Friday, January 8, 2021

Meanwhile, far from the madding crowd: The Cotton Project, Part One

 The past few days in this country have left me dispirited and unable to sleep. So I decided to come here to the blog and post about something good, decent, and non-political in hopes of quieting my soul. 

It’s my habit every morning, shortly after I get up, to go out to the greenhouse to check on the cotton project plants. I haven’t written much about this project on the blog, but in short, it is a series of paintings about different species of cotton that I am working on. Did you know that there are over fifty species in this genus? We tend to use only one for 96% of all commercial production for textiles (Gossypium hirsutum). The other, roughly 4% is Gossypium barbadense, more commonly known as “Pima” cotton. Here are a couple of works in progress—the top one is a commercial variety of hirsutum, and the bottom is barbadense:

I may write more about these two species in the future. Today’s is another story.

Over on the north side of town, Texas A&M has a large research facility, called “Agrilife.” It happens that among other things they do, they have a large seed bank of most of the different species, from all over the world. When we think of a cotton plant, we imagine it looking only one way. But it turns out, the genus is highly varied in its morphology. As a part of the cotton project, I searched around for specimens, and readily found five or six being grown for research. Since we live in cotton country (something like 15% of the world’s commercial cotton is grown here), there is naturally a lot of important cotton research being done in town. But the more esoteric species (read: “not economically useful”) just aren’t available or easily accessible “in the flesh” (that is, I can find photos, but it is hard to do a good botanical painting this way—the live specimen is ideal). Eventually I came to the conclusion that if I wanted specimens to paint, I was going to have to grow them myself.

Now, I am a middling gardener, at best. My garden philosophy goes something like this: “I’ll put you in the ground, get you started, and then you are on your own for the remainder of your natural life.” As you might imagine, this approach has its limits, especially in a land of little rain.

But I do have a greenhouse, albeit one mainly used for overwintering some less hardy cactus. (Cactus are great for gardeners like me, in that they like to be left alone. See also: “Thorns.”) In addition to the greenhouse, I have some garden space with plenty of full sun and drip irrigation, normally devoted to growing tomatoes and peppers. Both of these spaces lend themselves to the possibility of creating my own bijou cotton farmlet. So I decided to order some heirloom seeds—G. hirsutum with colored lint.

But it turns out that you need a permit to grow cotton in Texas, and purveyors outside of the state will not sell you seed without one. I thought at first, incorrectly, that this was driven by the Big Cotton industry, and was all about patents, and GMO, and other scary protectionist things. But as it turns out, it concerns boll weevil eradication. More on this later—my main point is that I needed a permit, and didn’t know where to turn to get one. I had already made some contacts with the researchers at Agrilife, though, and so I reached out and queried them. They immediately pointed me in the right direction, and then said since I wanted to grow some unusual cotton, how would I like to come down there and pick out some candidates from their seed bank? I was told that they needed to be grown in a greenhouse, though, since the plants required controlled light. 

Well, as it happens...

But first (actually, second, since “first” was getting the cotton permit), I needed to get a little more serious about my agricultural set up. This meant plumbing the greenhouse so that I could set up an automatic watering system. Avid readers of this blog (all one of you) know that I am usually a fervent DIYer, but age and some chronic injuries have made me hesitant to tackle some projects on my own. (Also, plumbing almost always turns into a disaster when I try it.) So my neighbor Tim did the plumbing, and Kamron, who occasionally helps me in the garden, dug the trenches. I just signed the checks. It all turned out neat as a pin, with a direct line to both the greenhouse and the hoop house that I also plan to use:

I love this system so much, I should have done it years ago.

Next came the grow lights. Plants, I learned, primarily use the red end of the light spectrum, and modern LED grow lights tend to skew this direction. This turns the little greenhouse into something of an otherworldly sight--a pinkhouse, if you will. The cotton wants more light than that provided by a winter day, so the lights go on at 5 AM, and off again at 8 PM. This is what I see every morning when I go out before dawn to check on my cotton plants:


I already had a heater for the greenhouse, though not a very robust one (a new one is on order), and it is controlled by a thermostat. In short, everything is now designed so that I can monitor conditions from my kitchen while wearing my pajamas:

Automated is good when you are an absent-minded, laissez faire gardener such as I (although it turns out that I fret so much about this project, I go out to the greenhouse two or three times a day checking on things; so I probably could have skipped having so much automation). And thus with everything set up, if not to be actually fool-proof, then at least to give me the illusion of such, I went to Agrilife and picked out some seeds.

