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Seed Conundrum

tomato seeds--Long Tom-Barnes Mt Red-Cherry - BLOG

tomato seeds–l to r, Long Tom, Barnes Mountain Red, Cherry

Seeds aren’t always what we think they are. They are part of our world, which is always changing, so it is logical to think that seeds change over time, also. We can take great care to keep seed varieties pure, or mostly so, and then find out things happened that we didn’t expect. That’s life.

We can’t always tell by just looking at seeds how they will express themselves. Here are seeds for three varieties of tomatoes I am planting this year. One is a cherry tomato that is large by today’s cherry tomato standards, red, and has a real tomato taste, not sweet like the newer varieties. I used to grow these for restaurant sales more than 20 years ago. One variety is for Long Tom tomatoes. Long Tom is a very meaty variety that grows to an oblong shape weighing about 4 ounces. It is great for drying and has few seeds.

The third variety is for a tomato I call Barnes Mountain Red. It is a large red meaty tomato with great taste and good for all uses. A few years ago my daughter, Betsy, received seeds for Barnes Mountain Pink to grow out for a seed company. Unbeknownst to the seed company, the variety wasn’t stable and the seeds produced yellow, pink, and red tomatoes. The seeds for the pinks went back to the seed company with the instability noted. Betsy loved the yellows and saved the seed, wanting to work with it when time allowed. I am not big on off-colored tomatoes, but loved the red ones, so I saved the seed from some of those. I was happy they produced red tomatoes for me. (Many of the varieties in my garden have some sort of story connected to them.) Each of these tomato varieties is much different than the others, but you can’t tell that by looking at their seeds, except that there are always fewer seeds from the Long Toms and in this photo they look a bit darker.

You know that I have been working with cotton, specifically Nankeen Brown and Erlene’s Green. Betsy grows seeds for four seed companies and this year the seeds she agreed to grow for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange included Nankeen Brown cotton. I happened to be around when she opened the box of seeds she had received from Southern Exposure and had the opportunity to take a peek at the cotton, expecting to see dark seeds with no lint, otherwise known as naked seeds. To my surprise, they were fuzzy!

Nankeen Brown Cotton--SESE-Sunfield-BLOG

Nankeen Brown Cotton seeds–from Southern Exposure on left, my seeds (now called Sunfield Brown) on right.

I first grew what I know as Nankeen Brown in my garden in 2005 and saved the seed. I still have the seed container labeled 2005 in my stash. I didn’t grow them out again until 2011 when I also grew Erlene’s Green. There was eventually some crossing that I will tell you about when I write about my Cotton Project. Every year since, the darkest brown fiber had seeds that were naked. If the fiber was lighter brown, it had crossed with the green and the seeds were fuzzy. To my best recollection, I bought the seeds from Southern Exposure and even remember there was a story about a Nankeen shirt connected with that variety.

The folks at Southern Exposure are friends of mine, so I contacted them questioning what they had sent. Anything they could find on Nankeen Brown indicated it had fuzzy seeds. They didn’t start working with Sea Island Brown, which has naked seeds, until 2008, so I wouldn’t have gotten those seeds. Although I keep many records, including seed invoices, I can’t seem to find the file from 2005. What a conundrum! Until now I would have sworn I was working with Nankeen Brown and it had naked seeds. I don’t know what happened there, but life goes on. I am renaming my brown cotton Sunfield Brown, since Sunfield is the name of our very small farm.

Most varieties don’t expose themselves like cotton does. Visual inspection doesn’t reveal differences. Seed companies do their best to make sure the seeds you receive are what they say they are. I have heard stories about gardeners having ordered seeds that grew out to be different than advertised. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it happens. The companies are dependent on their growers, who farm in a variety of areas, most likely with different soils and more or less a different climate than you are gardening in. I’m sure the growers work to ensure cross pollination doesn’t happen. However, anything can happen from seed, to plant, to seed that is distributed—and it does. Of course, this doesn’t explain what happened in the cotton mix-up. What a conundrum about that cotton.

We can get tied up in names of varieties, complete with detailed descriptions of what they will look and taste like and how they will grow. Personally, I don’t think the same variety of anything would grow the same in different climates and different soils, even within the same region. What matters most is how it grows in your garden. Discover what you want to produce, and experiment with varieties until you come close. Then save the seeds each year to have a strain of that variety that is acclimated to your soil, weather, and gardening habits. Seeds contain a whole history in their genes and you can bring out what works best for you. Then name it what you want. However it came to be that you grew that variety is your story and now you can give it a name.

coldframe seedlings--tomatoes-peppers-zinnias - BLOG

Peppers are coming up in front of the tomatoes in the coldframe.

