Growing Indigo + Chickens and Eggs…
We all know the age-old question: What came first – the chicken or the egg? Well, same applies to plants and seeds. To start at the beginning, we need to start at the end!
Above is a shot of my indigo (Persicaria tinctoria) in full bloom a few years ago. It was taken towards the end of October in 2019. The bees love these late bloomers!
On years when I’m playing the odds on the timing of a possible 3rd harvest (more about that in a future blog), I will sometimes leave a row to go to seed and only harvest 2 rows. A cool thing (among many) about indigo is that it is self-pollinating. This means that you can get seeds even if there are no animals to do the pollinating for you. Which means you can grow some plants indoors and still get seeds!
Above are a handful of seeds that I harvested in 2020 – the first is pre-winnowing and the second is post-winnowing. What’s all the winnowing about? Well, I’m sure you’ve heard the old expression, “separating the wheat from the chaff.” This is what winnowing is. The best way to do this is on a breezy day because the wind will carry away the chaff and the seeds will fall back into the basket.
Photo Credit: Lorie Shaull https://www.flickr.com/photos/11020019@N04/51466324171/
The above picture shows winnowing of wild rice in Minnesota – same process, different plant.
After I harvest the seeds, I lay them out on a tray to make sure they are completely dry before popping them into a ball jar where they’ll spend the winter. Some people put their seeds in the fridge or freezer, but I haven’t done that and mine have germinated every year.
To get the most out of my Japanese indigo, I start my plants in mid-to-late March. I enjoy celebrating the spring equinox starting seeds when it works out for me. Whatever date it is, it needs to be about 4-6 weeks before the last frost. Last frost for me is May 1 - 15. I usually go with the 15th to be on the safe side.
As you saw last week, my first batch of indigo was a bit scrappy. After that first year, I learned about a project that Rowland Ricketts led from 2010 – 2014. It ended a year before I started my dye garden – rats! The good news is that there’s an old website for the project where you can find a document outlining the process that Rowland uses to grow his indigo! If you want to download your own copy, go to http://indigrowingblue.com/index.html . It won't look like much, but click on <indigo growing guidelines>, and you'll find a PDF that you can save to your computer. Or just click on the image below and it will take you to the right page!
Following Rowland's guidelines, I now start my seeds in flats instead of the trays with individual compartments for each plant. I use regular old organic seed starter, broadcast the seeds generously over the top, water them in, and then cover with a thin layer of sand that I water and tamp down very lightly. In a greenhouse, I think the sand helps keep the weeds and pests at bay. In my basement, it helps keep the soil moist, which is especially important on those days I forget to trot downstairs and water!
Above is a just-planted seedling tray in its temporary home in the basement.
Ideally, you should water your seeds every day until they germinate. I keep them under a grow light and on top of a heating mat made for starting seeds. The heating mat is especially helpful for germinating sooner than later. I also keep a plastic cover on top to keep the warmth and the moisture in.
Once the little beauties have emerged, I water once a week. I also feed them some fish emulsion, which is organic and high in nitrogen, which they love. When they get big enough, I put on their tall dome home to give them more room to grow.
This is a view from the top of the tray. The indigo seedlings rather enjoy snuggling with their neighbors.
About a week before the plants are ready to be transplanted, they start spending the day outside on the porch. They are in direct sun for only a portion of the day, and they get to experience the great outdoors! This is called hardening off. The wind and fluctuating temperatures make them hardier and ready to experience the outdoors full time.
While the little seedlings are growing in the basement, I prep the garden beds with composted manure and a layer of straw that I water down. I'm a big fan of the no dig gardening method. It's like no-till for home gardens. Click here for an easy way to convert your own garden.
It's really hard to see the little plants here, just after transplant. I'm clearly a messy transplanter with all that straw everywhere! I'll get a better pic for you next time. The star of the show here is the dragon yard art that was a gift from my brother-in-law a few years back. Best yard art ever!
Next week, we’ll move on to transplanting and growing the indigo. Spoiler alert: it’s a really easy plant to grow! Extracting the indigo is another story altogether!
Until next week, I wish you abundant love and colors!