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April 21, 2002
This is the diary of a flax field, planted in May 2001 and harvested in September of that year. The flax crop was dried in a barn in the metal bedstead where it was placed after harvest. Due to family obligations, further processing has been put on hold until now, the spring of 2002. The stages of growth are listed in the links at left.
So far, weather has not permitted sustained garden work - this afternoon we are having what is hopefully the last winter storm of the season. When a warm dry day comes, rippling the seeds will be the next step. From there, retting, breaking and hackling will be pictured when we get a chance to work with the crop. Waiting until the next season is certainly nothing new - once the crop is harvested and dried, it will keep almost indefinitely. I have seen people breaking flax straw, retted about 70 years before.
This year, the place where the flax was planted will be seeded with annual Coreopsis Tinctoria - a prairie plant that produces a good wool dye. Ruth, the nice lady who owns the plot, is a dyer as well, and we are all looking forward to a field of yellow this time. Flax will NOT grow on the same ground the following year, the reasons are not entirely known - the nutrients in the soil are not excessively depleted, yet, as with parsley, something in the structure of the earth or a residue of the flax plant itself, who knows, prevents a new crop for 5 to 7 years. For this reason, it was a part of the old German 7 field crop rotation cycle rather than a shorter one of only 3.




1. Clearing the Plot
6Yes, we're growing flax this year. Seed (2 pounds) is from Landis Valley Museum in Lancaster, PA - they import commercial fiber flax seed from Holland. This year's plot will be 15 by 30 feet - pristine pasture land, not used for a while - it just needs to have the sod removed.
Begin date - April 29, 2001 - doing the work by hand - power tilling would simply break apart the grass and weed roots without removing enough to prevent excessive weed growth later on.
Photo from May 2, 2001
2. Still Clearing the Grass and Weeds
"Clearing the plot" - using a turning fork, we loosen the sod and then shake out as much topsoil as possible. The dirt is loosened so well that when cleared we'll just have to rake and smooth prior to seeding.
The dirt looks to be excellent - not recently fertilized, rich in organic matter - also nite crawlers of legendary size, June bugs and all manner of living things.
We spend our evenings here - what a lovely way to work until dark.
Photo from May 2, 2001
3. Leveling the Soil
The hard hand work loosening and shaking out the sod cover paid off.
Now the soil was loosened so well that only leveling the plot with a rake was necessary.
NOTE: Those wooden hay rakes are NOT just for museums, they make a very valuable addition to anyone's collection of useful garden tools.
Photo from May 5, 2001
4. Planting the Flax
The seed is first "broadcast" by hand. The wooden squares are to prevent putting deep shoe marks into the loosened soil. It takes some practice to get an even hand. My Hans is the expert in this area.  After putting the seed on the ground, the "wooden shoes" are  rubbed with oil (my cheap cooking oil) to keep the dirt from sticking and used to tamp the surface. This smooths the surface and assures that the small seeds are pressed gently into the damp surface to keep them from blowing or washing away.
Photos from May 5, 2001 - "Cinco de Mayo" Wisconsin style
5. The plot is ready. Two view of the freshly seeded flax plot - before and after "varmint fencing" a necessity in rural Wisconsin. The field is on a farm in open countryside where raccoon, possum, rabbit, skunk, porcupines and other wildlife roam. We also hope to use the fencing in conjunction with strings tied across the plot as the crop grows to prevent lodging in strong wind.
Photos from May 5, 2001
Chapter 1 is complete.  Until the crop germinates in a week or so, we'll have to be patient and wait. So far the weather has been perfect - cool and damp, today was bone chilling for humans - but very much like the cool, damp spring weather along the North and Baltic Seas  where the plant loves to grow well.  The next real work will be to weed the plot when the seedlings are about 4" tall.
1. The first sprouts - May 11, 2001
After some lovely, cool and wet weather, the seeds started sprouting after only 6 days.
Until the plants are ca. 4" high, there is nothing to do but wait and hope the weather isn't too extreme.
This afternoon a mother duck was teaching her new ducklings to swim on the puddles in our house flower beds (non-swimmer section for safety???)
May 15, 2001                                                                  May 22, 2001
What a difference a week makes. In this short time, the cool, damp weather has produced healthy seedlings.
Preparing the soil was not easy, but weeds are not growing as quickly as the flax.
The seed washed a bit in the rain so the harvest will need to be sorted.
Otherwise the plot is green and growing - measuring stick is now in place to record progress.
May 30, 2001
11Little plants almost 2 inches high.
The weather is now COLD and rainy so growth has slowed a bit.
The plants have turned a tad yellow, but should recover as soon as the sun comes out again.
The little seedlings are now about 3 inches high and looking quite sturdy.  
Weeding the plot will probably take place this weekend. It has rained so much in the last few days we will need to wait a bit for the ground to dry and firm up before going in - BAREFOOT to avoid damaging the plants.
This step needs to wait until the plants are 3-4" high and a bit resilient.
Then it was traditionally the job of women and children (lighter and small feet) to weed the flax field - BAREFOOT - so that the plants would not be broken off and probably stand up again in a short time.
June 9, 2001
June 16, 2001
NOW we're getting somewhere. The plants are standing 6-8 inches high after a mixed week of severe storms and hot, humid weather.
The flax is now over 12 inches high - time to put support strings of baling twine across the plot to keep the plants from being toppled by severe weather and strong winds.