So as not to be too far from what you started with, you might include the name of the original variety in your new name. The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog carries a tomato variety called Roma VF Virginia Select, a strain of Roma VF that Pam Dawling developed at Twin Oaks Community near Louisa, Virginia. You probably know that peppers like warm conditions to germinate, but I have two pepper varieties that germinate well in the cooler soil of a coldframe—Ruffled Hungarian and Corno di Toro. I have not renamed them, but have been saving my own seeds and growing them in the coldframe for years. I donated seeds to my local seed library. I would love to see seed libraries stocked with varieties of seeds that are acclimated to their area and contain descriptions of what the local growers experienced. No matter what you call it, if it grows well in your garden, that is all that matters.homeplace earth

tahkli and cotton--green-brown-bolls and skeins - BLOG

Nankeen Brown and Erlene’s Green cotton with a tahkli spindle. The fiber is lighter at harvest, as you see in the bolls, and darkens once you scour it.

I love to spin cotton, but I will be the first to admit that it is not an easy thing to learn. I had no knowledge of spinning any fiber when I took on cotton, but I wanted to learn to spin fiber that I grew in my garden. Wool spinners had told me it was hard to spin cotton because it was such a short fiber. However, since I would learn on cotton, I figured that would be my normal.

Cotton is a short fiber, being only about an inch or so long, more or less. You are probably familiar with seeing drop spindles that spinners use. You see them hanging from the fiber in front of the spinner while she/he works. Short fibers, such as cotton, require a lighter weight supported spindle. The tip of the spindle rests in a small dish while spinning. I needed to acquire a spindle and instruction, so I turned to Joan Ruane in Arizona. I didn’t make the trip there, but learned from her video, which came in a kit that included a tahkli spindle, support dish, bobbins, and cotton sliver. It took much practice to go beyond something that resembled rope to something that resembled thread, but I kept at it. Eventually muscle memory kicked in and things got easier. Joining a handspinning group helped tremendously.

When you look for cotton fiber to spin, most likely what you will find is cotton sliver, which is a long rope-like preparation. You might come across roving, which is a thinner preparation of sliver. I often use the words sliver and roving interchangably. I learned when working with sliver that, by dividing it lengthwise into several strands, it was easier to work with if I only used a strand at a time. You might also find cotton in the form of punis, which is cotton that has been carded and rolled into cigar shapes. I have never spun from punis.

lazy kate-bobbins and carboard box - BLOG

Box holding tahkli for winding off; plastic, wood, and homemade bamboo bobbins; lazy kate that holds two bobbins for plying.

None of those preparations are quite like what you will be working with from your homegrown cotton, but it is something to learn from. I believe that anyone learning to spin should learn to spin with a spindle before progressing to a wheel. For one thing, it is cheaper to get started. Also, you gain skills that will help you with any spinning. With only one tahkli spindle I was able to spin enough cotton to make my vest, which you can learn more about here. Once the spindle was full, I would wind it off onto a bobbin and fill the spindle again. In the photo you can see the cardboard box I used to hold the spindle while I wound off onto bobbins. I bought plastic and wooden bobbins and even made some from bamboo. With 2 bobbins on a lazy kate, I could ply the cotton on a larger spindle made with a dowel and 2” wooden wheel. I used 2-ply cotton for both warp and weft when I wove the fabric.

book charkha-cotton-seeds-mat - BLOG

Indian book charkha from New World Textiles.

After the vest, I made a shirt. By this time I had acquired an Indian book charkha from New World Textiles and used that to spin all the cotton for the shirt. I had also acquired a Louet S10 spinning wheel. I used the spinning wheel for the plying, but I needed to get a high-speed bobbin to do it. No matter how fast I treadled, the regular bobbin did not go around fast enough. Cotton requires a high spinning ratio. Plying with the wooden spindle worked great, but using the spinning wheel for that job was faster.

I can spin off the seed with the tahkli, but find the charkha is so fast that it is better to take the seeds out first, which I do by hand. However, when I first started working with cotton I thought I would need to card it. Cotton cards cost more than I wanted to spend for a project I was just getting into, so I bought dog brushes at the pet store. They worked fine. I’ve since acquired regular cotton cards, but the lighter weight dog brushes are great for starting out. I only card the fiber if it has become compacted. I’m working with some cotton right now that I didn’t grow. This cotton had the seeds removed with an electric cotton gin and I find that I need to card the fiber before spinning. Some spinners card cotton and roll it into punis. I find that unnecessary. The fiber that I’ve taken the seeds from is loose enough to spin as it is and the fiber that I’ve carded is also loose enough. Of course, spinning it off the seed is the easiest way and that can happen with your homegrown supply.

