Japanese Indigo In Containers

Last year I grew Japanese indigo successfully in a recycled horse trough with the bottom cut out. This year, to plant my expanded crop, I’m also trying three more container growing options.


Each year, Bill and I try a few new container experiments for growing vegetables. Last year we raised potatoes, sunchokes and basil in wire cages made from hardware cloth. We lined the cages with a thick layer of dry leaves. (We found a ring of plastic cut from an old barrel makes it easy to pack leaves up the sides of the container.) Then we fill the center with a mix of soil and compost. This year, one of those bins is planted with indigo seedlings.


You can barely see it, but we lined the very bottom of the cage with some row cover fabric. I’m not sure it was necessary, but I don’t like to be too hospitable when mice try to move in.


The second experiment is based on our preferred system for growing tomatoes. Each unit uses two 5-gallon buckets. We cut a slot in the outer bucket just below where the bottom of the inner bucket will be when they’re nested together. In the bottom of the inner bucket we drill several large (3/4-inch) drainage holes, plus a hole in the center sized to fit a plastic funnel. The pipe of the funnel goes into that hole and extends down into the water reservoir in the outer bucket. The mouth of the funnel is filled with soil, which helps direct roots toward the water reservoir as the plant grows. We fill the bucket with a soil/compost mixture, and generally bury some fish bones for slow-release nutrients for our tomato plants. We didn’t add fish bones for the indigo, but have covered the seedlings with plastic jug cloches until the weather is reliably warm, which is what we do with our tomatoes. With tomatoes, we water from the top until the plant’s roots travel down to the reservoir, then water from the bottom. We don’t know how indigo’s roots will behave in the bucket system, but that’s why it’s called an experiment.


The final system is a first-time experiment for us. Our neighbor bags leaves in the fall to have on hand in case he has to dig a grave at the local cemetery in winter weather. In the spring, he generously gives us whatever bagged leaves are left over. This year, I’m using some of those bags as containers. I poked drainage holes in the bottoms, and cut a circle in the top. I pushed the leaves away from the hole to make a well, then filled the well with soil and compost. That’s it: I tucked in a seedling and topped it with a cloche, and added water. It’s so simple it might actually work.

Japanese indigo container-grown in northern Wisconsin.

None of these container systems would work, though, if Bill were not so good about watering. I’m gone a lot in summer, so that chore falls to him. With our sandy soil, when we gardened directly in soil things dried out very quickly. Our containers generally have to be watered every day, but we think less water is wasted. And there’s definitely less weeding, and containers make it harder for the deer and bunnies to make a nuisance of themselves.

When we see how these container experiments go this summer, we’ll know more about how (and if) we might further expand the indigo crop. I have a notion I’d like to try dyeing with pigment from composted leaves…

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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