From seeds to blue, in the Covid year of 2021, I grew Japanese Indigo in Scotland

Ashley Walker from Nature’s Rainbow says in his blog that “Japanese Indigo, Persicaria tinctoria or Polygonum tinctoria is a frost tender member of the knotweed family. Originally from China and Vietnam it likes to grow in warm moist climates,… ” and for that reason and others I always had in mind it would not grow in Scotland. After practising Indigo dyeing for many years from Natural Indigo powder it was always my dream to do some testing from my very own grown Indigo leaves. I love living in the West of Scotland but the weather is always so cold and wet, I truly believed the tender plant would not be able to stand its rigours …. but also … to grow healthy plants you have to be around to give care and support and having always travelled a lot and leaving home for several weeks at a time I never had the time or focus to try.

One of the perks of the Covid crisis had to be the amount of time at home … plenty of time… to work at my art and learn new things… looking back the Covid period has been for me a “home based 2 year long residency”. All the time reclaimed from not driving places, not running endless evening workshops, preparing and cleaning material and equipment and cleaning my own space after an event meant dozens and dozens of hours free to … learn and practise, to grow dye plants. 2021 was the right year to grow Japanese Indigo and Chinese Woad, from seeds to blue. And I did…

I am an Eco artist, I specialise in natural dyeing and botanical printing but one of my true love is for Indigo dye. I keep a whole collections of vats in my studio, fructose, ferrous and hydrosulphate. Made with the best Indian and Indonesian Indigo powder. Some which I buy directly from the producer or that I bring back from travelling. I love the vat work, it is a slow work, you have to concentrate and listen to your Indigo if you want to get the best blue, you have to question your vat regularly to make sure it is happy… Only a happy vat will give back the best results… In some cultures one prays before dying… In others there is a little ritual and a blessing before you can use it.

And no wonder, producing Indigo pigment is such a time consuming, such a laborious task, if ever you should be grateful for any ingredients you use Indigo pigment should be one of them.

So I love dyeing in the evening in the quiet studio, listening to the sound of the liquor in the vat and the drips of the water in the large colander while they drip away when oxidising. The clock ticks slowly and time passes while the white cloth becomes bluer and bluer.

I have learned my skills from some great natural dyers from South East Asia, not the famous artists… I mean the artisans… those who live and breath by their Indigo vats, those who gather supplies by just walking around their dye garden and then set up a vat in the clay pot using the fruit that had just fallen that morning as a feed for the Indigo gods…. Recently I flew over to the other side of the world in Bali to spent some time at The Threads of Life learning from Aboubakar Fofana about the secrets of fermentation vats, it was a magical time, meeting up with a small group of dyers from all time zones with different agendas and sharing learnings from the Master.

In 2019 I visited my friend natural dyer and artist Mann’s craft in his dye garden Sakhon Nakhon, Northern Thailand (the capital of Indigo) to spend some time learning how to extract Indigo pigment from the Indigo plant and turn it into gorgeous paste to be used for setting dark blue vats. That was a good time, so unique for me and so routine for him. I thought the circle is now complete I can understand the full process and I never thought I would be able to extract Indigo pigment in my very own garden.

But then Covid kicked in and took away what I like best… travelling the world… but in consolation… it gave me what I have always been missing the most… time !

So I negotiated a little space in our garden… we build a large grow box… and I ordered seeds… to start my Indigo growing adventure. I though if I can get them to germinate it will be a bonus… every step will be a learning process… everything will be new. Let s see where I can get to with this.

But then it grew… so well and strong… so green … so resilient against the weather of the poor spring… then the sun arrived and the pigment started appearing in the leaves. Large green leaves, big like my hands, dark and shiny… full of pigment… and I though there you are its a great success… what now… well I cut it and played with it… I rubbed it against fibre and the cloth became blue… and I thought what now… It grew further strong and tall now up to my waist line… new roots appeared on the earlier cut stems and they produced more leaves… bit strong green leaves full of pigment… and the autumn arrived… the sense of urgency … what happens if I don’t harvest fast enough? will I waste the crop? So I cut it again… and experimented… further, some ice and a swirl… and the strong green that became blue was there on silk and cotton… add some reducing again… here comes a vat and some more fibre took the gorgeous blue… its a magical story… a rollercoaster of emotion and a sense of success and achievement just through caring for the green leaves which will give me the blue colour I love…

In the end the pink flowers appeared strong and ready to produce seeds for another great year of growing, the weather turned so cold but no frost… that is the thing about living in the West of Scotland.. grey always, white never… So I panicked what about the last leaves… so much hard work and love for Indigo had gone into my growing and harvesting… how could I not use the last leaves… What about dry ? I dry my leaves for Botanical printing … could I dry Indigo leaves? So I did … a see of leaves on newsprint drying on the floor of our sitting room for several days and bouquets hanging upside down in the studio. “It has to dry fast” said everyone … but I am in Scotland we don’t do fast drying here … drying in front of the fire… drying on top of the heated vat… all the dark blue/green leaves are now crunchy in a pot ready for processing in a vat… the Michel Garcia way.

