A difficult first year will cause many changes in upcoming seasons. Very, very much to learn.
Big lessons: tank ret flax, plant flax very early in spring and irrigate for proper and even germination, and do not let rodents eat your flax seed harvest.
I have begun to make paper with what raw materials I harvested. Since my field retted flax was uneven and mostly overly ret, the fibers do not easily separate from the chaff. They mostly just fall apart while holding onto small pieces of chaff. So, I have used the entire plant, fiber, chaff, and all, in addition to the aibika root to make some very roughly textured paper. It is more of a sculpture than a leaf of paper!
Weeds, weeds, and more weeds! A large part of farming is weed management and control. Farmers use a large variety of techniques to keep weeds down that would otherwise steal the intended crops’ sunlight and nutrients. In this garden, the weed management system is man power! Usually I wouldn’t have let the weeds grow so tall but I have been stewarding land in more than just this small garden.
Pictured below is a before and after photograph of the massive weeding day in the hot sun. We were able to weed out the row crops but we did not weed the flax. We chose not to mostly because of the extremely strong grasses that took deep root. It seems the weeds won over most of the flax that was planted. If we did spend many hours weeding the field, we would have pulled out just as much flax as weeds. This is a big lesson in growing flax…plant early!! Every year a farmer learns more about their crops, soil, climate, and systems of growth and management that is unique to their plot. This being my first time sowing a grain like flax, I am learning a very valuable lesson; When literature, old and new, says the only time worth planting flax is in April…the only time worth planting flax is turning out to be in April, not June. There’s a good chance the flax would have been tall enough by the time grasses and weeds began germinating (in May) to outcompete them. The harvest would have been around this time of year which would have meant the flax would have been at least a foot or two higher than any of the weeds that did happen to win over flax. Consider this lesson learned!
All is not lost though, there are still a few stands of nice looking flax that will be processed.
Now, with another road bump in the flax plot, I look towards the lowlands, swamps, streams, and dark places in the forest for stinging nettles. Nettles are a wild perennial plant that has so many uses. Aside from its medicinal qualities, some varieties of nettles produce a long, thick stalk filled with bast fibers. These fibers can be processed just like other fiber plants into paper and canvas. The paper yield may not be turning out to be as high as I originally imagined, but my eyes will be peeled the rest of summer for nettles.
Along with the main Art Garden, which is located in Amherst, MA, I have planted flax seed in a few different gardens in New England. One farm that flax was planted on this spring was Spice of Life Farm in Alpine, NY. Here, the flax was planted a few weeks before the Amherst Art Garden and is growing at a rapid pace, quickly outgrowing any weeds that shares the same space. At Spice of Life, we planted much less flax, only a bed around 3’x 20.’
It will be great to see how homegrown flax paper and linseed oil will be used on this farm/homestead. Also on this farm, we will be using the strongest variety of stinging nettles that grow wildly on the property for paper production. Nettles offer the homesteader many things including spring vegetable greens, a highly medicinal and healthy dry leaf tea, paper from the stalks, and much more. We are excited to begin to expand on fiber sources, especially those that grow wildly, abundantly, and offer more than just fiber.
Pictured below is the flax planted next to the stone monolith with Cameron, the farmer, in the background.
Four weeks and no rain in the Pioneer Valley meant a crop failure for the Art Garden. We seeded our flax field on May 1st which happened to be only a few days into that drought period. Without a real chance to germinate, we had to make the decision to re-till and reseed the land. The forecast this time around calls for rains on and off for at least the next week which gives us hope of crop success. It is times like this that make us understand why it is so important to sow flax as soon as possible in spring, preferably in the middle of April to capture the rains. Older flax culture literature recommends planting flax ASAP in spring for weed fighting capabilities, germination success, and also quality of fibers. Fibers that grow in the summer heat have the tendency to grow tougher and rougher instead of spring grown finer flax fibers. Most of our flax will be devoted to paper making so we hope the summer time flax fibers will still be just fine for our purposes.