And that will be my next post.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Shakeout for the Maggie Mee

 Well, what with one thing and another, it was several months after I finished working on the Maggie before I got to take her out on a shakeout cruise. For her first trip, I wanted to go to nearby Caprock Canyon State Park, just a couple of hours up the road. If anything major were to go wrong, I would be close enough to make it back home without too much trouble. However, getting a reservation for a camping spot (at any state park right now) meant booking two months in advance. I dilly-dallied all summer, nervous about traveling during a pandemic. By the time I decided to give it a go, the soonest available time period was the first part of November, which can be dicey, weather-wise. What the heck, I thought, and clicked “send” to book my spot.

As it turned out, the weather was nearly perfect. Moreover, the forecast for night temperatures promised to be cold, but not quite freezing, so I figured that would give me a good opportunity to see how well she performed with a small space heater. I have a good winter sleeping bag, but mummy bags make me claustrophobic, and since the whole reason I decided to embark on the teardrop project was to eliminate as many discomforts associated with camping as possible, I was hoping that a space heater would provide enough heat that I could sleep in my PJs with regular bedding during cold weather.

And the answer to that particular question is that I can.

Other things also worked as well as I had hoped. The stove and galley counter top made cooking and clean up a breeze, even in the dark. Here we are on Taco Night:

The radio did not pick up any nearby stations, but since it is bluetooth capable, I just hooked up my phone and listened to my favorite classical station, KTTZ. I also used the phone as a mobile hotspot and used my iPad for internet access. I’d downloaded some movies onto the iPad as well before leaving and was able to watch them at night (since it was late fall, it got dark at 6:30 in the evening, so I really appreciated having something to do in the confines of the teardrop). My little reading lamp was perfect for reading myself to sleep, too. All the storage space meant everything stayed organized and out of my way. And the first night out there was a fierce windstorm. In a tent, this would have been a problem, but in The Maggie, it was actually soothing to lie there and listen to it. In short, the little camper is nearly perfect for my needs. 

What would make it perfect? Well, an indoor toilet, but that is not going to happen. The park rest rooms were clean and largely unoccupied, though, so it was not too much bother.

The other thing I can’t really fix is having to lie down to get dressed, but I guess I can live with that.

I was feeling a little under the weather for the couple of days I was there, so I didn’t do much more than some light hiking and bird watching. But it was a pleasant, successful trip. 

Cotton notes: Stuff is popping up


The helpful people at Texas A&M Agrilife greenhouse, Leslie Wells, Zane Wyatt, Monica Sheehan, and Jane Dever, let me pick out seeds for three different species of cotton, G. aridum, G. nelsonii, and G. therberi. I picked each on the basis of either some story I could tell about them to accompany a painting (nelsonii and therberi), of for the striking difference in how we perceive cotton should look (aridum).

The cotton needs equal hours of daylight and night, so I plumbed my greenhouse for water and added a grow light (more on these later in a greenhouse report), and a couple days ago seedlings started to appear. Time to first the first seed germinated was about seven days. So far, I have at least one specimen per species, but I would like more; I planted at least eight seeds per species, so if more don’t come up, I will try again. Seeds must be given a hot water treatment of 80 C for 90 seconds before planting.

In other news, the winter wheat in the west plot is sprouting. Time to germination was seven days.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Cotton notes: Preparing the farmlet

 I’ve signed a publishing contract for a book about cotton that will be a mix of essays and my botanical art. It’s a long-term project, and I’ve started on it in earnest this fall. There are many things to report, but I’ll start with this, preparing to grow some of my own cotton in the area of the garden I call “the farmlet.” It is the only part of our property that receives full sun, which cotton needs, and normally I use the area to grow vegetables (read: tomatoes and not much else). Next year, however, I am planning to grow some varieties of heirloom cotton to paint. Much to my surprise, when I went to order the seed, I discovered you need a permit to grow cotton in the state of Texas. This is apparently to control the spread of the boll weevil, as this way they can track where it might be. So, with the help of the kind people at Texas A&M Agrilife, I applied for and was granted a permit. 

Next on the agenda was to prepare some space for the plants. In addition to some existing beds in the farmlet, I also decided to add some in the alley, and experiment a bit. I’ve been tagging along with a local farm family as they’ve been harvesting this fall (more on that in another post), and they practice dryland, no-till farming. I thought the alley plots might be a good place  to try these things. So with the help of a young man who often helps me in the garden, we got one bed tilled, and another scraped, and then sowed some winter wheat on the surface to create a cover crop.