And what now… I have seeds, mine and loads more from Nature’s rainbow… what shall I do… Soon I will start travelling again but no matter what I will save time to grow my seeds and plant my plants, fight the slugs, water the thirsty leaves… I will grow Indigo in my box again… and in a public space for all to share…

2022 IS STILL A COVID YEAR AND WE WILL GROW MORE INDIGO… would you grow from home with me and share an Indigo Diary? I will run an online experience from March 2022 to Septembre 2022 where all taking part grow from home, learn to set up dark blue vats from Natural powder and when the harvesting season comes… make blue fibre using different fresh leaves techniques… You can read about it below… and if you want to read my 2021 diary short points… scroll below.

INDIGO DIARIES ONLINE WORKSHOP

MY 2021 FROM SEEDS TO BLUE TIME TABLE:

FEBRUARY 2021 – THE DECISION … FINDING SEEDS

Growing Indigo from seeds can be a challenge, my decision to grow was made a little spontaneously and generated by the ongoing Covid crisis that would yet prevent me from travelling in the Spring of 2021. Having had the idea of trying Indigo it become apparent in February that I would have the necessary time to keep an eye on the plant for several month and I ordered seeds from Nature’s rainbow after hearing of their really friendly approach. Indeed during my first months growing I found them being really supportive and answering many of my questions by text or messages.

Two types of Indigo, the broad leaves and the rounded leaves were ordered. Trays were found and compost prepared.

28 MARCH 2021 – PLANTING THE SEEDS

After much distraction and a couple of unsuccessful attempts I planted the seeds into a selection of trays and other containers. Much watering and a good place in full sunlight was found indoors for me at a window sill. To pinpoint the date I checked my hardiness zone. Check your hardiness zone HERE This helped me working out how the weather behaves in my grow area and when I can expect any freezing weather which would be detrimental to your plants but also the average temperatures in my area. Those plus the amount of sunlight I will be getting will affect both the growth rate and the amount of pigment I will be getting in my Indigo plants.

I am in zone 8 but being in the West of Scotland I benefit from the warmth brought in by the Gulf Stream which gives us warmer temperature and hardly any frozen temperature in the winter, a big difference with the East Coast (Edinburgh way) but they have a lot more sun and we have to content with grey skies a lot of the time.

Ideally your seeds should be planted so they can go into ground 6 weeks later so you have to work out for your area when the frozen mornings might stop… The earlier you can plant outdoor the earlier you will get a first growth and you might get a second crop in the same season.

In the UK only there is a big difference between the North and the South. Ashley Walker who sells me the Indigo seeds tends to plant his Indigo outdoor in May but for myself I had to wait until June before my plants went outdoors…

Research your weather carefully to avoid killing your young plants after having spent time germinating the seeds and growing seedlings. It can be a very sad moment if you do.

Luisa Uribe a London based Indigo grower posted her grow photos on her Instagram page in 2021 and it was interesting to compare her diary with mine, she was definitively ahead by a good month … you can see her page HERE

11 APRIL 2021 – GERMINATION

The instructions talked about just a few days for germination but it took until the 11th of April for the germination taking place. Tiny little green leaves appeared at the top of the compost. That is when I realised that I was not able to remember which Indigo was which… and having moved the posts around the small plants looked exactly the same. It took until the plant was well mature to work out which was which by which time they were in the growing box outside… I will remember to label the plants.

29 APRIL 2021 – GROWING UP

Once they started growing they became so very leggy … I did spend a long time reading about this wondering if I had done anything wrong… may be they just wanted more light?

30 MAY 2021 – GETTING READY TO PLANT OUTSIDE

Time passed and the plants started looking more mature as if they were ready for outside planting… but going from a cosy indoor growing location to outdoor would be a big shock so I started taking the trays outdoors on my front steps to give them a chance to harden.

4 JUNE 2021 – PLANTING IN THE OUTSIDE BED

And the grow bed was ready outside in the back garden… time to plant… as I have a North facing garden I did spend a lot of time observing the sun pattern and pick a space that was well located in the mid day sun… wrong location for some but perfect for me as Glasgow sun is never that strong nor the heat too intense.

I transferred the plants on a cold windy day and it was quite an ordeal… what about the slugs? and the cats… The Big Plastic wall was erected around the bed and did wonders in keeping the small plants safe for a few weeks…

10 JUNE 2021 – LEAVES ARE GROWING

The growth period is short but so fast… If I had any doubt this plant would thrive by now I would be over them… the plant grew up and so strong and the leaves under the June strong sun became really shiny and dark. We used to seat and have coffee in the sun by the grow bed pretending we were in an Indigo field. A very satisfying experience.