Sliver, roving, and punis are fiber preparations that are better for commercial transactions. They can be manufactured, measured, stored, and shipped easier than working with cotton fluff pulled from the seed. Actually, in manufacturing, the fiber isn’t pulled from seeds, it is cut from them in the ginning process.

balls of cotton for shirt and swift - BLOG

Swift with skeins and balls of naturally colored cotton for a shirt.

When I made the vest, I worked with one spindle at a time and put the fiber on bobbins. From there it went into skeins. Since three spindles came with the charkha, once I had three spindles full, I wound the fiber from all three spindles into one skein using my swift. Lacking a swift, you could wind it around anything that you could remove it easily from. I scoured the skeins by boiling them in a large pot of water with washing soda and a bit of soap. That is when the color pops. The fiber was then wound into balls over a core of crumpled paper. The balls you see of cotton in this photo are what I prepared for my shirt.

The cotton you grow in your garden is a premium product. Hand picking ensures that the fiber is never subjected to the harsh treatments that commercial cotton is. Take care in the picking to not also gather leaves or other bits of the plant that will dry and be hard to pick out later. Removing the seeds by hand is not hard. You can take a small bag of seeded cotton with you anywhere and work on the seeds while you are waiting for whatever you need to wait for. It is good to keep your hands busy. Save the seeds to plant next year.

For spinning, I have recently moved up to a Bosworth attache charkha, which is wonderful. As much as I like it, I would hope that you start your cotton journey with a tahkli, like I did. I still use my tahlki and spin with it in public whenever I can. Spinning in public is a great way to meet people and spread the word that this is actually something you can do, not something out of the history books. Have fun spinning!homeplace earth

spinning wheel-flax distaff - BLOGI have promised to take you through the whole process of seed to garment with flax this year. You start with getting seeds in the ground, then once harvest occurs—which is about 100 days from planting—a whole lot more needs to happen before you have fiber to spin. Nevertheless, I have decided to jump right to spinning. You can learn to spin flax fiber you have bought while you are waiting for the harvest. That is what I did starting out. When it is closer to harvest, I’ll write about what to do next.

Whether you are going to spin flax or cotton, it is always a bit different working with “store bought” fiber, rather than with your homegrown fiber. However, any experience you have with whatever fiber you can acquire will be beneficial. Lacking homegrown flax, you can buy flax to spin in either strick form, also known as line flax, or roving. A strick is what you will have from your homegrown flax. It is long flax fibers, just as it would come from the hackles. You will learn about hackles in a future post. You need to keep those fibers manageable while you are spinning, and that is the part that was daunting to me at first, until I learned that all I needed to do was to hang them up like a ponytail and pull fibers from the bottom to spin. You can see in the photo that I hang a flax strick from a fancy stand that I believe held a lamp long ago. I thought it was interesting when I found it in someone’s barn, not knowing that I would put it to use as a distaff.

distaff with flax - BLOGA distaff is what is used to hold fibers for spinning. You might have seen photos of traditional distaffs with flax fibers surrounding a core with a ribbon holding everything in place. In the Flax to Linen class at the John C. Campbell Folk School I learned to spread the fibers from a flax strick out and fill a distaff. This photo was taken during that class. Some distaffs are shorter and made to be portable. The spinner puts one end in her/his belt or pocket, supporting the rod with their arm, as they spin on a spindle.

That was interesting and traditional, and I am sure it has some advantages, but hanging up the flax ponytail is a lot easier. A ribbon can still be added if you like. A simple free-standing distaff can be made from a long dowel or broom handle mounted on a base. A knob on top will give you something to tie the flax to. In her book The Practical Spinner’s Guide: Cotton, Flax, and Hemp, Sephanie Gaustad suggests putting a broom into a Christmas tree stand for a distaff. You could even hang a flax ponytail from a nail in the wall.

turkish spindle with flax sliver - BLOG

Turkish spindle with flax roving.

When I spin at home with my Louett S10 wheel, I use the set-up you see in the first photo. That spinning wheel was a gift from a friend who no longer needed it. I didn’t shop around and choose it for spinning flax. When I spin flax away from home I spin on a spindle; more specifically, a Turkish spindle. There are many kinds of spindles you could use, but I chose this one because I was in need of a spindle for flax when I visited the Woolgatherers store in Wisconsin and found this one made by a local woodworker from local wood. Furthermore, the woodworker’s name was Scott Snyder—same name as my brother in Ohio, who is also a woodworker. My brother makes rocking horses and other rocking things. I think Turkish spindles are great because they come apart, leaving you with your ball of yarn intact. You spin a length of yarn, then wind on going over two legs and under one all around (or over one and under two). Attach the yarn to the top of the spindle with a half-hitch and you are ready to spin some more.

