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cindy in cotton vest - BLOG

Cindy Conner in her homegrown, handspun, handwoven, naturally-colored cotton vest

Have you ever wondered if it would be possible to make your own clothes from what you could grow in your garden? Well, I have done that and would like to teach you how to go about it. I am talking about growing cotton and flax for linen in your garden, processing it for fiber, spinning it, and weaving it into fabric to sew into clothes. Or, if you prefer, you could knit or crochet what you spin. In order to pass on what I have learned, I am giving a workshop on June 8, 2019 at my place, Sunfield Farm, near Ashland, VA. It would be just for that day from 9am-4pm.

The day will start with a garden tour. That is a big deal because I don’t normally open my garden to the public. You will see cotton and flax growing there and the flax will be nearing harvest. You will also see the other crops I have growing, including grains nearing harvest and the compost piles that are in the rotation on the garden beds. I will explain the growing conditions for cotton and flax.

flax straw and line-closeup - BLOG

flax straw and the line flax it becomes

Everyone will receive a pound of retted flax and have the chance to work with it on flax brakes, scutching boards, and hackles. You will produce the line flax that you will learn to spin in the afternoon. You will also collect the tow from your flax and learn how to make it into something useful.

There will be an hour lunch break at noon. Iced tea and water will be provided, but you will have to bring your own lunch and snacks. I am located only a few miles from the small town of Ashland. If you don’t pack a lunch you could get something to eat there. Of course, if you don’t need the whole hour for lunch, you are welcome to go back to working with the flax after you eat.

spindles for workshop - BLOG

spindles you will receive in the workshop

The afternoon will be filled with spinning and learning what to do with the spun yarn. You will receive raw cotton and a metal tahkli spindle to spin it with. Spinning on a tahkli is not something you learn quickly. It will take a lot of practice to get proficient at it. However, the lesson and practice you receive that day will get you started. You will also receive a wooden spindle to spin the flax you processed yourself. Once flax is spun, it is called linen. In the future you can use that spindle to spin tow and to ply the cotton that you spin on the tahkli.

homegrown-handspun- cotton shirt 2016

closeup of Cindy’s homegrown cotton shirt

There is much more to learn besides spinning before you can weave and sew and you will be exposed to all of that in the afternoon. I will be showing the garments I have made from my homegrown, handspun, handwoven fiber. You will also witness fiber being scoured, learn about shrinkage during scouring and weaving, see the looms I use, and learn about the equipment I have acquired and how much of it is actually necessary.

white cotton warp linen weft shirt - BLOG

Cindy’s shirt with white cotton warp and linen weft

That is the tentative schedule for the day. Of course, if it rains, the schedule of events will change, but we will get it all in. Canopies will be set up outside for the flax processing if rain is threatening. The garden tour can proceed during a drizzle, so dress appropriately. Spinning lessons will take place inside or out, but the show-and-tell for equipment will be inside the house, which will be open all day for participants to use the bathroom when the need arises.

The class is limited to 15 students. The cost is $115 for the day, including the spindles, retted flax, and raw cotton. To hold your spot, I will need a check from you for the full amount. If you prefer to pay in two payments, the cost will be $120 with $60 due as a deposit to hold your spot and the remaining $60 to be paid by May 8, 2019. Email me (Cindy) at cconner@HomeplaceEarth.com to let me know you are sending a check and I will tentatively put you on the list and give you my mailing address.

If you are coming from a distance, the charming town of Ashland, VA offers services you may need. There are a variety of hotels and restaurants near Interstate 95 and Rt. 54 at the edge of town. The historic district includes restaurants and the train station where Amtrak stops daily. If you should choose to arrive by Amtrak you could stay at the Henry Clay Inn and we could arrange to pick you up for the class. I have no connections with anyone there, but mention it because it would be convenient if arriving by train.

I am giving this workshop because of the interest that has been shown in my work growing cotton and flax/linen from seed to garment and I want more people to join in the fun. Unless you have acquired some of these skills on your own already, you won’t be able to go home and do all of this right away. However, you will be exposed to the process and learn what equipment you may or may not need. Although you may eventually move up to using a spinning wheel, you will have the spindles to get you started. I spun all the fiber for my first garment, a homegrown cotton vest, on a tahkli spindle. For a preview of what you will experience at this workshop, check out my blog posts about cotton and flax/linen.

I am looking forward to a fun-filled day and hope you will join me. Since the class is limited to 15 people, don’t procrastinate. Once it is filled (everyone’s check clears) I can only put you on a waiting list in case a spot opens up.

See you in June!

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My homegrown, handspun, handwoven, naturally-colored, cotton shirt is in the latest issue–April/May 2018–of the Mother Earth News!

