Plotting The 2016 Indigo Crop

Last year was my first effort at growing Japanese indigo in northern Wisconsin. That’s if you don’t count the year before, when I threw a few seeds at a small patch of bare dirt sometime in June. Nothing Jack And The Beanstalk-y happened then. But a little more effort produced magic in 2015. So it’s normal to want more in 2016, right?

Japanese indigo container-grown in northern Wisconsin.

Since the seed is a bit pricey, I was hoping to save seed from the plants I grew last summer. But they got a late start (are you sensing a theme here), and we have a short growing season.

Japanese indigo potted to take to Sievers natural dye retreat.

When frost threatened in September, I dug up the plants and moved them into my studio so students in my October Natural Dye Retreat at Sievers would have a chance to dye with fresh leaves. At that point, I had given up on the notion that these plants would have time to blossom, let alone set seed.

Blossoms on homegrown Japanese indigo.

But after a little benign neglect, when I got home from Sievers the plants I had left behind were starting to blossom. So the plan changed again. Did I mention that the seed is pricey?

Bill and Donna Kallner studio open house and sale November 2015.

I kept the plants in my studio until the week after our annual studio sale in mid-November. After that, we moved them into the house while I spent three weeks in Florida helping my parents.

Japanese indigo seeds on plants protected from frost in northern Wisconsin.

By the time I got home, I was so tired and far behind on everything that I didn’t even look closely at the plants for a couple of weeks. But lo and behold, there were seeds tucked into some of those blossoms. I let the blossoms dry, and have been sorting them out and getting them packaged.

Seeds saved from Japanese indigo grown in northern Wisconsin.

For 2016, I’ll have more seeds than I had in 2015. But germination rates were not great on the seeds I bought, and I don’t know how much better it will be with the seeds I’m saving. So I’m trying to decide whether to sacrifice some seeds to do a germination test. If I do that now and my germination rate is poor, I should still have time to order seeds to supplement the ones I saved.

Yarn dyed with fresh indigo grown in northern Wisconsin by Donna Kallner.

Somehow, germination testing reminds me of swatching for a knitting project. What would you do?

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Donna Kallner

fiber artist, teacher and explorer, inspired by ancient fiber techniques and all the ways contemporary fiber artists give old ideas a new spin

4 thoughts on “Plotting The 2016 Indigo Crop”

  1. My poor spindly ones with three leaves each are blooming right now–tough little buggers, i hope they do produce some seed! I’ve had better luck with cuttings though to extend the crop.

    1. I’ll second that “tough little buggers.” Have you been able to dye with leaves from your cuttings through the winter, Arlee?

      I didn’t mention in the article, but read somewhere too about saving a plant to put out in spring to bloom early and set seed. It sounded like the leaves in a second year plant might not produce color, but it’s worth a try for the seeds. In the meantime, that plant looks pretty sad after I cut it back!

      1. unfortunately, we had a tough cold summer, so my few gathered leaves aren’t enough to do anything with–next year they will be growing with more protection, because hope springs eternal that i can have some Alberta Blue 😉

        1. We have that same brand of hope in northern Wisconsin! I did have some success using cloches over the seedlings when I moved them outside. I cut the bottom off a plastic milk or vinegar jug, then press that cut edge into the soil around the plant. Leaving the tops off the jugs ensures the plant doesn’t cook if it actually gets warm (stop laughing, Arlee!). This year, the cloches came off the first of July.

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