indigo: emergency harvest :: Okan Arts
indigo: emergency harvest

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.)

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.

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.

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.

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!

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84 comments to “indigo: emergency harvest”

  1. Elizabeth Eisenhood says:

    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.

    • Patricia Belyea says:

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

    • Annette says:

      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 says:

        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

  2. Carolyn Burton says:

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

  3. Janet Wright says:

    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

  4. Gale Lee says:

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

  5. Marilynn Dondero-Rich says:

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

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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

  6. Christine Kellogg says:

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

    • Patricia Belyea says:

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

  7. Sally says:

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

  8. Adrienne says:

    What kind and tender love …

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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

  9. Betsy says:

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

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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

  10. Ardis says:

    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.)

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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

  11. marlene barkley says:

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

  12. Debi Knoth says:

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

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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

  13. Valerie S Martinson says:

    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.

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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

  14. Loretta says:

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

  15. Laurie Badenoch says:

    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!

    • Patricia Belyea says:

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

  16. Allie Aller says:

    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 says:

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

  17. Colleen Wise says:

    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.

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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

  18. Katie says:

    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.

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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

  19. Jamie Scheibach says:

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

  20. Sherry Massey says:

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

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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

  21. Judy Lawrance says:

    So hope this works fir you!

  22. Mary Lynn says:

    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!

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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

  23. Mary Ann Holloway says:

    Congratulations on a unique undertaking. Will you be selling indigo?

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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

  24. Ruth Smith says:

    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!

  25. Gail v Willett says:

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

  26. Susan MacLeod says:

    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.

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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

  27. Eileen Hallock says:

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

  28. Lesley Morris says:

    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.

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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

  29. Jolene Mershon says:

    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.

  30. Sharon Weibler says:

    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.

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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

  31. Linda Lambert says:

    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.

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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

  32. Susan Maresco says:

    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.

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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

  33. Darnney Proudfoot says:

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

  34. Lily Kamikihara says:

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

  35. Laura Sinai says:

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

  36. Suzanna Moore says:

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

  37. Am Katoh says:

    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

  38. Sandy Heffernan says:

    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!!

  39. 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

  40. kristin skantze says:

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

  41. erica says:

    My gut instinct tells me you willhave indigo dye.