Indigo harvest at Okan Arts, 2020

indigo: emergency harvest

By Patricia Belyea

WAUCONDA WA  This story started in mid-May when I soaked packets of Japanese indigo seeds from Elizabeth Merrill and Grand Prismatic Seed in warm water. The next day I dropped 200 seeds, using tweezers, into little soil pods.

Those seeds were babied with heating pads, grow lights, and moisture covers. Once they became sprouts and their early leaves differentiated, I transplanted the seedlings into 3 1/2" pots.

They stayed in a holding pattern until Michael and I had the irrigation ready in the front field. (Getting the irrigation to the field took bushwacking through a woodland area to create a route for 400' of polypipe to transport water from our well, across the creek, and through a meadow.)

Soaking indigo seeds at Okan Arts
Starting indigo seeds at Okan Arts
Starting indigo seeds at Okan Arts
Indigo seedings at Okan Arts

Once two 90' rows were prepped, about 165 indigo plants were popped in the soil at one-foot intervals. The irrigation tape, on a timer, delivered two hours of watering, twice a day. Our warm summer days were long and the plants thrived.

Daily I walked down to the field to see my happy indigo with their bright green leaves lifted up to the sun. Although we never finished our wildlife fence, none of our woodland friends bothered the plants.

Japanese indigo growing at Okan Arts, Summer 2020
Japanese indigo growing at Okan Arts, Summer 2020

This morning I woke up thinking: It sure was cold last night. With a cup of coffee in hand, I moseyed down to the front field to check on the indigo. All summer I’d wondered when the local deer would get a taste for my sweet plants. That was the catastrophe I’d been anticipating.

BAD NEWS: Overnight, frost kissed the indigo. It looked like lettuce that was stored in the wrong part of the refrigerator—limp and dark green/blue. I hurried back to the house, grabbed Michael, and we got in gear.

The harvest started at 9:30am. All the plants were in the wagon, on the way up to the house, by 10:05am.

Frost-kissed indigo plants at Okan Arts, Summer 2020
Patricia Belyea harvesting indigo plants at Okan Arts, Summer 2020
Harvesting Japanese indigo at Okan Arts, Summer 2020
Harvesting Japanese indigo at Okan Arts, Summer 2020

Our next step was to begin the process of extracting the blue dye from the indigo leaves. As neophyte indigo farmers, we have no idea if blue dye is still available from our damaged plants.

The indigo plants—stems, branches and leaves—were piled into a 140-gallon tub in our basement. After submerging the organic matter in hot water (120º F), we weighed all of the plant material down to keep it underwater. Next we set up a tarp tent over the tub and a greenhouse heater—so the water stays warm.
 Processing indigo at Okan Arts, Summer 2020Processing Japanese indigo at Okan Arts, Summer 2020Processing Japanese indigo at Okan Arts, Summer 2020
Processing Japanese indigo at Okan Arts, Summer 2020

Now the field lays bare. The plants are hopefully beginning their transformation into a magical blue dye. Will this really work? If so, how much dye will they make? All yet to be revealed!

Bare fields after the indigo harvest at Okan Arts, Summer 2020

 


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86 comments


  • Nance
    WOW!!! I am really looking forward to updates on your indigo experience.

    Nance


  • Patricia Belyea
    Nance—We are still working on the end of the story! PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Erica—I like your gut instinct! PB

  • erica
    My gut instinct tells me you willhave indigo dye.

  • Patricia Belyea
    Kristin—Thanks. My fingers and toes are crossed! PB

  • kristin skantze
    WOW!!! This is amazing! Thank you for your article/picture, and hard work! Fingers crossed for success.

  • Patricia Belyea
    Muffy—Thanks! I know both John and Bryan. PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Sandra—So great to hear from you. Thank you for the well wishes. Go Blue! PB

  • Muffy Clark Gill
    You might want to talk to John Marshall (johnmarshall.to) he grows indigo in California and makes the dye using dried leaves. Took a class with him to learn more. You can also talk to Bryan Whitehead-he teaches indigo dying in Japan

  • Sandy Heffernan
    Wow- an impressive effort Patricia. Heart breaking to see the frost damage. I hope you triumph against the weather adversity and harvest lots of indigo blue!!

  • Patricia Belyea
    Amy—You are a light to me. I’m always so thrilled to connect with you, my dear. PB

  • Am Katoh
    WOW! PATRICIA! What an explosion of ideas and enthusiasm and downright generosity was your call. My head is still trying to wrap around all you said but I took notes and will in time answer with my FORWARD ACTION response. For the moment I simply say thank you for your magnanimity and neck breaking speed with which you called. I am touched and overwhelmed and recharged. You have lit a beautiful light in my spirit! and I am grateful beyond words! The future is our’s if we just make adjustments to the demands of the present! xxx

