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  • Writer's pictureamanda haran

Flax Growing In Your Front Garden: A Therapeutic & Low Carbon Footprint Approach To Community Arts Material Collection

A patch of soil in a residential front garden, dug over, seeded and roped off to define the new plot
A front garden in Derbyshire prepared as a plot to grow flax or linseed for community collaborative therapeutic arts

As a textile artist with a history in weaving and one committed to generating as low a carbon footprint in my own and community arts practice as possible, I've started an experiment - growing flax in my front garden. Inspired by The Weaver's House (Coventry), creating the community garden at The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, viewing Midlands Restoration Hub and meeting Alice Fox, I have always wanted to try this. The heavy earth clay-bound soil dug over, little channels created with a cane to hold the seeds within, and seeds weighed out and shaken into position and lovingly covered in a bed of soil; I'm now in the monitoring phase to see what occurs if you try to grow flax in a residential garden in Derbyshire, UK. 

I aim to: 

  1. Understand the growing, harvesting and processing of the flax plants into fibres.

  2. Enjoy playing and experimenting with how the fibres can be featured in my own and (eventually) collaborative community arts projects.

Gardening is known to have therapeutic physical and mental health benefits. But did you know that planting flax in your front garden can also have a low carbon footprint impact on the environment?

In this post, we'll explore the benefits of flax growing in your front garden (if my plants indeed do grow!), consider some of the local history and set the scene for how it can be a therapeutic and eco-friendly approach to providing materials and approaches for community art projects.

Human & Climate Advantages

Flax, also known as linseed, has been cultivated for centuries for its fibre and oil. It's a hardy plant that can grow in various soils and climates, making it ideal for gardeners who want to develop something sustainable that requires minimal maintenance (or so I am told.) In addition to low maintenance, flax has a low carbon footprint because it doesn't need as much water as other plants or, indeed, any fertiliser.

I hope directly to know how growing flax in a garden can also be a therapeutic activity. Planting, tending, and harvesting a garden has been shown to have numerous benefits for mental health. It can help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression while also providing a sense of accomplishment and purpose. The role of art in wellbeing has been a particular passion of mine linked to my qualifications in creative therapy and psychotherapy. I'm keen to evaluate how nurturing these simple, golden, shiny dots of growth will affect my psyche.

Could I have stumbled on a creative link between my home's past and present? These misty stories intrigue me as they offer a signpost for my development and the artistic pursuits of my new community. 

In addition to its therapeutic benefits gained from growing, flax has numerous practical uses. The fibre from the flax plant is used to make various products, including clothing, paper, and even biodegradable plastic. Coarser grades are selected to manufacture twine and rope. This is interesting to me as an artist in Ripley, Derbyshire, for two reasons:

  1. On one of my walks around my new area, I came upon Ropewalk, part of Waingroves Woodland near Ripley. Managed by Waingroves Community Woodland Trust, this beautiful reclaimed natural area on the site of a former pit colliery is a quiet oasis. However, in the past, it was a local industrial centre which included ropemaking. According to 'Frank Mansey's Guide to Ripley's Heritage Part Two: South' in this woodland, there is a footpath to Waingroves that was formally known as 'Ropewalk, where from the mid-19th to early 20th centuries Mr James Roberts and then Mr Thomas Roberts made ropes, using posts along the side of the path to hang them on, and a windlass at the far end to spin them.' I am still looking for what fibre the Roberts used, but it is reasonable to assume that flax could have been one of those chosen as it had been grown extensively in the UK, in some parts of Derbyshire, and was well-known in rope manufacture

  2. I looked at cording during my adventures with Alice Fox and Jane Bevan and enjoyed the hand-and-eye sensation involved in its making.

Could I have stumbled on a creative link between my home's past and present? These misty stories intrigue me as they offer a signpost for my development and the artistic pursuits of my new community. 

Practical Growing Of Flax

If you're interested in growing flax in your front garden, there are a few things to keep in mind that I have found helpful:

  1. For optimal growth, flax thrives in well-drained soil and requires ample sunlight. Choose a garden location that satisfies these conditions. Flax plants need light watering, but avoiding over watering them is essential as it can cause mould and disease. Generally, they don't require much watering, which is great because it aligns with my art practice philosophy of being climate-supportive. Additionally, flax plants do not require fertilising, which further aligns with my ideology.

  2. I have been cautioned against growing flax in heavy clay soils; mine is deep, thick, heavy, and dense. The flax could be tested, but hey ho, 'you have to be in it to win it!'

  3. There are different types of flax seeds, and they vary in the length of fibre that they generate. The variety of flax needed for this growing is Linum usitatissimum instead of Linum perenne, which is used for culinary purposes. I'd like to see if there are any heritage varieties I might experiment with later on in my adventures and see how this changes the growing result.

  4. In the UK, flax grows from late March to early May. I waited until I thought the frosts had disappeared and chose April for my sowing. In her book Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth, Linda Heinrich believes the soil should be 'warm' (6-8oC) to encourage better germination. Basking in my embryonic growing knowledge, I wasn't sure how to take a soil's temperature, so I waited until I firmly thought Spring was in the air, believing Nature to be my best growing ally.

  5. I prepared my little front garden bed by weeding and gently turning over the topsoil. However, the information from Midlands Restoration Hub was at the forefront of my mind, as they had told me that this act could potentially harm the mycelium structures. I love mycelium as an entity and a metaphor for my work. It pains me that I have unwittingly caused it harm. In future experiment stages, I plan to prioritise this and see how to resolve this perceived concern if it indeed is one.

  6. I love the aesthetics of everything and wanted my little bed to look the part, so I gathered old sticks, cane and twine and gave my plot a fitting boundary to stay visible among the rest of the growing. Pretty!

  7. Now, the measuring parts (this is not my forte; I'm more of a wing-it type of individual, but in the spirit of 'proper' experimentation, I gave it a try):

    1. The aim is for the flax to grow quite densely together or in what they call a thick 'stand', as this encourages thick stems. Approximately 12 grams of seed are sown in each square metre of soil to establish over 2,000 plants, so batches of 12 grams were weighed and prepared.

    2. To achieve optimal plant growth, seeds should be sown in rows around 12cm apart, with eight rows per metre width and each making a 2.5cm groove in the soil. In practice, this means getting a 1m piece of wood and dibbing it into the soil every 12cm or so, pushing it in to form an excellent little straight channel to sow the seeds within.

    3. Then, shake the seeds along each of your lovingly prepared rows, trying to get an even spread.

  8. And last but by no means least, tuck those seeds up in a sprinkling of soil to be snuggled into the right circumstances to grow. Then maybe water (if very dry conditions) and hope.

A photograph documenting how flax can be grown in a residential home front garden. Here the seeds are just starting to show green shoots above the heavy clay black soil.
Flax or linseed seeds begin to grow and shoot in a residential front garden in Derbyshire, UK.

I have been informed that every square metre of my plot can produce enough fibre to make a tea towel, which is around 200 grams of material if the plants grow properly. This is not enough to change the world, but it's a great start. A future tea towel-making legacy approaches!

The crop takes 90-100 days to be ready for harvesting or 30 days after it reaches the whole flower stage. The plants shouldn't need much if any, watering; there is a little required weeding between the rows, but that's about it.

As I sowed my plants in April, they should flower in late June for around a week. I expect blue blooms that open in the morning, drop by the evening and will not need any help with pollination. But who knows?

In conclusion, the plan has been established, and phase one has been executed successfully. The tiny shoots have already emerged, and I am filled with gratitude for the soil, the seed, and the opportunities that lie ahead, wherever this journey may take me.




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