Saturday, July 18, 2009

Growing cotton on the balcony

On January 2nd this year I fought my way through a snowstorm to get to a garden centre. It was my last day in Germany and I wanted to pick up some packets of seeds to bring home. There were two customers there that day - me and someone buying a potted plant as a late Christmas present. But at least she'd arrived in a car.

The staff looked at me strangely - they clearly couldn't understand why this mad foreign woman had picked that particular day to buy a year's worth of seeds. But I got the things I wanted, some of which I knew I'd be unlikely to find easily in Italy. And more.

Amongst the things I found was a packet of cotton seeds (top left in the photo).

I bought it just for fun. The packet said it was easy to grow as a houseplant, so why not? It would make a change from the usual marigolds. The packet instructions said that it could be started off in the house all year round, so I got going immediately.

Well, a few seeds did germinate - but before long they'd toppled over and died. I think I may have overwatered - it's a plant which expects drought conditions. So I sort of forgot about it. Until a couple of weeks ago when I was planting biennials and came across the remaining seeds. The outside temperatures were well above the minimum by now, so why not stick it in and see?

And yes - for those of you who were trying to guess the mystery seedling of a couple of posts ago, I'm now growing cotton on the balcony. And by pure chance, the other day I found out that Milan's climate is classified as the same as those of the cotton producing states of the US - humid subtropical. I'm only surprised that it's not grown here commercially.

It germinated almost instantly, is growing rapidly, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that there's enough time for it to do something before the colder weather arrives. The flowers are supposed to arrive after 35-45 days. They only last a few days, but flowering will go on for a month. That should take us from the end of August - still hot and sunny - till the end of September - getting cooler . It takes another month for the cotton bolls to mature - but I suspect it will be too late. By mid-October they'll need to be inside, and the plants are 3-4ft tall - I'm not sure I have room for an entire plantation in the flat.

We'll see. I could certainly bring one in. But if it goes wrong I shall definitely try again next year, starting earlier. If you'd like to try too, keep in mind the following :

1. The seeds need a temperature of 16°C/60°F to germinate and then at least 21°C/70°F to grow successfully. Start them off in March/April, in the house or greenhouse as necessary, sowing 2/3 seeds per 9" pot. Thin out any weaklings as they come through. The soil should be moist at first, but afterwards keep them fairly dry.

2. As they start to grow, transfer each plant to a 30cm pot and start watering. Again they should be slightly moist but never waterlogged. Feed weekly with a high potash fertiliser - they need high nitrogen and potassium. A liquid tomato food will do fine. If they've been started inside, they'll need hardening off gradually before being left out, and like all tall plants will need to be staked.

3. The plants are prone to red spider mite, so mist them frequently as a preventative measure.

4. Stop watering about 16 weeks after planting and let the plants dry up and the bolls finish forming. Pick them when they split open, showing the fluffy cotton,and you'll have your seeds for next year - but be careful of the prickles. If the bolls are exposed to rain they may rot, so pick them immediately and let them dry and open indoors.


Many thanks to Old Shoe Woman for making the photos of the cotton flower and boll available under Creative Commons Licence on flickr.


Janet, The Queen of Seaford said...

Well what fun!! I see it growing across the water in Suffolk area, never thought about growing it in my garden.

Snap said...

I don't think I've seen cotton seeds available in seed packets. I'll have to look. Good luck with the cotton and wear gloves when you pick (hard on the fingers). Lot's of goodies in your other seed packs.

Jackie said...

Good luck with the cotton. I'll be interested to hear how it turns out! -Jackie

Fern @ Life on the Balcony said...

Huh. I would have never thought to grow cotton in a container garden, but the plants look pretty attractive, and I bet kids would like the tufts of "real" cotton.

PJ said...

that looks so much fun! Hope it all turns out well

Brad B said...

I'm impressed you're growing cotton. And is this in a container. I've grown tobacco before, just for the flowers, which are beautiful. Funny to think of agricultural plants as decorative.

Anonymous said...

What a fun plant to grow & the flower is so beautiful! I'm also interested in hearing how it turns out!!

Faith said...

Wow. Maybe I should try cotton in AK - people grow tobacco up here with some success. I got your blog from blotanical. Glad I looked. You have some interesting things growing. What a nice site.

Val said...

What a great post! I wonder if I could grow cotton in Cornwall? Worth looking into. Val

Bangchik and Kakdah said...

So nice to see the actual cotton plant...

In Malaysia there is a plant which can grow very tall, with thorny stem and produce similar fruit. A local version of cotton. Good for filling pillows. The tree is Kekabu.

Anonymous said...

That was a very interesting and enlightening post. You usually don't see someone growing them just for fun or interest. Thanks for sharing and I enjoyed the pictures. I'm not sure if I told you, but I am now a dot com, so my web page address has changed. I can now be reached at I hope to see you around.

Pat said...

Really neat looking...sooo pretty.
Looks like you're having fun.
Way to go Sue.

Anonymous said...

Now cotton sounds like a very unusual and interesting plant to grow! I'll be interested to see if you get a cotton boll out of it!

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