  • Patricia Belyea
    Suzanne—Thank you for the intercession. We are still awaiting the results of our efforts. PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Laura—Thank you! PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Lily—Exactly. I hope the blue indigo comes out of the leaves!!!! PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Darney—Great to hear from you. I always appreciate a love story so I hope it has a happy ending. Yet to come! PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Susan—We do get frosts here so we have to start late and end early with our growing season. We just weren’t prepared for the unexpected frost! Thanks for the tip on the book. I just bought it on Etsy for $29. AbeBooks.com had the book for $50 or more, and a seller on eBay had it for $100! It looks quite special. PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Linda—Thank you. Happily it didn’t seem like work as we made the journey from seed to harvest. It’s been a time full of wonder and curiosity. And we’re still curious as to what will happen next! PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Sharon—Our frost arrived unannounced. It must have dropped below 32 degrees in the middle of the night—for just a short amount of time. Results of the extraction still to come. PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Jolene—Hopefully is the correct word. We are still working on the extraction process. PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Eileen—Your positive energy is so appreciated. I really hope this will work! PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Lesley—Hawaii would be a great place to grow Japanese indigo. You can do fresh-leaf dyeing, which is SO SIMPLE. You harvest the leaves in the morning, prep the dye in your blender, and, presto, dip your fabric! Very different from extracting indigo dye from the leaves to be used at a later time. PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Susan—Indigo is definitely magical. I’ve over-dyed thousands of yards of vintage yukata cottons with natural indigo from Botanical Colors. Watching the fabric color change from pea green to luscious blue is the best! PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Gail—Great to hear from you. I don’t have an end to the story yet! PB

  • Suzanna Moore
    I will follow your success with baited breath. I pray you have a successful yield of dye!

  • Laura Sinai
    Wow! I didn’t know about this project. I wish you success!

  • Lily Kamikihara
    OMG! You have a lot of energy. Kudos to you and your husband. I hope the indigo comes out of the leaves. Take care.

  • Darnney Proudfoot
    The indigo story is so exciting. I am anticipating the next installment.

  • Susan Maresco
    I so appreciate your energy and ambition and never knew anyone to try growing indigo up there. They grew it in Mendocino and Fort Bragg, CA and maybe other places in Northern CA. I wish you luck with the fermentation and extraction. My Santa Cruz friend. Dorothy Miller, deceased for over a decade, was a champion indigo grower and producer down here and always had large amounts of it fermenting in giant barrels or containers at her home. She wrote a booklet, “Indigo from Seed to Dye” that was the best booklet back about it 20-30 yrs. She had lived in Okinawa, also. Goood Luck with getting a fine result.

  • Linda Lambert
    Hi Patricia,

    I really do hope that you made it just in time!
    After reading this I didn’t realize that there was so much work involved, I will have to remember this when I am doing my Sashiko!
    I can’t wait to hear the next part of this, really, really hope you guys made it!!!
    Fingers X. Linda.


  • Sharon Weibler
    Oh wow! Keep us posted on your results. This reminds me of home when a heavy frost was predicted before the fruit harvest. They even let out the high school so teens could help with the harvest.

  • Jolene Mershon
    What an interesting story and pictures. Hopefully you’ll get plenty of beautiful indigo dye. I love indigo fabrics and the smell is as potent as the smell of a new box of crayola crayons. Love both of those smells.

  • Lesley Morris
    Looking forward to following your story re the outcome! Living in Hawaii, I’ve thought of growing these plants, knowing of an artist in Kilauea who is planting them now. However, reading about what is involved, it looks to be very involved. Hope your harvest works, and who knows, maybe the frost turns out to be a plus! Can’t wait to see the results.

  • Eileen Hallock
    Sending positive energy your way that the end results are what you hoped for.

  • Susan MacLeod
    What a fabulous project. Eagerly awaiting further reports. I did some indigo dyeing from a kit a couple years ago, and got some lovely colors on cotton and linen fabric. Used some shibori techniques also, and spruced up a couple old and stained facecloths. It is so magical to see the items change to the beautiful blue after exposure to air.

  • Gail v Willett
    Patricia, So glad you were able to rescue your plants. Can’t wait to hear how the story will end.

  • Patricia Belyea
    Hi Annette—I feel like we are in a big science experiment now. Timing and Ph will all make a difference. And as beginning extractors who have only watched videos, we’ll see how we do! PB

  • Annette
    Oh my gosh you two…I hope this works! I am so excited to see what’s going to happen. You guys are awesome. What an amazing adventure. Keep us posted and good luck. I have my fingers crossed ☺

  • Patricia Belyea
    Ruth—Thank you. My friends in California have been in my thoughts. Take care and stay safe! PB

  • Ruth Smith
    Hi Patricia—there’s SO MUCH going on that I only just now caught up on your blog about growing indigo.Such alchemy! Good luck with it all—I look forward to hearing of positive progress, and resulting beautiful dye. Best of luck!

  • Patricia Belyea
    Mary Ann—I don’t think so this year. Next year I hope to grow a much bigger crop and perhaps there will be enough to sell. Thanks for your interest and stay tuned. PB P.S. A great source for indigo dye is botanicalcolors.com

  • Mary Ann Holloway
    Congratulations on a unique undertaking. Will you be selling indigo?

  • Patricia Belyea
    Mary Lynn—I never thought I had a green thumb. I have proved that I may have a blue thumb. It’s exciting to take itty bitty little seeds and bring them to life! PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Judy—It’s working, I believe. The full report to come soon. PB

  • Mary Lynn
    What an exciting project! I felt brave trying a new vegetable garden during Covid, but your experiment is a whole-nother level. Can’t wait for the follow up blog. Good luck!

  • Judy Lawrance
    So hope this works fir you!

  • Patricia Belyea
    Sherry—I have 10 bolts of white Japanese kimono silk arriving in October. I’ll be trying out my indigo dyeing on some of that. PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Jamie—Yes, Jack Frost arrived the earliest ever for this region. All’s well so far with the vat! PB

  • Jamie Scheibach
    How exciting! A tough crop with a tough mother (Nature). Best of luck! Can’t wait for your next post.

  • Sherry Massey
    How exciting! Good luck! I can’t wait to see the fabric that is dyed with your home grown indigo.

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