Well, I was totally wrong in my prediction that Suzanne was a white flowering type. Behold:
Whatever the disappointment and heartaches that befall, I love flax! I am so happy to be celebrating this next phase of the life cycle. Blue flowers!
In the dim light of a cloudy morning, I could not convince my phone that the crinkly purplish-blue flowers were deserving of focus, hence the inclusion/intrusion of my crinkly skin. The photo function on my camera seems to find my skin more recognizable than a flower amidst a sea of green.
Despite the most perfect spring weather I can imagine, my flax isn’t thriving. I am pretty sure the problem is that I planted too densely.
It’s been very rainy and relatively cool this spring. Not great for certain crops, I’m sure, but it ought to be great for flax.
However, the density of the plants has created so much competition that they are not growing at all in the center of the bed. Meanwhile, the tall plants around the edges are getting ready to flower, right on schedule.
Here’s what’s been going on since I last wrote. On May 31st the difference between the edges and the center of the plot was really obvious. The plants along the edge are darker and taller:
In contrast, the plants in the center are shorter and brighter/lighter colored:
I could see the problem, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I couldn’t imagine thinning a 140 foot bed by hand, so I didn’t.
On June 9th, I ran into Ryan while I was checking on the flax. He said that his fields tend to be low in potassium and suggested adding some fertilizer. He kindly gave me a bucketful of this stuff to spread over the plot:
In retrospect it would have been better to add it much earlier in the season. At this point, the flax ought to be two thirds of the way to being ready to pull. I don’t think the stunted plants will have a chance to gain any additional height before they decide to just flower and set seed.
Here’s an overview of the plot on June 9th:
Here is a closer view:
It’s vibrant and glowing but it’s not doing what it ought to be doing. The height should be consistent across the bed, and it should be getting ready to flower. Here are the edge plants compared to the rest on June 9th:
On June 15th, the tallest plants were forming buds and getting ready to bloom. I planted in mid-April, which means that the flax ought be be flowering by mid-June. Some of it will. Most of it won’t.
It looks like it will be a white-flowering type. I’ll know for sure when the flowers open later this week. I am growing a type called Suzanne this year, which I haven’t grown before.
Ryan suggested hoeing some channels and knocking down some of the stunted plants to create an edge effect throughout the rest of the bed. I think it’s a good idea. I guess I won’t know unless I try.
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!
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 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:
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”→