After reseeding and digging walkways we were able to transplant all of the aibika and valerian into the field. Massachusetts’ last frost date was over a week ago now, so plants that are damaged by frost can be transplanted safely. We had a lot of space without flax, aibika, and valerian which gave us the opportunity to plant a few hundred feet of potatoes.
While I attended Massachusetts College of Art and Design, I had a professor during my foundation year who taught an introductory drawing class. During this class, we learned fourteen different methods of making lines with pencils, form, the seven steps of shadow and light, weight, movement, etc. The basics of drawing. He also held lectures in the studio which broadened our sense of what is a drawing. I remember one of these lectures in particular. He brought up the theory of what makes a drawing a drawing. Most of us young students arrogantly came to the conclusion that a drawing is only a drawing when an artist creates an image using lines via pencils, pens, etc. My professor then brought up the theory of what makes a line a line. He challenged us. He asked us if a line is a line, and thus a drawing, if that line is drawn by a pencil. We answered yes. He asked us if a line is a line, and thus a drawing, if that line is created by a paintbrush. We answered yes. He asked us if a line is a line, and thus a drawing, if that line is created by footsteps through a grassy field, where at the end of the day that field had a noticeable line drawn through it from where the grass was crushed by feet. We all hesitated in our arrogance and ignorance. Some of us, myself included, scoffed at the idea, feeling almost insulted. Pictured below is the first drawing inspired and conceived from perhaps the greatest gift we as humans will ever have bestowed upon us; our soil.
The fields have been turned, and seed is in the ground! It was an exciting day for the art garden and many friends showed up to help sow seeds. Our flax was planted May 1st, 2015. Flax prefers to be planted as soon as land can be worked in the spring. Ideally this happens sometime in April so it can capture some of the rains, germinate before other seeds to create a strong canopy which can control weed growth, and grow in the cooler seasons. The earlier flax is sown and the cooler the temperatures means the finer the fiber is. A rate of 60lbs/acre is accepted as the standard seeding rate, but that number can go up and down depending on your intent. If you wanted to harvest flax seed and not fiber, less plants growing means more area for seed bearing branches to grow. At the Art Garden, our flax plot is about 1/7 of an acre (35′ x 160′) so we broadcasted around 9 lbs of flax seed. During the season, an area will be designated for seed harvest and we will thin out some of the flax plants to make room for seed bearing branches.
The land for the Art Garden was recently moldboard plowed (which is the first plow to overturn big chunks of existing sod) then rototilled (which breaks up those big clods of sod to create a finely textured, even surface for broadcasting seed). Usually it is best to do this the previous autumn along with broadcasting a winter-killed cover crop, so come the following spring the soil is already free of large clods of sod and grasses.
The picture to the left shows Eli sowing seed on the border of the two gardens; the one to the left houses the flax and the one of the right will house the transplanted aibika, paper mulberry, valerian, and comfrey. To help visualize the plowing systems, the plot on the right has been moldboard plowed but not rototilled, and the plot on the left has been moldboard plowed and rototilled. Since the other crops do not require a finely textured, even seed bed for successful growth, we will not rototill the plot on the right. Instead, we will disc harrow the soil which will break up the large sod clods without destroying too much of the soil aggregates. Farmers are now beginning to understand the destructive nature and consequences of overplowing and rototilling, so we are trying to manage its soil with that in mind.
Did you just happen to read a poster for the Art Garden in downtown Amherst or on UMass Amherst’s campus? Did you wonder to yourself how you can get involved? If so, please follow this link that will explain a few ways in which you can get involved to begin or continue learning and growing your own art materials. If you have a vision or any questions you would like to share or ask us, please email us.
For the quickest way to get involved in the early season, be on the look out for field work days. In the months of May and June there will be days of plowing, sowing, transplanting, mulching, and weeding.