The cozy room filled with the excited murmurs of flower junkies weeding through boxes of seed. I heard " Ooh, spider flower, I'll take one of those packets!" and "Look at all these heirloom tomatoes!" Then a bewildered voice asked "Cotton? Who would grow cotton?" Well, I would.
Many garden ventures start with lazy leafing through a seed catalog. So did my cotton cavort. I saw a listing for Gossypium in the Pinetree Garden seed catalog, next to a picture of a lovely Hibiscus-like flower. Yes, it was real cotton, the "fabric of my life®," according to Cotton Incorporated, and I didn't have to live in the Deep South to grow it.
Why cotton in my own garden? Maybe real cotton plants could add a tangible element to my kids' history lessons.
Cotton kept "cropping up" in my kids' social studies classes in elementary and middle school. Cotton cultivation and use had dramatic effects on American events over what now seems like a short time period, the late 1700s to the mid 1800s. As the newly formed United States looked for economic independance, cotton seemed an easy answer. Southern cotton, sold to British mills, soon enriched the young American colonies. With this money came power and status for the United States. Cotton was hardly beneficial to all Americans though. The profit potential of cotton gave the push to forcing Native Americans out of what would become cotton land in Georgia. Cotton growers took advantage of the slave trade; cotton and slavery built the wealthy Southern plantations.
Drastic shifts occurred after 1794. The new cotton gin, and complex American spinning and weaving machines, allowed the U.S. to use the burgeoning cotton harvest. Large mills were quickly built in the American northeast. They employed thousands of young women and European immigrants, in a huge trend towards industrialization. The nearly universal cultivation of cotton in the South meant that homesteaders to the Midwest found ready markets for their own agricultural products. Of course, one of the most significant events in early American history was our Civil War. Economic and social issues that revolved around cotton cultivation were at the heart of this pivotal event. King Cotton, with its incredibly useful fibers, had far-reaching effects in world history. Well, we sure knew about cotton in theory. I wanted my kids to see and touch real cotton. I wanted their brains to have hooks on which to hang the many cotton-related facts they were learning in school.
Bringing cotton home
Maryland, my home state, is considered Southern by some (below the Mason Dixon Line) and Northern by others (we did not secede during the Civil War). We are Northern when it comes to growing cotton; we grow corn and soybeans. Cotton needs the long warm growing conditions of the Carolinas and to the south and west. Most of the current US cotton crop is produced by Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas and Georgia. Other states across the South fill in the Cotton Belt. Not to worry, though; my gardening experience has taught me a few tricks for growing things that shouldn't "grow here."
One cotton plant. in a Maryland garden, September, 5 feet high and 3 feet wide. A close row of cotton might make a presentable, coarse textured, unusual summer 'hedge.'
Cotton can be a novel addition to a northern garden. Research, and my own experience, prompt me to pass along these pointers.
Cotton is not especially picky about soil or rain. Like many of our favorite ornamental flowering plants, it prefers a rich, neutral, well-drained loam and average moisture. Cotton needs warm full sun to grow well, especially in a less than optimal area like Maryland and points north.
To produce mature white "bolls," cotton needs 180 warm days or more. You won't have that in your garden unless you live in an area with a long growing season. To guarantee mature cotton bolls in zone 7, I start my cotton early. This year I planted cotton seeds in small pots on February 12, and grew them under lights indoors until warm weather stayed. My last frost date is around the end of April, so the cotton lived in pots until mid-May.
As an ornamental, cotton plants are coarse in texture, bushy and open with maple-like leaves. The flowers look like Hibiscus or okra flowers. In fact, cotton is a cousin to those more common backyard plants. My marginal Maryland cotton didn't flower prolifically or with the showstopping blooms of Hibiscus. One plant, five feet tall and three feet wide by September, might have a few or no blooms at any time. They'd open for a day, then linger as pink-tinged closed blooms, before wilting completely. Cotton seed is not widely available to the home gardener. Click here to see a list of varieties in PlantFiles. Click here for sources of Gossypium in Dave's Garden PlantScout . More searching may yield other sources, like the Pinetree catalog that supplied my first seed.
Cotton grown as a major crop is subject to a number of pests, chief among them possibly the boll weevil. There seemed to be no real insect or diease problems for my northern cotton. I'd expect you to have more problems with cotton if you live closer to real cotton territory. Pests and diseases on your casual cotton may give you new respect for the travails of cotton growers before the development of modern methods and cultivars.
Please be aware that some states prohibit the planting of cotton without a permit. This rule exists as part of the Boll Weevil Eradication Program. See this link for a map of states participating in the program. Decades of concerted effort has drastically reduced boll weevil losses. This in turn reduces the use of pesticides on millions of acres of cropland.
Here are cotton bolls I grew last year. When mature, the green pods turn brown and split open. The husks are hard and the corners of the pods form sharp points. The short season kept most of my bolls from maturing.
APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.) Boll Weevil Eradication Program factsheet, US Department of Agriculture. March 2007. http://www.aphis.usda.gov/publications/plant_health/content/printable_version/faq_boll_weevil_07.pdf
James C. Giesen. "Cotton," The New Georgia Encyclopedia. Mississippi State University, Updated 4/20/2009 http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-2087
I grew up playing in the Maryland woods, and would still do it often if life allowed! Graduate of University of Maryland, my degree is in Agriculture. Gardens and natural areas give me endless opportunity for learning and wonder. Naturally (pun intended) my garden style leans towards the casual, and my cultural methods towards organic. I like to try new plants, and have "some of everything" in my indoor and outdoor gardens. Thanks go to my parents for passing along their love of gardening and nature, and my husband and kids for being patient when I get lost in the garden.