24 Home growers have embarked on that blue path of growing Japanese Indigo in Scotland with me. Small quantities but a big connection. We hope to grow plants, dye blue but also create connections between us and nature, between us as growers, farmers, dyers… I have asked them to write a few words to introduce themselves and talk about their journey as first time Indigo growers.
Please meet Nicky… I met her through my online teaching of botanical printing. She volunteered early and wanted to take part for her own personal reason… read for yourself.
“Hello, I am Nicki Wilkins, (writer, artist, home educator, soul midwife/mentor), living near Dundee, on the east coast of Scotland, and I will be growing my indigo plants at my allotment plot on the west side of Dundee Law with the most beautiful view of the Lomond hills in Fife and the River Tay.
I have been chasing blue (or blue has been chasing me) for most of my life, but it was when my mother died in 2013, and I began to find all her knitted blue blankets tucked away in her home, that I started a poetic relationship with blue. I then began writing about the way the colour blue motifs my midlife journey. My memoir, This Slender Blue Thread, is why I am part of this growing indigo project. I like working with blue!
As an eco-artist, working with the natural materials I forage, I’ve dabbled in printing, cyanotypes, indigo vat building, and currently I am working with wild clay documenting my menopausal journey.
My art practice is grounded in my relationship with the natural world around me, and I enjoy working with plant materials from seed to colour. While I plan on exploring indigo dyeing with paper (the poet in me wants blue paper!), someday I hope to make my own indigo pigment to colour my wild clay balls (dorodangoes=Japanese mud balls).
I like the idea of mapping indigo growing across Scotland and seeing and watching how others work with blue. And just today I got a chance to say hello to my first indigo seedlings! Just thinking about how they carry blue makes me smile. Come visit me on Instagram.
On day 24 of my Indigo diaries 2022 I feel so happy about my 1500 planted Indigo seeds so far. From growing in a raised bed in my back garden in 2021, this year I am starting growing an Indigo Plot in the Glasgow Botanical garden and that is definitively upscaling. But I am very excited about the adventure. Off course it means loosing control of the close by site, growing on a bigger scale, in different grounds… a lot of changes. But the great reward will be the sharing of the result. Leaves and dyeing will be dong in a more community level. For that reason I have put a call out for some volunteers who want to share the work and the learning. Advertised in Scotland via Social media and various groups. And 25 people have come forward. Some will help, some will grow at home.
Most of the seeds I planted back in march have germinated and are growing steadily. Strong and tall they are not yet showing their leaves but some really good green tops. An other couple of weeks I will be transplanting them into individual pots and start preparing the grounds at the Glasgow Botanical Garden. But for this i need a helping hand. I am searching for a team of volunteers who will help with the digging, planting, up keeping and then dyeing…
But in the meantime I have found a team of 21 Scottish growers who will join me on the adventure and this post is for them… They come from the 4 corners of Scotland, Mallaig, Edinburgh, Lewis, Inverness, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, the Borders etc… and they are artists, nature lovers, vegetable growers, weavers, and have volunteered a little bit of space to grow Japanese Indigo alongside me. We will share notes, exchange on the process and when the leaves are ready we will learn to process the leaves to use the pigment.
This morning I have sent out to each of them 50 seeds of Persicaria Tinctoria (Japanese Indigo) of the Senbon variety. In a few days we will have an information meeting on zoom to get to know each other, talk about the project and learn about how to grow it.
But for now some basic instruction on how to plan Japanese Indigo seeds to get them to germinate:
Some planting trays with small holes (around 5 x 5 cms) that will sit on top of a watering trays.
Some planting compost
Some Japanese Indigo seeds (multiple of 5)
A light/warm corner to seat your trays for a few weeks (out of the draft)
Some small pots for transplanting your seeds when they are big enough to mature outside (green house/cold frame).
A corner in the garden with a good light space that will get a lot of sun and near a water access, Indigo likes a lot of water to grow… a lot of sunlight for pigment.
How to proceed to get germination:
1 – Add a good layer of compost into each holes of the planting tray. Use a little glass upside down to push the compost down nice and compact. Use a pencil to push down a little hole in the middle.
2 – Drop down 5 seeds together and a little compost on top. They will germinate together and grow like a bushy little plant. Japanese Indigo plant like company.