Seed to Shirt-article - Copy  Mother Earth News April/May 2018

You can access the article online here, but it is prettier to read in the print magazine.

Enjoy!

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taking a soil testOver the years, whenever anyone asked me for advice on organic gardening, my response has always been Feed the Soil and Build the Ecosystem. Often they were expecting recommendations on what amendment or pest control product to use. However, you need to look at the whole system, rather than addressing symptoms of imbalance as they pop up. Now that permaculture is becoming more widely publicized, whole system management is more well known

Feed the Soil—Now is a good time to take a soil sample. I send my soil samples to Waypoint Analytical, formerly A & L Eastern Labs. If you are not good at interpreting the results that they send you, you could contact John Beeby at www.growyoursoil.org for organic fertilizer recommendations. Check with his website for which test to request and where to have it done. You will need to sample the soil from many places in your garden, then mix everything together for your sample to send in. The soil you see in the photo looks really good, but remember that I have been working on my soil for many years.

Correcting imbalances in your soil is the first thing to do if you are not receiving the results you want in your garden. Sometimes, well meaning actions can lead to imbalances, including adding a lot of manure to your garden every year without testing first. Sometimes people lime every year because they assume it is a good thing. It is only good if your garden needs more lime. Even if you do not do a soil test each year, you should have one to use as a baseline, then do one a couple years later to see how things are going. Make cover crops a part of your soil building efforts. The organic matter they add with their roots, and with the plant matter you harvest and use as mulch or compost material, is a tremendous benefit.

Build the Ecosystem—Well-nourished soil cannot go it alone in producing good crops. Malnourished plants will attract insects that will take them out, for sure. However, even well- nourished plants need pollinators. Also, if there are any insects munching your plants, you want to have beneficial insects taking up residence in your garden to eat them. In order for the beneficials to stay, there needs to be some other insects around as food. Buying insects to add to your garden is not as effective as attracting and naturally growing your own,

Chemicals, even those approved for organic production, can harm beneficial insects, as well as the not-so-desired ones. Furthermore, you have to acquire and apply the chemicals. If you include plants that attract the good insects into your crop mix, all you have to do is to stand back and watch the show. That’s what happened when I planted mountain mint, as well as other plants in the margins of my garden. I had visitors to my garden this summer who stopped in their tracks and asked the name of the plant when they saw all the buzzing around the mountain mint. It was an insect frenzy! Tansy is also well-documented as attracting beneficial insects.

goldenrod with honeybees and butterflies

Goldenrod with honeybees and butterflies.

The best time to witness beneficial insects on your plants is between 10am and 2pm in your garden. Goldenrod grows up in the wild areas of my garden if I don’t cut it down through the season. Since I am getting interested in natural dyes, I cut some for a dyepot recently. When I went out with my clippers, there were so many insects buzzing around it that I backed off. I did take some where there was little action going on, but left the rest to the beneficials.

leatherwing on spearmint

Leatherwing on spearmint.

You can also experience all this by letting some of your regular garden plants, such as basil, flower and go to seed. Spearmint, which can take over if you are not careful, attracts many beneficials if you let it flower. I like to have celery come back each year and go to seed. On the way to making seed that I save for culinary use and replanting, the flowers attract an array of good bugs–and all I have to do is watch it happen. Besides the insects you see in these photos, you will see bumblebees, wasps, beetles, spiders, and more in your garden if you allow it to happen.

Assasssin bug babies

Assassin bug babies.

Learn to identify insects you find in your garden so you don’t freak out and destroy the good ones you see that might surprise you, such as the assassin bugs in this photo. I found this young family on my cowpea plants. Although I’ve found ladybugs on other plants, my favorite ladybug photo is one I took on a cowpea plant of a ladybug eating an aphid.

ladybug eating an aphid

Ladybug eating an aphid.

To attract many of these good insects, you need to have permanent plantings. Weedy fencerows can provide  habitat. Not tilling all your garden at once will help, as well as having permanent paths. A border with permanent plantings will provide overwintering habitat. These things will enhance the year-round beauty of your garden and will be less work for you in the long run. The book Great Garden Companions by Sally Jean Cunningham is a good reference to consult if you want help deciding what to plant to attract specific insects to help with certain pests.

