"The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves." - Bill Mollison

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Growing Flax

Flax seed has been an important part of our diet for a number of years now and we always seem to find room for a patch of it somewhere in the garden. Our golden flax is supposed to be an extremely rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. These acids can be obtained from various sources: fish, purslane, nuts, and one of the very best sources is flax, having up to twice the amount as fish oil. The beneficial aspects of this seed are too numerous to mention in any detail. Let's just say that there is more than enough evidence to support the fact that these essential fatty acids are a very important part of a healthy diet, thus we grow flax, purslane, and eat both fish and nuts upon occasion.

But... there is always a but isn't there? A lot of controversy surrounds the facts about whether or not the average person can break down the constituents of flax, or any plant based omega-3, into the beneficial nutrients it provides as easily as with fish or nuts, especially those individuals who are not healthy to begin with. Me? I don't worry much about such things. We simply attempt to partake in all of these foods rather than concentrating on only one as a source of nutrition, hence a well balanced diet.

For us, flax has been a relatively easy crop to grow. After the last frost we plant ours a couple inches apart in a series of rows that run the width of the bed, we do it this way so that we are still able to weed in between the plants. Once our flax reaches a certain height the plants tend to fall over if we do not provide adequate support for them, support is provided by putting up a simple grid of twine that helps to hold the plants in place. One of the downfalls of having a sandy soil is that everything seems to need a little extra help remaining vertical. They grow well for us in partial sun with fairly rich soil, although I have seen many a stray volunteer thrive in the worst possible locations.

Perennial golden flax produces lovely sky blue flowers that will readily re-seed themselves each year if left to their own devices. We harvest ours when the vast majority of the seed heads have turned brown. The stalks are cut just below the last seed branch and set aside to finish drying for a few weeks at which point the seed is easily threshed out. The seeds are then stored in glass jars in a cool area with low humidity as flax has a tendency to become rancid due to the high oil content, especially once it is ground into flour. Ground flax can be kept in the freezer for a couple months or the refrigerator for a few weeks.

One of the more interesting things about flax is it's many and varied uses that stretch far beyond it's dietary supplementation. The plant via it's seeds and stalks can be used to make linseed and vegetable oil, paper, insulation, dye, hair gel, soap, thickening agents, fabric and the list goes on.

I really got to thinking about this the other day when Stefani from http://siciliansistersgrow.blogspot.com/ was kind enough to share a fellow bloggers brilliant post about the importance of textiles - http://abbysyarns.com/2007/10/should-everyone-spin-another-yarn-manifesto. In thinking about that post it dawned on me that in growing flax I have a source of textiles right in my back yard. We may indeed have to experiment with this aspect of flax in the future. Also, I found this most interesting essay on how to grow your own bowstring using flax stalks. This gives one a vision into how easily this plant material could be turned into a rough fiber that would have a wide array of applications that are directly related to the self sufficiency facet of our lives. -http://www.primitiveways.com/bowstring.html


Robbyn said...

I love the primitive ways link...saw it yesterday on your sidebar first and got sucked in for quite a while, ha :) This flax post is interesting. We're trying to incorporate more flax seed and oil into our eating, and I read somewhere recently that flax as a natural fiber is supposed to be the healthiest clothing fiber to wear. I don't know how they measure such a thing, but it's surely one of the most time-honored ones. As always, we love following your blog

Heiko said...

My wife is from Belfast, which was founded on the linen production and trade when cotton became scarce during the American Civil War. Our house is full of linen items, which her family keep bestowing on us. I had no idea you can eat it! The other fibre which is far more environmentally friendly than cotton is bamboo. It does not need watering or spraying at all, it is the fastest growing plant on earth (and let me tell you I know about it, it's a weed where we are! A foot growth a day is nothing to a bamboo!) and it is skin friendly. Baby's nappies are already available made from bamboo as well as other clothing items. Unfortunately I don't think our weed bamboo is suitable for quality fibre production.

Stefaneener said...

Oh, cool! You start spinning it and I'll start growing and eating it. That reminds me to clear a section of the spring garden for flax!

I just figure that if I grind the seeds into my granola, I'm doing my part to make it as bioavailable as possible, and who can say no to some extra fiber?

Hey, Heiko, do you know about bamboo processing for fiber? I have some suspicions about the fibers made from corn, bamboo, birch, etc. How do they liquify the collagen? I did a quick search and found this quote: "through a process of hydrolysis-alkalization and multi-phase bleaching. Chemical fiber factories then process it into bamboo fiber." Multi-phase bleaching sounds suspicious. Wool, wool for me! But I do like bamboo -- I have some, mixed with silk, to spin. I just wonder.

