Joseph Neal and Joseph DiTomaso. It has incredibly detailed photos and descriptions, different kinds of keys, a glossary, illustrations of botanical terms, comparison charts of look-alike plants, and more. The other is Weeds and Wildflowers in Winter by Lauren Brown. It has expressive black and white line drawings and poetic descriptions.

As I write this now in early August, the Queen Anne’s Lace is in full bloom and setting seed.

Praying Mantis Egg Cases

Here’s another reflection on the fascinating intricacies of plant-insect relationships.

Way back in April, I was prepping some beds to plant woad at our Amethyst Brook community garden plot. I noticed this egg case on a hyssop plant:

I was pretty sure it was a praying mantis egg case. Several year ago, a parent in my class at school brought us a praying mantis egg case to observe. She told us to leave it in a glass jar in the garden shed all winter. In the spring when it started to warm up, we brought the jar into the classroom. Continue reading “Praying Mantis Egg Cases”

Goldenrod Ball Galls

One of the things I love about dyeing with plants is that plants are amazing and awe-inspiring in so many other ways, too. First of all, they create their own food from energy from the sun, and provide all of us oxygen-breathers and plant-consumers with life and sustenance. For that alone I am so grateful. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of amazing things about plants!

They are an integral part of complex inter-relationships that are not always obvious at my human eye level. I catch glimpses of some of these sometimes while I walk in the fields and woods, or when I garden. It makes me realize how much I don’t know about the intricate network of relationships between plants, animals, and microorganisms that are going on around me all the time. Continue reading “Goldenrod Ball Galls”

Historic Eastfield Village 2017

On Saturday September 23rd, I demonstrated the flax-to-linen process at Historic Eastfield Village’s Founder’s Day celebration. It was a lovely day! We had a heat wave later that week, but under the oak trees that day it was pleasantly cool and shady.

I brought dried flax stalks with the seeds on, retted flax, and all the tools to break, scutch, and hetchel the fibers. I also had some commercial linen yarns that I dyed with madder, weld, woad, and black walnut.

Historic Eastfield Village is a very interesting place. You can read more about their history, buildings, and classes on their website. Last year, I attended Founders Day with Lisa Bertoldi, on the invitation of Niel DeMarino of the Georgian Kitchen, whom we had met at the Flax and Linen Symposium in August 2016. Continue reading “Historic Eastfield Village 2017”

Electra Update Part Two

As I mentioned in my last post, this is a “retro time” account of my flax harvest this year, not a “real time” account. Here’s the belated next installment.

I started digging up the Electra plot on July 31st. I didn’t finish until August 12th. Now it’s all pulled up, dry, and stored safely in the back of the van. Because that’s where the flax gets stored.

The yield was small but the effort was mighty! I could only work for a couple hours a day, and some days I didn’t work at all. This summer taught me a profound lesson in the privileges and assumptions I have carried with me all my life as an able-bodied, pain-free person. My motto used to be, “Do all the things!”* This summer, not so much. Continue reading “Electra Update Part Two”

Electra Progress Report Part One

I had meant to post updates about my flax crop this summer in “real time”. However, “retro time” will have to do.

Here are a few things that I observed and learned as the 2017 flax was growing and maturing.

First, the flax chewers who devastated my crop in 2016, and half of my crop in 2015, were back at it again this year. However, when you have 1500 square feet of the same variety (Electra from Biolin), rather than tiny test plots of 12 square feet or less, the effect of the damage isn’t as troubling. I found dozens of chewed up flax stalks, but it was a negligible percentage of the whole crop. I am sticking to my hypothesis that the culprits are rodents of some kind. Here’s some scat that may or may not belong to them:

Second, the chewers are not solely interested in flax. It might not even be their favorite or preferred plant to chew. The fact that flax is *my* preferred plant in that location means that it bothers me when they chew it. I don’t care about the other plants, so I’m less inclined to notice their demise. Predation of “weeds” is a boon, from a flax-grower’s point of view. But it’s possible that from the chewers’ point of view, it’s the flax that’s a nuisance. Continue reading “Electra Progress Report Part One”

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”