I have been growing woad for many years. I love it. It’s got some enemies, such as cabbage white caterpillars, and can get some diseases, such as clubroot. But mostly it’s easy going and reliable.
The second year woad at the dyeplant garden has been doing just fine. It started to bolt in April:
It got merrily taller:
It flowered prettily in May:
It set lots of seeds, and the seeds are maturing nicely now that it’s June:
The new woad that I planted this spring started out very well, too. I planted on April 24th. Here’s the bed on June 9th:
Here’s a particularly lush plant on the west end of the bed:
However, I noticed on June 8th that some of the plants were sending up little flower stalks already. Just a few of them, maybe two or three. This happens sometimes, so I made a note of it but I wasn’t too worried.
However, when I went to check on things yesterday I was baffled to discover that a lot of the plants have decided to make flowers. You can see that woad is a brassica by the distinctly broccoli-looking buds in this photo:
The plants are still short, but their growth habit is definitely changing. Here’s another view that shows the small leaves clasping the stalk, rather than just laying flat in a basal rosette:
Woad is a biennial and normally doesn’t bloom in the first year, hence my surprise. I have big plans for the woad this year, so I’m a little bit anxious about how this will all turn out.
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!
“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 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:
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.
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. Continue reading “Grow Flax Everywhere”→
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. Continue reading “Rippling and Winnowing Flax Seed”→
While I weeded the flax plot on May 6th, I was simultaneously glad for the opportunity to dig out the campion, and worried about weed pressure later in the summer, and worried that nothing had come up yet. So, I decided to spread another ten pounds of seed. There were a few reasons for this. First, I was worried that I hadn’t accounted enough for the possibility that I’d get a really low germination rate. Second, the more densely the flax is planted, the less the stalks ought to branch as they grow. Third, the more crowded the plants are, the finer the stalks will be and theoretically the finer the fiber will be. Fourth, a dense stand of flax might, hopefully, crowd out weeds. Continue reading “Ten More Pounds of Electra”→