3 – Make sure the compost is kept humid but not watery. It is better to water from the underneath. I use a watering tray with something like foam under the planting tray.
4 – You seeds should germinate in anything between 5 to 12 days. Depending on how much light and how warm it is.
5 – Your seeds will then take another two to three weeks to get more mature (make sure they are watered.) and can be transferred to small pots.
6 – If your trays are sitting indoors by a window the small seedlings will grow towards the glass. I keep turning them around every couple of days to make them grow straight.
7 – Our aim is to have the seedlings strong enough to be outdoors to get stronger in May and get planted outside in the bed/pot they will en up in.
Japanese Indigo or Persicaria Tinctoria, originated from China and Vietnam and is an annual dye plant, part of the Buckwheat family and producing blue pigment (with a high count of Indican the precursor of Indigo). It is Frost tender and has a fast growth (16 weeks in my case from planting the seeds to first harvest of leaves loaded with pigment and ready to use).
It grows well in cool weather areas such as my home location the West of Scotland. It can from germination, produce at least two growth/season in the UK (that is when after one harvest the shoots grow a second time to mature leaves) and produces flower/seeds within just a few months. It needs water for growth and sun for strong pigment and is relatively pest and diseases free. It is a joy to grow and an excellent learning opportunity for all to appreciate how much work goes in the production of the Natural Indigo powder we buy over the internet in quite a casual manner… After growing Indigo and having processed I am now more than before focused in not wasting a single grain of the Indigo pigment I might buy from India.
Aboubakar Fofana the French/Mali Indigo Master dyer taught me to give Indigo the respect it deserves and his mindful approach to creating Indigo vats and dye with them changed the whole way I approach Indigo dyeing.
Natural dyeing from being centuries ago a “secretive technique” only for the initiated of the old guilds has become one of these current “hobbies” (I am being asked what I can teach in a 90 minutes sessions? a lot of wanabee natural dyers can not dissociate dye from kitchen waste) and natural dyes have become a basic ingredients just like a tub of mass produced acrylic paint… little sachets of Indigo powder are flying from one side of the world to the other with not much concern for who grew them and spent hours extracting the pigment… Growing your own Indigo crop is a complete eye opener to how this way of approaching your “craft” is wrong and meaningless. A lot of pride is the load of the natural dyer who grows their own plants. From seeds to dye is a wonderful process.
After working with Indigo for years and practising all sorts of vats from natural Indigo pigment I became interested in the process of growing and extracting just as I did with Madder and other dyes. Some of my Thai friends, natural dyers and textile artists shared their process with me in 2020 when visiting Isean and the Chiangmai area, but only in 2021 did I have the courage to grow myself… I was not prepared for the powerful effect this had on my soul ! In the middle of the negativity of the “Home Lockdown” because of the Covid 19 crisis, the raised bed of lush Indigo leaves gave me such a feel of success and achievement.
But growing on my own is not much fun and I want to recreate the feeling of togetherness gained when working in the Community gardens here in Scotland or in the Dye gardens in Norther Thailand. So, I have focused most of my summer activities in growing Japanese Indigo again in 2022 through several projects.
I am running an online workshop “The Indigo diaries” where 10 participants from around the world are growing with me with the aim of experimenting with fresh leaves methods and pigment extraction.
I will also cultivate and curate “The Indigo plot” a Glasgow based project in the grounds of The Glasgow Botanical Garden where I will grow with the help of volunteers three beds of Japanese Indigo with the aim of educating the public about dye plants and sharing some Indigo dye techniques. I want this project to be as opened as possible to the public. I want it to be educative and inspiring to many.
Today is the first day of #myindigodiaries and the day my growing seasons starts with planting the seeds… off course the season started before that with the planning, the selection of the space, the negotiation with The Botanics, the advertising of the course and the meeting the participants… ordering the seeds, deciding which to plant but that will be for another day. Today the clock start ticking and the seeds are going in.
1500 seeds of Persicaria tinctoria, Japanese Indigo, that sounds a lot but it is not really. In small bunches of 10 seeds thats only 150 plants 50 for my garden box and 100 for The Botanics plot. I want to compare if the crops behave the same way. More protection in my garden, more sun in The Botanics, better soil in my garden, more light in The Botanics… More slugs ready to munch in The Botanics, more cats ready to dig in our back garden… time will tell but for now lets plant !
