Monday, March 9, 2015

My Totally True Amazing Adventure in Growing Cotton

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NatCroMo2015 Designer Blog Tour

This is my second time participating in the blog tour and I’m glad to be part of this amazing virtual experience! I thank Amy and Donna for making this event possible as I know they put a lot of energy into making this happen. When you’ve finished reading my post, please visit the other participants on the tour. Everyone participating has something unique to share and you don't want to miss a day! All photos are clickable to view a larger image.

When I signed up for this year’s blog tour I asked Amy if it would be alright to share my adventure in growing cotton plants as it was such an amazing experience for me, yet not entirely on topic of crochet. She agreed as it’s truly an extraordinary journey. While we may be familiar with cotton yarn as crocheters, what about the plant that produces this ubiquitous versatile fiber?

Now you might think that a thread crocheter like myself would want to grow cotton because it is the fiber that I primarily crochet and design with, and that I plan on spinning my own thread. On the contrary! I grew them because of their sublimely beautiful flowers and foliage! The flowers are so marvelous that I was tempted to sing to them out loud. I sort of did in my mind. I definitely beamed at them quite a bit.

I’ve been engaged in some of kind of gardening for more than 20 years as it is a way for me to direct my creative energy. Gardening helps me be patient, to have delayed gratification, connects me with the seasons and nature, inspires me, and is restorative. Growing cotton has been one of my most fantastic gardening experiences as there are many milestones to mark progress. Let's get started in recreating this awesome journey!

It Starts with Some Seeds
Considering that cotton has been cultivated for at least 5,000 years there is an abundance of information about how to grow it readily available on the Internet. This is how I learned about growing cotton in addition to the practical experience I gained by growing it. Most importantly the Internet was how I discovered that some states (mostly where cotton is commercially grown) have laws concerning the cultivation of cotton for personal or ornamental use. Some states prohibit it while others require registration and compliance of a few laws. In North Carolina I contacted my county's Plant Protection Specialist who came to my house each month to check and replace a free boll weevil trap. 

Cotton is a member of the Mallow family (Malvaceae) making it related to okra, cacao, and hibiscus. The two species of cotton most commonly grown are upland cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) and pima cotton (Gossypium barbadense). Pima cotton is distinguished by its long fiber length as well as other attributes.

Cotton seed is available for purchase from a number of online retailers. As it requires at least 120 days to grow in order to yield cotton it is grown in areas with at least that many frost free days. I start my seeds indoors to make sure the plants are off to a good start before transplanting. I've found blog posts from fellow gardeners who've successful grown cotton in Oregon and Indiana. 

The commercially grown cotton we typically see has green leaves, green bolls, cream flowers that fade to pink, and white fibers. More colorful combinations exist that are spectacular and readily available to cultivate. There is a variety of red foliated cotton as well as one that is black foliated. In addition to white lint fiber there are varieties of natural green lint and brown lint fibers. 

Colorful Cotton Seeds
White lint fiber Green lint fiber
Brown lint fiber

Germination occurs within 4-14 days. The cotyledons are big and green no matter what color the leaf will later become. Red and black foliated cotton plants will, however, have reddish stems.

Plants are grown indoors and transplanted up to bigger pots as they grow. In April when the weather warms up I'll let them play in the sun on the porch if the temperature is in the mid to upper 60s and bring them inside at night. Once all danger of frost has ended and the overnight low temperature remains above 60°F I transplant them into the ground. Cotton also does very well in containers.

Meet the Cotton Plants
I grew three varieties of cotton plant to get an idea of what each had to offer. I was quite smitten with the petite size of the Black Beauty cotton, its deep pink flowers, and handsomely dark foliage.

Red Foliated Cotton
Fertilized plants grew over 5 feet with tallest reaching 6 feet; non-fertilized grew about 4 feet. Grows well in a container. All plants received at least 6-8 hours of full sun. Not deer resistant as deer will eat leaves and bolls.
Pink & Cream Flower Red-green leaves
Red bolls White fiber

Black Beauty Ornamental Cotton
Fertilized plants grew about 2 feet. Did very well in a container. Flowered later than red or green plants. Strikingly beautiful flowers. Not deer resistant.
Pink Flower Black leaves
Black bolls White fiber

Green Fiber Cotton
One fertilized plant grew over 6 feet, others around 4-5 feet. Grew well in container. Color of green fiber variable and amazing. Not deer resistant.
Cream Flower Green leaves
Green bolls Green fiber

Then One Day Something Magical Appears
I'll never forget that morning I went out to check on the cotton plants and found the first bracts! I made a lot of happy sounds and I probably danced around a little. A flower on a cotton plant is called a square and there are 4 stages of flower development: pinhead square, match head square, candle, and bloom. Once the first flowers appeared in June the plants kept flowering until the first killing frost sometime in November.

Flower Stages
Pinhead Square Match head Square
Candle Bloom

The flower lasts for about a day before it begins to fade. White flowers turn pink, pink turns deeper pink, and the deep pink turns magenta. After about a week the flower falls off revealing a little boll that will take about 50 days to grow into cotton, provided that the deer don't eat it first.

Cotton Bolls
Baby boll Mature boll
Opening Ready to pick

Cotton plants are heat and drought tolerant and like at least 6 hours of full sun. However, these are ideal conditions. The plants I grew in 12" containers with less than 6 hours of sun did well, though didn't get as big or have as many flowers as the ones in the ground. Once they got established they flourished. Aside from watering them the only thing I routinely did was apply fertilizer which seemed to help one grow well over 6 feet. Insects seemed to hang out on the leaves but never did any damage to the plants. During a 6 week dry period in June and July the deer would help themselves to eating the leaves and bolls. This caused many of the first bolls to form to be lost. Once the rain returned the deer found other plants to eat.
Happy Plants
Plants in Containers Topped out over 6 feet
Average height of
cotton plants was 4-5 feet
Base of plant that
stood over 6 feet

The Journey Ends..Sort Of
I originally wanted to winter over some of my plants but state law requires them to be destroyed by the last day in November to prevent any boll weevils from hanging out. I was sad to have to say good-bye to these majestic plants that I had spent 8 months getting to know. Then I realized that it wasn't exactly good-bye because I'd plant their seeds in the spring and I'd get to know their children and grandchildren and so on. On February 26th of this year I planted 18 seeds and had the first one germinate 4 days later. On March 4th I had 15 out of the 18 germinated.

The Next Generation

Thank you for accompanying me on this virtual journey! This year's journey will be documented so if you'd like to follow along I'll be posting pictures on Facebook, Instagram, and Tsu.