You can make a drop spindle with a ¼” dowel, about 12” long or so, and a 2” wooden wheel, such as you would find in a craft store. If you put a hook in the end of the dowel, you don’t have to bother with the half hitch at the top when you are spinning. Once you spin a length of yarn, you wind it on the dowel, then spin some more.

Although I spin cotton clockwise (Z twist), I read in Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth by Linda Heinrich that flax fibers naturally spin counter-clockwise (S twist), so I spin flax counter-clockwise. To tell the truth, I never took the time to notice the natural spin of flax. You can spin either way, as long as you remember which way that is and always do it the same.

turkish spindle with flax strick - BLOG

Turkish spindle with flax strick.

The flax you buy to spin might be in roving form (above photo), which is sort of an untwisted rope. Cotton spinners may be familiar with cotton roving. The fibers in roving, which is machine prepared, are shorter than line flax. When I was first learning I bought flax roving from Paradise Fibers and a strick from Woolgatherers. At first I thought that the roving would be easier. I left it wound up in the bag it came in and pulled from there. I put the flax bag inside a shoulder bag so that it was hanging at my side and spun it on my Turkish spindle. However, the more I worked with the line flax, the better I liked it. Also, the line flax was what I would be working with once I grew my own. I learned that I could fold a towel around the line flax and lay it in my lap while I spun on my spindle. Of course, if I am walking around, like I tend to do at a handspinning meeting, I need to drape the towel over my arm or put in my shoulder bag hanging at my side.

It is best to moisten flax with water or saliva while you are spinning it. It will help to make it smooth, avoiding a hairy appearance. Traditionally, a spinner would lick her/his fingers while spinning to provide the moisture. Although I have used the saliva method, and like the idea of my enzymes being added to the fiber, I usually spin at the wheel with a dish in my lap holding a rag moistened with water or, if I am moving around with the spindle, I attach a cup to my belt loop with a small carabiner to hold the moistened rag.

I hope these tips will help to get you started spinning flax. Practice now and you will be ready when you have your own homegrown fiber to spin

.homeplace earth

 

 

cotton-brown-openboll-BLOG

Brown cotton ready to harvest.

This year I am on a mission to encourage gardeners to grow textile fibers and take them all the way to clothes to wear. The last post was devoted to flax for linen and this one is about cotton. Not everyone lives in a climate where cotton thrives, but even if it doesn’t actually thrive where you live, you might get a few bolls to play with. I know of someone who grew some cotton in her greenhouse in Northern Ireland in 2016 and harvested 21 grams of fiber. That’s the amount that would fill 3 spindles from my Indian charkha! Not enough for a shirt, of course, but enough to experience what it is like to grow and spin your own cotton. You could buy fiber someone else grew and spin it, adding yours into the mix, and make a garment from that.

You will need full sun for cotton, along with hot weather. Cool nights will diminish your harvest. I generally tell people to plant cotton like they would tomatoes. That means start the seeds about 6 weeks ahead and transplant out around the time of the last spring frost. If you live in a hot climate you may have a long enough growing season to direct sow the seeds, eliminating the need to grow out transplants. The soil temperature about the time of our last spring frost is 60°. Even better for cotton would be a soil temperature of 65°. For a more in-depth look at soil temperatures, I found Development and Growth Monitoring of the Cotton Plant from Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. Good germination depends on warm conditions. You can grow cotton in pots. If you do that and live in a not-so-favorable climate, you could bring the pots inside toward the end of the season.

red foliated cotton in the garden 3016-BLOG

Red Foliated Cotton in the garden–red foliage, white cotton.

When I first grew cotton I purchased seed from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Mineral, Virginia. Now I save my own seed to plant back each year. Southern Exposure is local to me and a great company to work with, and I’m not just saying that because they put a photo of me wearing my homegrown, handspun cotton vest in their catalog. The Southern Exposure catalog suggests setting cotton plants 18-30 inches apart in rows 5 feet apart. Cotton requires a good long season—120 days or more, depending on the variety—and it needs every bit of that. I’ve found it usually takes longer for most of the bolls to mature than the days to maturity that are listed for the variety. It all depends on the number of heat units the plants experience over the season. Refer to the Texas A&M article above for more on that. By the time frost hits here there are often bolls that have not opened yet. They can be brought inside and left in a basket to ripen at their own pace into winter. Sometimes I have put those unopened bolls in my solar food dryers and let them pop open there.