Which a flock of White Winged Doves promptly devoured. 

I read up a bit on winter wheat and discovered that a 1.5” planting depth is recommended (rather than just scattering it. That seemed like it would keep the birds from feasting on my nascent wheat, so I created some furrows in one bed, scattered the seed, and covered it. I started to do the same to the other bed (the east one), but discovered that is was chock full of lava rocks. You may remember that some years ago, lava rock was a popular landscape mulch. I had forgotten that a long while ago, a friend wanted to get rid of hers and I told her I would take it. Her husband came over with a load of it in the back of his truck and dumped about a cubic yard that spot in the alley. And over the years, I forgot it was there. 

So the past three days I have been digging it out, using a combination of small tiller, various rakes and shovels, and a sieve made from an old garden gate. 

And digging it out. 

And digging it out.

To give you a feel for the scope of this labor, picture if you will a buried swimming pool filled with this:

I figure I have maybe one or two more days of doing this before I can get back to re-planting the winter wheat in this plot. However, while I was distracted by the lava rock dilemma, the doves once again discovered the western plot had new seed—only now it was conveniently lined up in some furrows. 

I came out the morning after I had re-planted and found neat little furrows, as empty as could be. They all looked like this:

It was sort of like an Automat for birds.

So I re-re-planted the winter wheat, covered it again, and then covered the whole thing with bird nettting. And that seems to have done the trick.

Further notes: the seed comes from a local seed company, and Kamron, my farmlet hand, had to buy an entire bag. So there is plenty to do all the re-planting I need.


Saturday, October 24, 2020


So much has happened since I left off and I have no idea where to begin. I will just start with something.

Back in the spring covid shut everything down, it looked as if I would not be able to travel to the TransPecos with the Maggie Mee to work on the devils claw project. Parks were closed, travel was scary, and it seemed prudent to hunker down. But all was not lost. Botanist Michael Eason—author of Wildflowers of Texas and with whom I have consulted on this project—sent me some seedpods for two species of Proboscidea, louisianica ssp. ‘fragrans’ and altheaifolia. I spent an evening with a couple pairs of pliers wrestling the seeds from their grasp and planted them. This was difficult, as the seedpods did not want to give them up. Nevertheless, I persisted, with a little cursing, and eventually got more than enough to plant. (Fragrans is shown here with some seeds from a Native American cultivar of parviflora, to illustrate the difference in seed color.)

As it turned out, it as a good thing I had so many seeds, because, as was the case last year, I had a dickens of a time getting them to germinate. I did, however, get one specimen of each. I’m going to talk about them in separate posts, however, otherwise This will get to be too long. Suffice it to say that it took some effort to get both these plants to survive, bloom, and set fruit.

Altheaifolia is unusual in that, unlike the other species of Proboscidea, it is a perennial. This was going to present a problem with our winters here in the panhandle, since its natural habitat is much further south. So I planted it in a lightweight pot with the intention of moving it into the small greenhouse I have to overwinter. Here it is as an infant, looking alarmingly (to my eyes) fragile, spindly, and ready to succumb to all that life can throw at it: 

It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that I held my breath the entire summer hoping this plant would survive.

But survive it did, and grew, though it was somewhat leggy compared to one grown in the wild. Michael Eason suggested this might be because it did not get enough sun, and that seems likely, since I had grown it in part shade in order to hook it up to some automatic drip I already had there.

It also did not bloom all summer. But since it is a perennial, I wasn’t too worried, thinking it might be more likely to next summer.

And now here it is Fall. I moved the altheaifolia into the greenhouse about a month ago, and lo and behold, the extra sun and warmth there coaxed a bloom! And then another! And there are four additional buds growing on the stems. 

The flower is a striking color—sort of Indian Yellow, with shades of purple. It will be nice to paint it. I learned from the fragrans this summer that though the Proboscidea are self-pollinating, I did not seem to have the right pollinator for the plant to bear fruit. So I helped it along with the paint brush, with good success. I worried about the same being true with the altheaifolia, so I did the same: 

I’ll post updates on the plant as it progresses.

Tomorrow is predicted to be our first freeze, but the greenhouse heater is working, and everything is buttoned down, so hopefully the plant will be happy and continue blooming and produce some fruit.