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


  • Patricia Belyea
    Katie—Trying something new does bring a sense of wonder. If you ever want to dye those clothes, try Botanical Colors (botanicalcolors.com) for your indigo. PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Colleen—The biggest surprise was how fast we were able to bring in the plants. I thought it would be a big deal and had invited a friend to come over at the end of the month to help. Ha! I’ll look into the FB group. PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Allie—I agree. Gardens do bring us hope. Seeing life flourish is a beautiful thing. All’s well so far in the processing! PB

  • Katie
    Very interesting article. I haven wanted to use indigo for some cotton jersey clothing, but never seem to find time. It was so intriguing reading about your growing project. As I read through I was reminded of my first time making sauerkraut…with stones to submerge the kraut. I smiled. Thank you for your inspirations.

  • Colleen Wise
    Well, darn! I was looking forward to your results without this hiccup.

    You saw my results of fresh leaf dyeing on Facebook. It yielded a soft teal, not the sky blue or pure navy of the extract. Very pretty, but that blue…!

    Are you a member of the indigo extraction Facebook group? Lots of helpful advice there from experienced fans.


  • Allie Aller
    I love your passion, commitment, and sense of fun too. The weather will challenge us—my garden was flattened by high winds this week— but we never lose hope or give up. So many wonderful surprises await! I’ve loved following your indigo story and am eager to see what happens next!

  • Patricia Belyea
    Laurie—I have also sought out indigo dyers and workshops in Japan. Getting involved personally takes my interest up a whole notch! PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Loretta—Thanks for your interest. More soon! PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Valerie—I have not met Elizabeth. I received her indigo seeds from Botanical Colors in Seattle. You are correct about dyeing in one day—if you are fresh-leaf dyeing. That approach only yields a light blue color. I’m working on the compost approach to pulling blue dye from the indigo plants. Depending on the quantity (if any) of the dye I produce, I’ll either store it wet as a mud or dry it into cakes. I would love to try your architectural linen. Sounds interesting! PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Debi—I noticed that my family is sure visiting a lot this summer and for much longer stretches than ever before. (They just want to get out of the city!) You might be hard pressed to get your own bed! PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Marlene—Yes. Being in a remote place and trying something new is invigorating during such a troubled year. PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Thanks, Ardis. It’s rather addictive to see the wonderful JP indigo plants grow. You can start with just a small patch and get some dye. Check out fresh-leaf dyeing which just requires a blender and cold water. PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Betsy—I’m feeling positive too. The plants were just kissed by Jack Frost. So I think we can capture all the blue dye that was accumulating this summer. PB

  • Laurie Badenoch
    Admire your commitment to all that work! We did some introductory shibori dyeing and also had a chance to visit an indigo workshop in Japan. The whole process seems like magic, or alchemy at least. The results, whether intentional or accidental, are real eye and fiber psyche candy. Gambate!

  • Loretta
    Looking forward to hearing about the outcome of this new adventure.

  • Valerie S Martinson
    I took Elizabeth’s indigo dye class three years ago in Port Townsend. A couple weeks prior I took her class on Shibori tying techniques. Both classes were excellent and lasted all day. I don’t think she is teaching the classes presently; not sure about future classes. From what I learned you have to use the indigo for dyeing the same day you harvest it. We used indigo that she grew from her yard. The dye process is very involved. I had some drafting architectural linen given to me by a friend who was an architect in the 50’s. That was used at the time. It had a cellulose finish on it. He was going to throw it away and I spoke up. I have a fairly good size roll of it. To extract the finish on it, I boiled a couple yards I cut off. The finish was a cellulose type finish. The linen I got was very fine, the texture of a lawn fabric and very soft. I used some of this of this for the indigo dyeing. It turned out really lovely; a soft blue. I have grown indigo for several years, but I did not use it to dye fabric for her class later on. I did order her seeds for several years. This year the seeds got put aside and I didn’t grow it. She told me they are only viable for a year, possibly two. I did order from her last summer some madder seeds. The plants are in their second year of growth. In the third year with the research I did, I found that was the best year to harvest the roots. It can be invasive, so I have it growing in large pots and I protect the sides of the pots in the winter. The flowers are very tiny and I’m waiting for it to go to seed so I can harvest some seed for next year to plant. I hope in the future Elizabeth will offer her class at some point. She is an excellent teacher and did such a wonderful job. Patricia, if you wish to try some of the architectural linen, I can send you a couple yards along with the research I did. Extracting the sizing which is cellulose I experimented on my own.

  • Debi Knoth
    Thank you for sharing this process with us. That is so exciting! I want to come live with you!!!

  • marlene barkley
    this is the ultimate way to survive the isolation of Covide. Can’t wait for the results of all of your work.

  • Ardis
    Thanks for your wonderful sharing of this adventure. Not that I want to be an indigo farmer but it does sound exciting. And you will have product (hopefully). And what might be next?? (Totally enjoy your blog. Your writing is enjoyable and real.)

  • Betsy
    So exciting…the dedication…and now the suspense….Looking forward. Feeling positive….plants know.

  • Patricia Belyea
    Adrienne—For me, it has been a loving relationship with my indigo plants. I’ve been thrilled to see the little seeds burst into life and grow to be luscious green plants. I learned that the frost we had last night was the earliest on record, ever, for this region. It was a harsh ending. PB

  • Adrienne
    What kind and tender love …

  • Patricia Belyea
    Christine—Some of our antics in being indigo farmers have been like starring in an I Love Lucy episode. Lots of fun. PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Sally—I am pretty excited too! More soon. PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Marilynn—You can grow indigo anywhere in the Pacific NW, as long as it doesn’t get too cold. So you could do it too! PB

  • Sally
    I loved reading your description, and can’t wait to hear more. So excited for you! Fingers crossed.

  • Christine Kellogg
    What dedication and follow through!!! Can’t wait to see what happens!!!

  • Marilynn Dondero-Rich
    Wow Patricia, what an adventure you have taken on in Wauconda! Good luck and will await the next installment.

  • Gale Lee
    So amazing…can hardly wait to see how this works!

  • Patricia Belyea
    Gale—Me too! I just checked the tub and the water temp is 100 degrees. That’s good. PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Janet—Crazy weather for everyone these days. So far so good with wildfires in the Wauconda area. PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Carolyn—Me too! We’ll know more in a few days. PB

  • Janet Wright
    Wow! What a process! I sure hope you get lots of good dye. They are having snow in Jackson Hole and in Montana. Not really early. for there—but it seems early for the Cascades. I hope the fires stay away from you. Janet

  • Patricia Belyea
    Elizabeth—There is a high level of curiosity involved in this endeavor! PB

  • Carolyn Burton
    I can’t wait for the next installment. Fingers crossed

  • Elizabeth Eisenhood
    Kudos to you two, Patricia! I am admiring your focus, elbow grease and scale of activity. Can’t wait to see the results. Thanks for sharing your experiment.

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