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.

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.

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:

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”

Past Speaking Engagements

Over the past year, I have had several opportunities to demonstrate flax processing and talk about natural dyeing. Here is a quick summary of four events that I didn’t get around to writing about when they happened. I just want to document and share them before too much more time passes.

Last August (2016) I did a flax processing demonstration at the Amherst History Museum, in conjunction with the art exhibit “Artifacts Inspire” by the Fiber Artists of Western Massachusetts. The museum asked the participating artists to create original works inspired by objects in the museum’s collection. Two of the pieces in the show were created by Martha Robinson, inspired by two antique hetchels, which are flax processing tools. There’s a good photo of one of her felted pieces here. It was great fun to show people how flax was processed in the past, and to let folks try their hand at using the tools. Continue reading “Past Speaking Engagements”

Electra in Flower

My flax crop this year has been sorely neglected due to a pinched nerve in my upper back that had me out of commission for about 6 weeks in June and July. However, despite the weeds and lack of TLC, the flax started to bloom on the first of July. Here are some buds getting ready to flower:

Here’s the whole bed on July 1st. The main weeds are campion and lambsquarters, with lesser amounts of plantain and dock.

By July 10th the flax was in full bloom. Here are a couple photos of the flax flowers against the sky. It was a beautiful morning, and the flax flowers were gorgeous. The type I am growing this year is called Electra, and as you can see it is a blue-flowering type:

Continue reading “Electra in Flower”