MY GROWING SEASON IS STARTING ON THE 23RD OF MARCH !
My growing season starts on the 23rd March 2022 with the planting of the seeds. The germination of the seeds should take around 5 days but can take longer if the conditions are not met (not enough heat, not enough light, not wet enough, etc…) .
Maturing the tiny plants to make them strong enough to risk the outdoors will take a few weeks. But you cant plant them too soon or the outside space will still be too cold… You should aim at planting around 6 weeks before the last dates of frost in your area. I am in hardiness zone 8. You can find out what zone you are in HERE But you also have to make sure that you have enough daylight for the very small plants grow strong and tall.
It is good to have the back up of a cold frame if you are planting indoors to allow your plants to mature before they go into ground. You could off course just use a pane of glass on top of bricks but beware of slugs who love the small green tender leaves if your small plants are too much in the open.
Planting technique and reflection on growing Japanese Indigo:
Planing for your plant growing starts before you even plant the seeds… Study your grounds and decide how you would like to organise your plants for maximum growth. Will you plant all those plants individually or will you group them? Will then have a regimented lay out in the space or more of an organic lay out? You have to think of access for watering and harvesting… If you have a very dip space and plants everywhere you will find it difficult to access them comes the harvesting time.
I have rectangular beds of around 120 cms x 240 cms in the garden and of around 150 cms wide in #theindigoplot. I will plant every 30 cms to give the plants a chance to expend and grow plenty of leaves. I will have 10 seeds together to provide a group of plants to grow together. Grouping seems to generate a better outcome. Ashley Walker from Nature’s Rainbow talks about that in his advice on growing Japanese Indigo. In 2021 I discovered this but after I had planted the seeds separately and it proved really difficult to bunch them once they have roots and leaves. This year I am adding the 10 seeds together in the same pod to germinate.
Manipulating young plants is always difficult and it is better to think about the way you want them to grow before you commit to the planting.
I have decided to use small pods trays and compost to make the germination faster and easier. I have to “Host” my seed trays in the large window of my sitting room in the first instance. Using the trays means there is space for them all to be very close to the window and get a maximum amount of light. I will rotate the trays everyday. The space is warm enough at this time of the year and the light comes in from early morning till early evening.
Planting seeds to early in the season might give the plants the impression that Autumn weather has arrived and encourage them to flower when really still very young. Last year a complete variety of Indigo was showing this and I had to spend the first few weeks of my plants being in the raised bed by plucking everyday lovely pink buds emerging. Ashley Walker researched this phenomena after experiencing this issue with quite a few of their plants in the past. His recommendation was… don’t plant before April… but I could not resist.
I made sure to label the trays with the variety of Indigo well. Last year my seeds were in smaller trays and when moving around some unlabelled trays I made the mistake of loosing track of the different varieties. When first germinating and very small plants I could not see the difference and only was able to find out once they started growing… I am well prepared with little plastic sticks and permanent felt tips.
I am growing 4 different varieties :
The Long leaves variety,
All my seeds this year come from Nature’s rainbow as I have total trust in their seed production and both Ashley and Susan are so generous with their advice. I will endeavour to produce seeds myself this year for the future. From seeds to seeds is my next aim.
Growing around 400 seeds of each variety will give me a chance to run proper comparison on growing differences and dye results. But I will also grow in small quantity some of my own seeds from last season as well as some Woad, this time Isatis Tinctoria.
My seed trays are seating on felt and in a plastic tray to facilitate watering. I will water from the base and not the top to avoid disturbing the seeds. I am giving myself about one month before those will be replanted into bigger pots. This time I have chosen a compostable pot which gets planted into the bed with the small plants. This will allow great manipulation for The Botanics project. It will also make it really easy to transport without damaging the young plants.
I have chosen a seedling compost to give myself the best chance for success. On the other hand the soil in my own home bed will be recycled from last year. The bed was constructed 30 cm high but the roots of the Indigo plants are only about 10 cm. I will soon clear the bed and turn the soil over. The grounds in The Botanics are very clay based… We will need to add sand and soil improver to give the plants a chance to breathe. Our process will be described in a different post.
For now my seeds are in and I will say a little prayer to The Indigo God asking him to help with with germination… Lets wait and see…
IF you want to follow my Indigo project please follow the facebook page related to #theindigoplot HERE