Susan--G-B-2016 - BLOG

Part of the Cotton Project. All these colors were grown in the same bed in 2016 from seeds of cotton that had grown in a bed I thought would produce green fiber, but had light brown fiber.

I start cotton seeds in my coldframe, as I do everything else, and set the transplants out a few weeks later than the last spring frost date, since the preceding cover crop is usually rye that is cut at pollen shed and left as mulch. I often transplant on 12 inch centers in my 4 foot wide beds. Varieties will cross with each other, so if you want to keep the variety you are planting pure, the best way to do that is to grow only one variety a year. Southern Exposure suggests isolating varieties by ⅛ mile (660 ft.) for home use, and ¼ to ½ mile or more for pure seed.  I have experienced the mixing of colors when I grew both green and brown cotton in the same year. Even if it crosses, the harvest is still great cotton to work with. In fact, that’s what made my homegrown vest so interesting. In 2016 I carefully sorted seeds from a previous harvest according to fiber color and if they grew in either the green or the brown bed. Some of my friends and family grow them out. We called it the Cotton Project. I’m working with the harvests now and will be writing about it at some point.

If you live in a cotton growing state you may need to get a permit to grow even a small amount of cotton in your garden. Each year, here in Virginia, I contact the Office of Plant Industry Services of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS). If I lived closer to the cotton growing areas of the state I would be required to pay a per-acre fee and VDACS would place a boll weevil trap at my place, to be monitored by an inspector throughout the season. The boll weevil, once a scourge to the cotton industry, has not been seen in Virginia since 1995, nevertheless monitoring for it continues. The boll weevil is still alive in Texas.

I checked information online about Georgia’s Boll Weevil Eradication Program and see that few permits are given for non-commercial cotton, and those involved heritage farms that had educational programs, but you could still inquire what it would take to get a permit for you to grow cotton. States that are part of the Boll Weevil Eradication Program, which is any state with commercial cotton production, would have a policy for non-commercial growers, such as yourself. In my case, all it takes is an email explaining where I am growing cotton again this year for educational purposes and how much area will be in cotton production. I measure the area in square feet, not acres. I receive a waiver by return email, no problem. The program is taken so seriously because the fear of the boll weevil making a comeback is so strong. Boll weevils can move around via our interstate  highways as fast as our cars and trucks can carry them as hitchhikers, and could find a safe harbor in your garden if not watched for.

green spun cotton, seeds, spindle - BLOG

Erlene’s Green cotton. Seeds plus fiber total 1 ounce. Fiber is 25% of weight.

I like to grow cotton so that I can spin it and make clothes—a vest and shirt, so far. It is fascinating to plant a seed, harvest the fiber, and produce thread. I think it should be part of every school garden that has the right climate for it. History can come alive for the students when they harvest the cotton bolls, take out the seeds, and learn to spin. If the students don’t spin it themselves, someone should be on hand to demonstrate that for them with their very own school-grown cotton. Most likely, the cotton that will be harvested in the fall will have been planted by the previous class. The harvesting class will save the seeds from their harvest and plant them out as a gift for the next class. What a great way to live!

Planting for fiber is the easy part; learning what to do with it is another thing altogether. This year I will be leading the way for you with my blog posts about cotton and flax, with directions for what’s next. In fact, since cotton and flax fiber to practice on is available for purchase many places, I hope to have you spinning while you are waiting for your harvest.homeplace earth

 

flax-straw-spun-thread-on-spindle-a2-2016-blog

Homegrown flax straw, line flax, and linen thread spun from the line flax.

Growing flax in your garden and making it into linen is a great experience. Linen is the name for flax fiber once it is made into thread. It is hard to believe that what you harvest in the summer, something that looks less vibrant than the straw that results from growing wheat and rye, can produce fiber that can be made into fabric. Knowledge and the right tools is all it takes, in addition to planting the flax seeds at the correct time.

The variety of flax you will be planting for linen (Linum usitatissimum) is different than flax for culinary use (Linum perenne). Also, the planting is different. For linen you will need to plant the seeds closer together to get a very thick stand. The goal is to have straight stalks with no branching. A variety of fiber flax that I have found readily available is Marilyn. The Heirloom Seed Project at the Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum in Lancaster, Pennsylvania sells Marilyn flax seed, as does the Hermitage in Pitman, Pennsylvania. Richters in Canada is also a source of flax seed. One pound of flax seed will plant about 300-400 square feet. You might find it for sale in some places by the packet for smaller areas.