Now, Mr. H. can thresh and spin his flax and we'll all be happy and sustainable!

Heiko said...

You're right, Stefaneener, I had an exchange with an ethical retailer a few years ago, when bamboo first hit the market, but haven't looked at recent articles. It seems bamboo producers still have work to do to clean up the processing. However, I believe even linen production involves some nasties. In the North of Ireland tales are told of stinking poluted lakes where linen was washed. Must find out more about it.

Naomi said...

Mr H, did you notice if the bees were attracted to the flowers? I know they have a thing for blue :) And I'm always looking for more bee fodder ideas. Flax would fit into our orchard plans well, and if it also feeds the bees, well that would be a bonus.

Thanks for those links too, not sure I need more reasons to be on the net and out of the garden, but they sure look good ;)

Diane@Peaceful Acres said...

Mike, flax is beautiful! I guess one more thing to add to my list to try.

inadvertent farmer said...

What an awesome post...I must, must grow flax next year! It is lovely too, bet our bees would love it. thanks, Kim

Mr. H. said...


The primitive ways can be most intriguing to some. I'm so glad you found that link interesting. I have, since childhood, been most interested in such things.

Mr. H. said...


Thank you for that information. I had no idea that bamboo was used as a textile, how very interesting. I will have to do some reading up on that.

I do not believe that it is skin friendly to all though...how is your arm? Hopefully getting better?

Mr. H. said...


Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold on now, how did I get stuck with the spinning, I don't want to be in charge of fabric. My idea was to grow and thresh the flax while you and Heiko took care of the spinning.:)

I think you will enjoy watching it grow and be amazed at how flavorful home grown flax really is if you have not grown it before. It is not super productive but the bees should like the flowers.

We also grew a small patch of red flowered flax that did terrible for us, very slow to flower and it never did produce any seeds...something to keep in mind.

Mr. H. said...


Yes the bees were all over the flax, and flax puts out multiple flowers over a long period of time that helps to keep the insects interested in them. The blue cone shaped flowers practically call out to the bees and rely upon insects to pollinate them.:)

Mr. H. said...


It is really pretty, especially in a tight patch after many of the flowers are in full bloom. The flowers are short lived, but as each plant produces so many at different intervals you would never know it.

Mr. H. said...


Your bees WILL love it and perhaps your camel too. Best to keep him out of the patch as he appears to have quite an appetite.:)

WeekendFarmer said...

Nice!! I must go find some flax seeds now online. You plant them now after the frost you said?

Mr. H. said...


It is best to plant them in the spring after the last frost. They will re-seed themselves but it is somewhat sporadic. I hope you do try growing some.

Chiot's Run said...

Very interseting. I was just thinking about trying to grow some flax. I do have limited space though, so I may just keep buying it.

Mr. H. said...


Flax would be a nice addition to that lovely flower bed of yours. But yes, one would have to grow quite a bit in order for the plant to be a practical source of grain.

cyndy said...

"In thinking about that post it dawned on me that in growing flax I have a source of textiles right in my back yard. We may indeed have to experiment with this aspect of flax in the future."

Flax for food and flax for textiles are two different seed types. The type you are growing for the seed wouldn't be suitable to use for linen.

If you grow flax for textiles or spinning into linen, you need the variety that will grow tall and have an inner bast that is stronger than the type you grow for consumption.

Also, when growing for textile use, you need to harvest the plant before the seed head is ripe.

"This gives one a vision into how easily this plant material could be turned into a rough fiber that would have a wide array of applications that are directly related to the self sufficiency facet of our lives. "

Getting the flax turned into rough fiber is not an easy process.
It is labor intensive. It also must be retted perfectly or it may as well be used as fire starter materials!

Mr. H. said...


Thanks for the advice, I will keep that in mind and definitely do a lot more research before ever trying to grow flax for purposes of making a rough fiber. I do find the whole concept to be most interesting though. Have a great holiday!

Kerevus said...

I know this is late, but I just found you today.

Cyndi, seed and fiber flax aren't different varieties (unless you grow a specialty type). The real difference is in how they're handled. Flax for spinning is planted even more thickly (to minimize branching) and harvested before seed forms. Once the seed crop has come in the fiber is still there, it's just so coarse it's only good for rough use.

Mr. H. said...


Thank you for sharing, I will keep that information in mind. It would aear that there is much more to flax, especially in the textile sense, than meets the eye.

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