Now is a great time to make your 2018 garden plan to ensure that you plant the desired cover crop, considering what your following crop will be, in each bed for next year. I locate my compost piles on my garden beds and rotate them, along with my other crops to contribute to soil fertility. The advantage of that is evident in the crops that follow. Managing your plantings to attract and maintain beneficial insects in your ecosystem will create a garden that is a joy to be in.homeplace earth logo

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cindy in cotton vest - BLOGI have come to the conclusion that the English language is deficient in vocabulary to adequately describe the value of our homegrown/homemade products. Each week my local farmers market devotes a booth space to a nonprofit organization for educational purposes. Recently that space went to Clothos Handspinners, of which I am a member. For my part, I set up a display to demonstrate how flax straw becomes linen thread, spun cotton on a spindle, wore my homegrown, handspun vest, and had my homegrown, handspun shirt on display. From conversations there, it was apparent that people wanted to put a value on my shirt and vest and the only way they knew how to do that was to put a price on them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEven though I made it clear that they weren’t for sale, I was repeatedly asked how much money I would take for my vest and shirt if they were for sale. This has happened to me before. These garments are priceless. I will not put a price tag on the cotton I grow and the labor of love involved in bringing these garments to life. Granted, when I grew for the markets I had to put a money value on my vegetables and eggs.  I don’t do that now for the food I grow and for anything else I make for my family’s consumption and use and that which I give to friends. It is a relaxing way to be. Market growers need to grow high value crops to make ends meet. However, there are many other great things to grow and to make that wouldn’t bring enough money if you were to sell them, but would greatly enhance your well being.

Unfortunately, putting a monetary value on things is how our society of consumers operates. There should be words to describe an item that includes more than the materials, labor, and overhead that are involved, which is what is usually considered when setting a price. How about the love that is extended in the growing and making? I truly believe that there is a special positive energy in something grown or produced with love and that the people who are the end users benefit from that energy. Likewise, if something is grown or produced by someone who is not of a loving nature throughout their work, the results would not be so positive.

Cindy's booth at 17th street--BLOG

Cindy’s booth at the 17th St. Farmers Market, Richmond, VA in 2001. Photo display is in the back.

With that in mind, you might want to keep a positive attitude with everything you do. If you are not growing all of your food, take care to get to know the producers of the food you buy. At first glance, the vegetables might look the same, but rather than make your decision on price, dig deeper and make your purchase decisions on attitude. Ask questions, such as; what kind of fertilizers are used, how are the plants protected from insects, and if measures are taken on their farm to build the ecosystem. Those growers who are in tune with their land will be oozing with great information. From their answers, you will identify those you might want to steer clear of. I once asked a grower what he did to keep Colorado potato beetles from his potatoes. He proudly told me about a product from Bayer that knocked them dead. Needless to say, I did not buy potatoes from him. On the other hand, a grower might tell you that she has no problem with potato beetles because she has a diverse ecosystem on her farm that attracts beneficial insects that take care of the bad ones, which is what has happened at my place.

The Inuit language has more than fifty words that describe snow. I wish we had the vocabulary to describe the value when someone puts their heart and soul into what they produce. Here in the United States we have different labels, such as Certified Naturally Grown and USDA Organic, which help to differentiate the growers, but there is more that goes into things than is measured by those terms. How do you adequately quantify and express the love and care involved?

Fifty Plus cover--cindyI sold vegetables and eggs from 1992 through the 2001 season. Although I followed good organic practices, I never bothered to get certified organic because I was selling directly to restaurants and families and I told them how I grew things. When we started the Ashland Farmers Market in 1999 I had a photo display that showed my gardens and compost piles. Besides being an educational tool, it gave people a reason to stop, see what I was doing, and ask questions. In 2001 I also sold at the 17th St. Farmers Market in Richmond, VA. Two of the farms at that market were certified organic. A few weeks after the Richmond market opened for the season the monthly publication, Fifty Plus, came out that included an interview with me. I had turned fifty that year and I was on the cover holding a chicken! In the interview I explained how I did things at my farm, working with nature and making compost. The next week a woman came to my booth to shop and said that in the previous weeks she had only bought from the certified organic growers because she thought they were the only ones who had what she valued. After reading about me in Fifty Plus she realized that I was the one she wanted to buy from.

It is with more than food that we need to look deeper. Everything has energy and we should want to make sure that it is as positive as it can be for the things we bring into our homes and lives. With my work with fiber, I know that not everyone is going to go out and grow their own clothes. My hope is that it will open the thought process of discovering the origins of the clothes that are being worn now. What is the fiber used and what are the environmental consequences involved in bringing it to you? Who made the garments and how are they compensated for their work? The list of questions could go on and on for each thing that comes into your life.

I don’t mean to burden you, but to urge you to look at everything with new eyes and to recognize the all encompassing energy that is involved. How do we express the value of things that are produced with the heart? I believe we can feel it, but have no words at this time to express it.homeplace earth

 

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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

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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

 

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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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