Don’t delay in ordering your seeds because the time to plant is in early spring. Last year I planted on March 8 here in Virginia in Zone 7. Using the information in Linda Heinrich’s book, Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth, as my guide, I waited until the soil had warmed to at least 43-46° F. (6-8° C.). Soil that is too cold will slow germination. Since I was planting in beds in my vegetable garden, I had the required open and sunny space. One guideline as a time to plant is to count back 100 days from when hot weather (80° F., 27° C.) sets in. Here in Virginia it can get hot early, so I went with the soil temperature guideline.

flax-flowering-blog

flax flowers

Harvest time is 90-100 days from planting, or 30 days after the crop is in full flower. I watched for that and marked my calendar for harvest in 30 days. There will be some earlier blooms and some later ones, but watch for the major flush of blooms. I harvested most of my flax on June 22. I let one bed go about two weeks later to let the seeds mature, harvesting that bed on July 8. I thought I would be sacrificing the quality of the fiber if I waited for the seeds to mature, but so far, it looks good. I have processed it into line flax for spinning, but haven’t spun it yet. Time will tell.

I prepare in the fall for my early spring flax planting. The area needs to be moderately fertile. In the fall, instead of planting a cover crop, I cover the intended flax beds with leaves from the oak and maple trees in our yard, since I can never be too sure what the weather will be in early spring and I want the beds ready early. If I could depend on having the cover crop winterkill, I would plant for that. However, sometimes our winters are too mild for a sure winterkill, which has happened this year. I pull off the leaves a week or two before planting to let the soil warm and, when the time is right, put in the seeds.

flax-growing-in-rows-in-the-gardenblog

Flax growing in rows in a 4′ wide garden bed.

Everything I have read about flax cautions about keeping up with the weeding, but I found that was not a problem. The flax was well established by the time weeds appeared. The leaf mulch over the winter might have helped with that. Planting can be done in rows spaced close together (3-4 in., 7.5-10.5 cm.) or broadcast. Planting in rows will help you identify what is flax and what is weeds, making weeding easier. When it is time to harvest, you will be pulling it up, roots and all, rather than cutting it. The fiber extends all the way into the roots and you want every bit.

flax-equipment-blog-brake-hackles-scutching

Flax brake, scutching board and scutching knife, and three hackles. The middle hackle is an antique. We made the other two.

Growing flax is the easy part. Once it is harvested, it will need to be retted, which can be accomplished by soaking it in water or laying it out in the grass to let the dew take care of it for a couple weeks. After that, you will need equipment, which may not be readily available, to process it into line flax to spin. Of course, then you need to spin it, then weave or knit it. Don’t worry, I will be telling you about retting and processing in future posts. We have made a flax brake, scutching board and knife, and hackles to do the processing. The spinning can be done on a handspindle or a spinning wheel.

If you would like to work with flax and you do not intend to grow your own, you can purchase unretted flax from the Heirloom Seed Project at the Landis Valley Museum. That’s how I got started. Places that sell spinning and weaving equipment may have line flax for spinning. The class I took at the John C. Campbell Folk School in 2015 helped jumpstart my flax education.

Get your seeds in the ground this spring and watch for them to flower in 60-70 days, then mark your calendar for harvest 30 days after that. I’ll be posting again before harvest time to guide you along. This will be fun!homeplace earth

garden-august-2008-combined-blogCover crops can be an elusive subject for someone who hasn’t grown them before. When folks usually think of having a vegetable garden, they often consider only the vegetable plants. However, those plants need to be fed and if they are grown in the same space year after year with nothing added for nutrition, the productivity of your garden and the health of your soil will decline.

Bringing inputs from somewhere else to feed your garden brings up the sustainability concern of the depletion of the resources at somewhere else. If your compost depends on the manure and bedding from your neighbor’s horse, then you have to consider where the feed and bedding materials for that horse came from and how the earth is compensated for that. If amendments were brought in to fertilize the grain/straw/hay used by the horse, it broadens, even further, the footprint that is required to feed your garden, and ultimately you. It is good to have your soil tested and add minerals and anything else that may be necessary, using organic amendments. You will also need to add organic matter. Continuous additions of organic matter are needed for all gardens, especially if you have sandy soil or clay soil. Organic matter serves as a slow-release fertilizer that helps build soil structure and is home to microbes, keeping your soil alive. To build organic matter in your soil, think cover crops.

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Cover crops in late winter.

