Have you thought about growing plants for plant fibres? You might not realise it, but there are a couple important textile fibre plants that you could potentially consider growing in your very own garden.
If you are trying to live in as sustainable and eco-friendly a way as possible, you will have realised what an important resource your garden is. You will be well aware of how much your garden can provide. And you may well already grow at least some of your own food in your garden. You may also have made forays into growing medicinal plants.
But it is important to recognise that a garden can also provide numerous other natural resources that can help you further on the road to greater self-reliance, and a more sustainable way of life. Plant fibres, for twines, yarns, papers and fabrics, are one interesting area to explore.
While there are many plants grown for their fibres around the world, only a handful are potentially suitable for UK cultivation. We can’t grow cotton in our gardens. But we can potentially grow flax, or – a more unusual fibre plant but well known weed – stinging nettles – perhaps the most useful yet underutilised fibre plant. A little information on each of these plants can be found below:
Flax for Plant Fibres
Late March or early April is a good time to sow flax seeds. You can stagger sowings so as to manage the process and make sure you do not get overwhelmed by the harvest and processing. It is hardy to zone 4 in the UK, and is not frost tender. It will do best in sandy or loamy, moist yet free-draining soils.
Choosing Flax Seed
If you would like to grow flax for fibre, then you need to choose the right seed. Some flax is bred to provide long, straight stems for fibres, while others are bred for flax seeds/linseed production. The latter will provide only a poor quality fibre.
Once you have the right seeds, note that you will need around 13 grams of seed per square metre of ground area. A 100g seed packet is therefore enough to cover an area of around 7.5 sq m. (or 1.5 x 5 m) Of course, you could also experiment, even in a much smaller area.
It is a good idea to sow flax in blocks around 1.5m wide rather than in thin rows. It will grow the best fibre when densely sown close together in this way, and the plants will offer support to one another. Do not be tempted to make the blocks wider, however, or you will not be able to reach the centre to weed. If you can only access one side of the block then it will have to be narrower so you can reach.
Mark out and prepare a growing area for the flax, before broadcasting the seeds over the area and covering over with a thin layer of compost/topsoil to protect the seeds from birds. If birds are an issue, placing netting, a fruit cage or other protection over the area can help make sure the seeds have a chance to germinate.
The flax will grow to around 1m in height, and will be ready to harvest around 100 days from seed sowing, 30-35 days after flowering. Harvest when the stalks are turning yellow but there is still some green to be seen. When this time arrives, uproot the flax upright, and leave it in stooks to dry. Use a flax ripple or another homemade device to comb away the seeds.
This threshing stage is followed by retting – either by leaving on the grass to become wet with dew (over 6-8 weeks) or by submerging in water for around 5 days. You will then break the flax, breaking away the woody core to leave the long flexible fibres behind. There are a number of low tech ways to do this on a small scale in your garden.
From a patch that is 1.5m x5m in size, you will get around 350g of flax fibre.
Nettles for Plant Fibres
You might be surprised to learn that the common stinging nettle is also a very useful fibre crop – one that can be grown extremely easily across the British Isles. Nettles are actually related to flax and can be used to make a fine linen cloth. It was commonly used in Scotland up until the 19th century.
Of course, the stinging hairs of the nettle make it a little more challenging to process. But a number of researchers have looked into this topic and found great ways to process the nettles and turn them into a yarn which can be spun.
You probably won’t need to plant nettles, as they are such a common weed. And may be able to harvest from existing wild corners in your garden, or even in the wild. But you could dedicate an area of your garden to growing these useful plants. They are not only a fibre crop but also a great wild edible, and wonderful for your health, and for wildlife in your garden.
Like flax, nettles are usually retted (either dew retted or water retted) before they are stripped of their fibres, broken, and outer ‘bark’ scraped off. (They can also be processed without retting). Thin fibres can then be spun into a yarn, washed, and used for a range of interesting projects.
Hemp for Plant Fibres?
Hemp is another potential fibre crop which can be grown in the UK. Farmers need to get a license to grow hemp in the UK. They must currently destroy the leaves flowers and seeds, as once they leave the plant they are a controlled substance. The current state of governmental control sadly means that growing hemp for fibre is not feasible for a hobby gardener. You are not allowed to grow hemp in your back garden.
Hemp is actually a strain of the Cannibis Sativa plant. But unlike its close cousin, it is nowhere near as high in THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). And so is does not have the same psychoactive effects. Hemp is often described as one of the most sustainable of textile fibres. And does have a range of eco-friendly credentials.
It is hardy to zone 9 in the UK, and can be grown in warmer more southern regions. When grown for fibre, it requires a mild temperate climate with at least 67cm annual rainfall. It requires abundant rain whilst the seeds are germinating and until young plants become established. It will succeed in most relatively fertile garden soils.
Hemp is usually planted between March and May. And can be ready for harvesting within 3-4 months. Perhaps in future the regulations will change. And gardeners will be able to grow this incredibly useful crop in their gardens. But for now, home fibre growers will have to stick to flax or nettles. These are the main options if they want to grow a fibre grow at home.
Do you grow flax or nettles for plant fibres in your garden? Let us know and share your own tips and experiences in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.