Plan for Cotton and Flax in Your Garden

Reader Contribution by Cindy Conner
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Gardens are wonderful places. We can feed ourselves from them, but they can produce so much more. I have grown cotton in my garden and have learned to spin and weave it. My personal challenge for 2016 is to grow flax to produce linen. I have to plan for that now, however, so that the garden beds are ready for the cotton and flax when it is time.

I manage my cover crops with hand tools, planning ahead so that the cover crop is in a stage for transition when I want the next crop to go in. If I managed the garden with a tiller, I wouldn’t have to be so careful about my cover crop choices now, since I could just till them in at the appropriate time.

Planting Flax

Flax will be planted in early spring. A preceding cover crop that has winterkilled would be appropriate here, such as radish or oats, but it is too late to be planting that now in October. Mulching the bed with leaves would be good. The bed will be weed-free come spring and will be warmed up if you pull off the leaves two weeks ahead of planting to allow the sun to reach the soil.

There is much to learn when turning flax fiber into linen and I’ll be writing about that in the coming year. The days to maturity for flax is 90-100 days from planting, so be prepared for a summer harvest. Then it will need to be rippled (seeds pulled off), retted (soaked in water or laid out in the dew), broken, scutched, hackled, and spun.

For the most part, I’ll be making my own tools for those jobs, however I found a hackle in an antique mall recently. A hackle is a board with very sharp spikes sticking up from it and, from what I’ve read, three sizes are needed; each size having the spikes at different spacings. Hackling prepares the long flax fibers for spinning. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Planting Cotton

Cotton doesn’t need so many tools to go from seed to fabric, however, it does need hot weather. Not all climates are suitable, but if you have a long hot growing season, you should give it a try. Plant it after the last spring frost when you put in tomatoes. It will take the whole growing season, with the bolls not opening until near frost in the fall.

A suitable cover crop before cotton would be winter rye mixed with a legume, such as hairy vetch or Austrian winter peas. The crop would be cut and left in place as mulch when the rye is flowering (about the time the farmers are taking their first cutting of hay). Wait two weeks for the roots to settle before putting in the cotton transplants. For a little earlier planting, but still after the last spring frost, cotton can go in after Austrian winter peas, hairy vetch, or crimson clover, without waiting an additional two weeks after the cover crop is cut.

I have spun cotton right off the seed, but sometimes it needs to be carded first, which could be accomplished with dog brushes. Learn more about cotton and flax in your garden at Homeplace Earth.

Learning to grow and process these fibers has meaning beyond the potential to produce your own textiles. I hope it gets you thinking about how the textiles already in the marketplace are produced. Start to pay attention to stories about the working conditions and environmental damage due to textile production — stories such as the garment factory fire in Bangladesh and the advantages of organic cotton over conventional cotton.

Every dollar we spend is a vote for how we want the world to be. Just by how we choose to live can make a difference, whether we are growing our own textiles or purchasing them from responsible sources.

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

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