You could address your organic matter needs by bringing in mulch in the form of leaves or straw or buying compost, but then you would have to contend with the ever-widening footprint of your garden. Besides that, there is the possibility of Killer Compost, which I wrote about here. Even if you were okay with that, you have to acquire those things, then haul them around. However, you can grow all your mulch and compost materials right in your garden! When you do that you have the added benefit of the organic matter and soil life that results from the roots of those crops. It is hard to explain just how much those roots that are left in the soil add to your garden. You may have to see it and touch it to believe it, but it is amazing! Picture the crop above ground; then picture that much biomass as roots that are added to your organic matter reservoir. A wonderful bonus is that you don’t have to haul it there.

crimson-clover-blog

Crimson clover at full flower.

You don’t need a tiller to manage cover crops. In fact, to get the most benefit from these crops, using a tiller would be a disadvantage. I propose to let the cover crops grow to maturity, or almost to maturity (flowering stage) and cut them with a sickle. You can let them lie where they are as mulch for the next crop or use the biomass as material for your compost pile. It is possible to plan enough cover/compost crops to make all the compost you need. More on that here. To manage these crops without a tiller you need to plan carefully. It is not quite so important with the legumes, such as peas, beans, and clovers. They can easily be pulled out or cut with a sickle and put in your compost pile. Unless you need the area sooner, wait until the plants are in full flower before you cut them.

rye-shedding-pollen-blog

Rye shedding pollen.

The grain crops, such as rye and wheat, are different. Their root systems are so extensive that, if you cut the plants at full flower (you wll see they are shedding pollen), the plants won’t regrow, but you will still have a lot of roots to deal with. Wait two weeks for the roots to begin to decompose before you transplant into that bed. If you want to plant seeds after a cover crop, rather than transplants, use a legume as the preceding cover crop or wait until the grain crop has fully matured to cut it. At that point you will have seeds and straw. The plants will have completed their life cycle and the roots are ready to expire into the soil. Without removing the stubble, you can use a hoe to make furrows and plant seeds.

rye-cut-in-may-blog

Rye cut in early May. Rest of the rye and wheat will grow out for seed to be harvested in June.

Cereal rye, also known as winter rye, gives me more biomass than wheat. I like to use it before crops, such as corn, tomatoes, and squash that I want to mulch. I’ll cut it and let it lie right there in the bed. This mulch will eventually break down, feeding the soil, but by then I will have a crop that is spreading over it to cover the soil. Sweet potatoes do this nicely beneath my corn. Legumes have less carbon, causing them to decompose much faster than straw from the grain. You could cut it and let it lie as a mulch, but you better have a plan to add more mulch  soon, or you will be left with bare soil and Mother Nature will plant her weeds there.

compost-piles-april-2014-blog

Compost on the right is ready to use. Pile on the left will be ready to spread by fall.

I plan for at least 60% of my garden for the year to be in cover/compost crops so that I have enough biomass for the compost that I need. It is not all rye and clover. Some of the compost material is corn stalks, which provide much needed carbon in my compost pile. I designate a bed for my compost piles for the year, rotating it to the next bed in October. The goodness that has leached out of the compost all year is taken up by the cover crop, usually rye, which is planted in the former compost bed. The rye soaks up the goodness left by the compost and gives it back to the corn crop the next year when I cut the rye at pollen shed and leave it in place as mulch for the corn. Rye cut at flowering (pollen shed) in early May stays in place as mulch. Rye cut when the seeds are mature in mid-June goes to the compost pile as straw. The seeds are saved for eating or planting in the fall.

The bulk of your cover crops will be planted in the fall, but I am writing this now so you put them in the plan you are making for this year’s garden. Make a garden map and fill in each bed with everything that will grow there for the entire year—all 12 months. Add appropriate cover crops that will be out in time for the next desired crops to go in.

So much to tell and so little space……. You will find more information throughout my blog and in my DVDs and my book Grow a Sustainable Diet. Once you have some experience with cover crops, you will realize that it is the easy way to go.
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bean-seedlings-blogIf you are new to vegetable gardening, or even if you are an experienced gardener who has moved to a new climate, it may be hard to decide when to plant. It is easy to make a list of what you want in your garden, but when to put the seeds or transplants in the ground is the conundrum. There are many things to consider, but the most important is to know the average first and last frost dates for the area you are considering. If you have been keeping temperature records, that’s great! However, not many are that diligent. Not to worry, others have that information available for you. I am sure you could find it through the weather service or your local Cooperative Extension Service, but I’ve found that a quick way to get temperature and precipitation information is through plantmaps.com. The amount of annual rainfall is important, also.

