Cotton is a wonderful plant. Not only does it look great in your garden, but it produces fiber that you can spin for thread or yarn and make clothes with. You will need a long growing season, fertile soil, and adequate moisture, plus plenty of heat, particularly later in the season. Start your seeds about 6 weeks ahead of your transplanting time, and set the cotton plants out in your garden after the last frost. If the last frost date has arrived, but the weather for the next week or so looks to be unseasonably cool, hold off until it warms up again.
It will take two months or more before you see your first bloom, which starts as white, then turns pink. The cooler your garden is, the longer before your plants will start blooming. Besides fertility, moisture, and sun, cotton depends on heat. Sunny days are not always hot days. The heat units needed for cotton are measured as DD60s, which is the average temperature for the day in Fahrenheit (maximum + minimum / 2) less 60. The more DD60s you have, the sooner your cotton bolls will mature and open. Climates with hot days and nights certainly have an advantage, but then, cotton is a tropical plant. Learn more about cotton’s need for DD60s from Texas A&M’s Development and Growth Monitoring of the Cotton Plant.
Just because you don’t live in the tropics, doesn’t mean you can’t grow cotton. Without the heat it needs, cotton will take longer to mature. If the bolls are not open when frost arrives, you can pick them off and bring them inside. Put them in a warm place, often that means behind the woodstove at my house, and forget about them. Some will continue to open. I have also put them in my solar food dryers in the fall to encourage them to open. Understanding cotton’s need for heat, you could plant it in a greenhouse or other relatively warmer place. Cotton can be planted in pots and brought inside if your season is shorter than desired.
I set my cotton transplants out on 12” centers in 4’ wide beds, but I have seen recommendations that give the plants more room. In 2013 I experimented with 24” spacing and was disappointed with that, but then, 2013 was not a good cotton growing year anyway, so I am open to trying it again. If you live in a state that has commercial cotton production, you may need to have a permit to grow cotton, due to the watch for boll weevils. Contact your Cooperative Extension agent for more information. Learn more about cotton in your garden at Homeplace Earth.
We don’t need to clothe the masses from our gardens, just grow enough to enjoy for ourselves. It is a wonder to grow cotton, pull it out of the boll, and spin it into usable thread. If you want to make a garment, and I hope you do, and your harvest is meager, you could save it up each year until you have enough—great things come to those who are patient. Or, you could also grow flax for linen and combine the two. I’m planning a project with a cotton warp and linen weft. I will be helping you along the way this year with more posts about cotton and flax/linen. I hope you join the fun!
Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.
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