15 JULY 2021 – FIRST CUT – LEAVES RUBBING TECHNIQUE

Still being isolated meant no sharing of the experiments and that was a little sad… there is a complete buzz when harvesting something like Indigo. So my usual sharing was done via social media and I know many were excited about my results… I had to give a little try to the leaves rubbing technique. On small pieces of silk it was a great success. Around that time I ran one garden workshop and the 4 participants after their botanical printing got a chance to hand dye a small piece of the most glorious silk using this technique. A treat

25 JULY 2021 – COLD EXTRACTION

By end of July I had enough good crop to try a home based cold extraction using the method taught by me by Mann Craft. The heat of the sun was good and it worked a treat. Then I realised even more how much hard labour goes into the Indigo extraction by hand. Each plant contains so little pigment… but this was a success.

26 JULY 2021 – LEAVES RUBBING ON A SELECTION OF FABRIC… FROM GREEN TO BLUE – INDIGO AND WOAD

On the 26th of July I decided to have a good full scale experiment with one fresh leaves technique which seemed to give a great result to most when done on silk fabric and harvested some great big large and very dark leaves. The techniques was just so successful and a joy to perform.

10 AUGUST 2021 – SECOND EXTRACTION – ROOTING THE CUT SHOOTS – HOT EXTRACTION

Time has always been a issue in my practise. Broken up by the necessity to teach or prepare for teaching, or attend to a class and in August I had the pressure of an upcoming trip to motivate me to practice a second form of extraction without waiting any longer. A good size harvest was taken and this time a hot extraction reduced the 3 days timing to the one afternoon to get the pigment out of the leaves… This time I cut some full length stems. Using only the leaves I had learned that if you leave a few leaves at the top of the branch and place the stems into water they will root. Not only will they develop another batch of leaves but they could be planted to produce some new plants.

11 AUGUST 2021 – HOT FIRST VAT (HYDRO-SULPHATE)

My hot extraction from the 10th was transformed into a very strong (but short life) hydro-sulphate vat. My preferred vats are naturals and use fructose or ferrous as reducing agents but in this case the very small quantity of pigment in the extraction was asking for some strong reducing agent.

22 AUGUST 2021 – MATURE INDIGO THE BEST LOOKING LEAVES… HIGHT PIGMENT COUNT

If you have to record the growth of your Indigo and the optimum moment in the season, for Indigo you will be looking at pigment count. That is how much colour you could extract from any one plant… When observing the leaves you strongly see the dark leaves in the pick of the season and for me that was on the 22nd August.

12 SEPTEMBRE 2021 – MATURE INDIGO … THE TALLEST STEMS

But for high of the plants then Septembre was the month… for having only harvested one side of the bed I noticed that the plants from the other side not only were producing more leaves but the stems kept growing and reached almost my waist line. I felt very proud at that moment for such a success story.

17 SEPTEMBRE 2021 – BACK TO SEEDS – HARVEST OF FULL BRANCHES AND LEAVES TO DRY OFF

Very early in the growth on the round leaves variety some beautiful pink flower had appeared and I was told that it was too early as when the plant is busy producing flowers it does not have enough stamina to also produce pigment… so I did … but then the flowers stopped growing to my constant worry… would I be getting seeds?

On the 17th of Septembre my Indigo plants started producing pink delicate flowers…

5TH OCTOBER – ICED METHOD – ALTERNATIVE VAT

In October I became very concerned to not having used enough of the leaves… and not done enough experiments. Time passes so fast when you are busy… So I blocked 2 days to process a whole batch of leaves using one of my very preferred ever method of dyeing with fresh leaves… that is the Ice method. It is very powerful and gives great result. It was a two days full blast cutting dyeing, rinsing etc… with a huge mess in the studio but great results… now thinking back I could have done those much earlier and made a mental note for 2022.

19TH OCTOBER IN FULL BLOOM

There is something wonderful about a plant that starts flowering to produce seeds… and for Indigo it is stunning… small pink flowers at the top of the the tall stems balancing in the wind of now October… I did cut a few to dry and I ended up taking a lot of photos.

20TH OCTOBER DRYING INDIGO FOR FUTURE VATS

But then there were a lot of leaves left and me thinking… after all this effort… the pigment count is going down, I have not time for more experiment what to do…

Michel Garcia came to my rescue when posting about making vats from dry leaves… and I decided to harvest whatever I could to dry them (new experiment) (two ways another experiment) and later make a vat…

26TH OCTOBER LAST HARVEST OF STEMS AND FLOWERS…

Those are what I could not leave in the bed… by now in the cold wind and rain. They are dry in a tub in my studio on top of the large hot fructose vat.

AND WHAT NOW

In 2022 I want to repeat my experiment with some real people with me and my plan is to gain a little bit of space in a public space in Glasgow and some volunteers with the help of the Woodlands garden to grow Indigo together and have loads of learning through experiment during the good season… Keep your eyes on this blog if you want to know if I am successful… or you could follow my FB page for update.

Love to you

Betty x

Published by bettysbeautifullife

I am a Christie's trained artist born in France but living in Glasgow. I work with Eco Techniques like Natural dyes, Eco Printing and Indigo dyeing using recycled material. I learn, teach and share my techniques, I work with communities and travel to Asia

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