The Great Cotton Experiment
Can cotton be grown in Northeast Wisconsin?
Follow along on my year long experiment from seed to boll. The idea and challenge germinated last February during my class at the John C Campbell Folk School. Seeing as the growing conditions it needs are hot weather and a long season, not really what we have this far north, the easy answer would be no. My teacher knew people in southern Indiana who had successfully grown it, but we have a much shorter growing season up here. In fact, even one of my fellow students from North Carolina hadn't had any success. It seems that the plant is easy enough to grow, however, the bolls need a long time to mature in order to open.
First off, here is a taste of what I'm after. The photo below shows a nice fluffy cotton boll in the top right corner. If you open that up and break up the mass, you find lots of individual cotton seeds covered in fiber. Once that fiber is taken off the seed, you have the furry little seeds shown in the bottom right corner.
The seeds shown (and used for my test) were samples of Pima cotton that Patsy used to teach us how to spin cotton. Spinning off the seed is the easiest way to spin cotton (at least for me) because there's something to hold onto while learning to deal with the small staple length of the cotton fiber.
Since cotton needs a long growing season and I live in the north which is frozen over when it ordinarily would need to be planted, I started my seeds indoors in peat pots. I chose a largish size pot and opted not to go with plastic ones since the long tap root of the cotton plant dislikes being transplanted. With peat pots I could just pop the whole thing in the ground when the time came causing the least amount of stress on the plants.
My seeds were started about the 10th of March and within a couple of days, they had sprouted. Without a south facing window, I placed them in an eastern window to get the most sun possible. At first they were fine as we had an extended stretch of sunny days. But after a cloudy spell, the seedlings got a little leggy--growing lights would have been much better to use.
This is about how much they had grown in 2 months time. Our last freeze date is usually the 10th of May, however, because cotton doesn't even like temps near 40 degrees, and we were having a coldish spring, they stayed indoors (with a short time outside each day to harden them off) until Memorial Day weekend.
The roots were just coming through the sides and bottoms of the peat pots so it seemed like the perfect time to get them into the ground.
So as not to put all my eggs in one basket, I split the group of 18 plants into several sections. Just in case disease or a bug problem developed in one area, then the others would be safe, and also, there were varying amounts of sunlight in each section. The largest number of plants went into a space where a rose bush hadn't survived the winter. This spot received the most sun each day and these plants ended up doing much better than those in the herb and flower gardens.
For fertilizer, I used worm casings and made sure they had plenty of water. This is the size they had grown by the 4th of July.
I watched them carefully during July and near the end of the month was rewarded with this bud.
Which turned into this lovely bloom.
The cream colored flower was tinged with pink by the second day and then it was gone. I carefully watched again and the boll started to form. It grew and grew,
and grew, but never opened. Lots of other buds, flowers and bolls formed, too. Pretty soon, the warm summer weather started to disappear. There was talk of an early fall frost. After babying these cotton plants, I just couldn't give up so easily. But by now they were about 4 ft tall and they would never survive being transplanted. What to do...
why...build them a greenhouse, of course. :)
The frame was made from tomato cages,
and the walls and removable roof were made of bubble wrap. This kept the plants nice and cozy through Sept and Oct.
But still, the bolls didn't open.
Finally, the weather turned so cold that even the makeshift greenhouse couldn't protect the plants. It looked like the experiment had ended.
But wait, Patsy had told me that if the bolls got to a certain point in their development on the plants, then they could finish ripening inside. Sort of like how you can get a green tomato to turn red, I guess. Anyway, I chose the largest bolls to pick. Some of the very largest ones had been taken by a squirrel when the green house was open one day. I guess he thought they were some sort of nut.
I placed the bolls on the window sill once again...and waited.
They sat there for about three weeks, and then it happened!
The boll started splitting open and showing it's downy interior.
Cotton grows in Wisconsin!