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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