June 21, 2001
The flax is now ca. 18 inches tall.
The first buds are building.
It won't be long before the first blossoms turn the plot into a pale blue beauty.
June 28, 2001
"Knee High by the 4th of July" - OK, that's for corn. The tallest plants are now just over 30" tall and starting to blossom.
Over the weekend we'll go out during the day and take another photo - the blooms close at dusk.
July 3, 2001
30" - 35"  high, the plants are looking healthy and developing a sturdy stem. Rather than all at once the blossoms open a few at a time. They are rather shy, closing at dusk.
July 8, 2001
The plants are now ca. 3 feet tall. Most of the blossoms have fallen off.
Note how few seed pods are perched atop each plant and how late the branching takes place. This is the difference between fiber and oil flax - the oil flax branches to produce profuse seed capsules at 12 - 18".
July 14, 2001
She's a spinner and weaver, too. Ruth graciously allowed us to use this plot of land to plant the crop. Its on her father's farm - now worked by her nephews.
The plot is set low along a small drainage ditch which has provided optimal moisture for the flax in spite of a month with very little rain.
Seed capsules are now well formed and straggling plants are catching up.
July 21, 2001





July 29, 2001
The flax is starting to ripen, although most of the seed capsules and plant stems are still green.
This is Peter, our son from Chicago who is  brewing a special harvest beer to celebrate our flax harvest.
Yes, we are planning a harvest party when the crop is bundled and stored for the winter.
8Houseguests and former neighbors from Osterroenfeld, Germany posing in front of the ripening flax plants.
The crop needs a little time to be ready to harvest and Hans has to go to Frankfurt on a business trip until Aug. 20. Until then there will be no updates because the field will continue to look more or less like this - tending to a little more brown in the seed capsule and gold in the stems.
 August 10, 2001
August 27, 2001
The flax will be harvested today and tomorrow. This variety - Verilin - was a substitute for Ariane and in some respects a bit odd. The field never bloomed at once, instead producing flowers constantly over several weeks. Maturity is also not as uniform as we'd like to have it.
There has been ample rain (following a very extended period of hot dry weather) to allow for easy pulling in the otherwise heavy topsoil.
A planned vacation trip to meet a new grandchild makes it imperative to get the crop pulled before Sept. 1.
Pulling the flax - the stalks are pulled up by the roots and bundled as shown.
The flax pulls out easily, leaving the weeds that have grown up in spite of the clean appearance in June, behind.
The flax stalks are then tied in bundles and will be placed in a shed to dry preceding the rippling.
August 27, 2001
August 27, 2001
The flax is bundled and tied in preparation for drying.
So far so good - no terrible damage from bad weather.
Toward the end of Sept. we plan to hold a harvest party and ripple the dried bundles.
Then there will be a winter of rest - until the weather is warm enough in the spring to have the retting work quickly.
August 28, 2001
This racing bed in the pole building is ideal - it allows free air circulation needed for drying the crop.
When dry, it can be rippled to remove the seed pods. These pods need to be "threshed" to get the shiny brown flax seeds. Most probably these seeds are not ripe enough to be used again for seed flax, although we WILL try a handful next year just to see.
They ARE quite good enough for baking bread, feeding livestock or making linseed oil.
Sept. 21, 2001
Harvest Party and Flax Rippling. To celebrate the summer project, we invited several local "fiber folk" for refreshments, home brewed beer and the opportunity to give a hand in the project.
Hans built the ripple from plans by Alden Amos. Another possibility is a so-called "moss rake" - a garden tool with long curved teeth used to remove excess moss from lawns.
The seed capsules will be saved and threshed during the winter.
The fall weather has turned too cool, as expected, to give good retting results. The flax will now be stored in the shed for the winter and
processed further in the Spring of 2002.
Watch for announcements on fiber related lists
when FLAXCAM resumes.
We thank the many visitors who have stopped by this summer.
Spring was late this year. The flax from FLAXCAM is still in the shed in the racing bed. A planned visit to a family wedding and Convergence in Vancouver will give us a late start getting it retted - not really a problem, because once the crop is harvested and dried, it can sit for some time before further steps are necessary. If the straw is fully retted and dried this summer, it can be stored until next year or even longer before breaking and hackling.
The photos below were taken in June, 2002 while my sister and her children, Louis and Anna Lieb of Colorado were visiting. Group processing such as this was quite common - together it went faster and everyone pitched in to get the fibers ready to spin.
The flax straw is  from Viking seed, purchased at Convergence 1994 in Minneapolis, and planted in our raised bed garden in 1996. Retted in 1997, we have been processing in bits and pieces on nice summer days since.
Surely in times past, working with flax from previous harvests would have been common - in the summer, before harvest, the old dry straw would have been readily available. When sown regularly, this guaranteed material to work with continuously.
Here we are, Anna, my husband Hans and I working together breaking and hackling - and messing up the patio nicely.
The weather was perfect - not too humid and warm, but not terribly hot.
Here in Wisconsin, the summer humidity makes breaking, scutching and hackling a challenge - as the straw should be as dry as possible.
Louis working the flax break.
Anna working the break and Hans scutching in the backgrouns.
Hans scutching.
Sara hackling.
From all of this, we have a bag with a few ounces of fiber that looks as if it will spin into nice yarn. And everybody had fun playing with it.