Seed catalogs are a great help when deciding plant dates. At the beginning of each crop section in the catalog there is generally an information box that will guide you on planting. It might indicate that you should wait until after the last spring frost to plant a particular crop, but start the seeds about six weeks before you expect to put the transplants in the ground. So, count back six weeks from the date you have chosen to indicate your last expected frost and you know when to start the seeds in your house or in your coldframe. At the resource page of my website you can download a free Plant / Harvest Schedule to help you with your planning. You fill in your own crops and dates. p-h-sample-garden-w-cover-crops-blog

More confusing is when the planting information directs you to plant as soon as the soil can be worked. In that case I would look to what the soil temperature should be and the seed catalogs will indicate that.  FYI, the soil temperature is generally about 60° around the date of your last expected frost in the spring. Find more information at my post How Important is Soil Temperature. You can use a compost thermometer or a household kitchen thermometer to take the temperature of your soil several inches deep.

2017-catalogs-blogThe catalogs I have are Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (Virginia and local to me), Sow True Seed (North Carolina), Fedco (Maine), Johnny’s (Maine), High Mowing (Vermont), Seed Savers Exchange (Iowa), Territorial (Oregon), and Bountiful Gardens (California). I like to source my seeds as close to home as possible, but sometimes there are items or varieties that are available further away that I seek out.

It is good to have an overall reference book in your home library that you can consult for growing information for specific crops. In my early gardening days I was given a copy of How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method edited by J.I. Rodale and the staff at Rodale Books. I still look to that when I have questions about a crop. In fact, I wore the binding out on my first copy and now use a copy I found in good condition at a used book store. A more recent book that is a terrific reference and one I turn to, also, is Pam Dawling’s Sustainable Market Farming. Pam is growing in the mid-Atlantic region but much of her information is applicable to a wider geographical area. You can find books specific to your region. Ira Wallace, of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, authored The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast. Timber Press has published growing guides for seven regions of the U.S.

Here in Virginia, some crops, such as kale, can be planted in both the early spring and in the fall. It is too hot for these crops in mid-summer. My main crop of kale is planted in late summer for a fall and winter harvest. About March, as the days begin to warm up, overwintered kale will bolt, meaning it will send up a seed stalk that will flower and, if left alone, will produce seeds. Generally you would clear out those plants to make room for spring and summer crops, unless you plan on saving seeds. Seeds for my spring crop of kale will go into the coldframe sometime in late February, to be planted out in the garden when the seedlings are big enough—late March or early April.

A friend recently asked about growing in North Dakota, specifically at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. She will be visiting there in late July and wanted gardening information. According to plantmaps.com, the last spring frost there is the first week of May and the first fall frost is late September.  I consulted The Old Farmer’s Almanac gardening calendar at http://www.almanac.com/gardening/planting-dates/states and found that when she gets there it will be time to plant lettuce, radish, spinach, and Swiss chard for a fall harvest.

In Zone 7 we can harvest lettuce until about Christmas and kale and collards all winter under a single layer row cover. The temperature rarely dips into the single digits, and then not for long. According to plantmaps.com, at Standing Rock in Zone 4b the temperature could go as low as minus 25°. Only the most cold hardy of greens could survive, and then with multiple layers of cover. It is important to research what varieties would do best under those conditions. For extended fall planting and harvesting times under rowcovers, consult Table 16 pages 205-207, in Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest, 2nd edition. It helps you determine your planting times according to your first expected fall frost and, also, if you have one or more covers over your crops.

The summer nights are cooler in Standing Rock than they are here in Virginia. Besides warm nights, we have high humidity here. Our rainfall, about 44” annually, occurs fairly evenly throughout the year. Standing Rock gets only about 14.5” per year, mostly from April through October. Other places might get the bulk of their rainfall in the winter. More plays into your success in your garden than just knowing the frost dates, but that is a good place to begin to know your climate and when to plant. If you want to start keeping temperature and precipitation records for your garden, I have worksheets for that on the CD that comes with my DVD, Develop a Sustainable Vegetable Garden Plan. There is also a download code for these record sheets in my book, Grow a Sustainable Diet. Getting better acquainted with your garden this way will help you understand what Mother Nature is saying to you when you are there. Listen carefully.
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FEBRUARY 3, 1017 UPDATE: I was alerted that the map that appears on plantmaps.com is the USDA Hardiness map for 1990. The USDA updated their maps in 2012. Scroll to the bottom of that map and you will find a link to the 2012 map. There is also a link to the updated map in the right sidebar. Plantmaps.com has maps for countries other than the U.S., which should be helpful to many of my readers around the world.

 

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