FIBERuary Day 16 Michelle Parrish Part one – All about where to get seed and how to grow Flax
In my last post I wrote about acquiring fiber flax seed. As I mentioned, two places that carry the type called Marilyn are the Zinzendorfs at the Hermitage (http://flaxforsale.com/html/the_store.html) and Landis Valley Historical Museum (http://www.landisvalleymuseum.org/index.php/programs/heirloom-seed-project/. Both places sell seed by the pound, treated with a fungicide.
Richters Herbs in Canada has a fiber flax type called Evelin. In my experience, Evelin doesn’t get as tall as Marilyn but also doesn’t lodge (fall over) as easily. Richters used to sell it in bulk, but they had a crop failure a couple years ago and now they just sell small packets (https://www.richters.com/Web_store/web_store.cgi?product=X2702&show=all&prodclass=&cart_id=5567986.23247). I do not recommend Richters’ generic flax for fiber; I found it short and branchy, and I believe it is more a seed than fiber type. Black Cat Farmstead in Wisconsin also sells fiber flax seed. According to their website they usually grow Evelin (http://www.blackcatfarmstead.com/BlackCatFarmstead_Shop.html). Both Richters and Black Cat sell untreated seed.
Another place to get flax seed in small quantities is through the Seed Savers Exchange (http://www.seedsavers.org/). You have to become a member to participate but it’s a great organization and it’s worth joining if you are a gardener. Members of SSE offer additional fiber flax types including Cascade, Ariane, and an Irish heritage type called Sussex.
Sowing Fiber Flax
Flax is planted early in the spring as soon as the ground can be worked. It is frost hardy and does best with very moist soil. If we get an early hot spell, you’ll have to water daily to keep the soil damp so the seeds will germinate. Mid-April is usually a good time to plant around here, though you can plant until mid-May with good results. Planting early helps flax outcompete weeds and results in a higher yield of fiber. I don’t recommend planting late and harvesting late (e.g. waiting until June or July to plant and harvesting in Sept. or Oct.) Flax doesn’t like hot weather. Also, it can lodge (fall over) really badly in heavy rain or high winds, like we sometimes get with summer thunderstorms or hurricanes. If you have lot of control over where you plant, a protected spot where things tend to be cooler is best. What’s the problem with lodging? The plants fall over and don’t spring back up. They become curved, tangled, and hard to harvest.
Plants are more prone to lodging if there is a lot of nitrogen in the soil, but that’s not the only factor. In my experience, density of planting has something to do with it, too. You are supposed to plant very densely in order to force the plants to grow tall and straight with a minimum amount of branching. What’s the problem with branching? At each point that a stalk branches, the fiber will break in processing. The highest quality or most desirable fibers are the long “line” fibers, which allow for spinning a fine, strong, smooth thread or yarn. The shorter fibers are known as “tow” and while they are still useful for spinning, they produce a hairier yarn. On the other hand, if you are growing flax to save seed, you want to encourage branching and maximize your quantity of seed.
Recommended broadcast rates vary. I’ve typically planted a pound of seed per 225 square feet, but the Zinzendorfs recommend a pound per 100 square feet. Commercial seeding rates vary. I’ve read everything from 1000 – 2000 plants per square meter (10.76 square feet), and if you’ve got acres to plant you will need 90-100 pounds per acre. On a smaller scale, recommendations include 120 plants per square foot, or 1 plant per 5 square centimeters (.78 square inches). The best place to start to decide on planting density is to follow whatever the recommendations are that come with your seed. Over several seasons you might find that you need less or more, depending on your site.
The seed bed should be dug over well and made as smooth and level as you can. Flax seed is traditionally broadcast. This is not an easy skill to learn and experienced broadcast sowers were valuable in pre-industrial farming communities. When I broadcast I tend to get clumps and bald spots; my planting density is seldom consistent. Commercial farms use a drill. One helpful suggestion I read is to divide your seed in half, and spread half in one direction (say across the bed) and the other half in the other direction. Traditionally flax was sown as a field crop, but in my small-scale garden I sow in long beds 5 feet wide. It gets hard to reach in to water and weed if the beds are wider than that. The plants at the edges of the bed tend to be thicker and coarser, but that’s an acceptable trade-off for convenience in my opinion. After you sow, cover the seed with additional soil or rake it in, and press down firmly on the bed. A planting depth of an inch or so is good. I usually cover my beds with row cover until I see the seedlings come up, to discourage birds or other seed-eaters. Seedlings should emerge within 5-7 days. At this point I often fill in bald spots with additional seed.
I’ve read that traditionally flax was weeded once when the plants were small (less than 6 inches high), and that at this young age they will bounce back from being stepped on. I haven’t found this to be true. I try not to step on the plants at all. if I plant early enough, there are not a lot of weeds coming up yet when the plants are that small. Grasses which are coming up from the roots will be up that early, but other weeds that are germinating from seeds emerge later. Instead, I weed throughout the season as new types of weeds start to grow.