Today, cotton is primarily grown as a commercial crop by large farms. However, some gardeners and small farmers are still opting to grow cotton for fiber artists, ornamental use, and to preserve the genetic diversity and history of heirloom cotton. However, there are a few snags to growing cotton that you should know about before ordering a packet of cotton seeds.
So, is it illegal to grow cotton?
Well, it depends on where you live.
Currently, it is illegal to grow cotton in Texas. We cannot ship cotton seeds to Texas.
In other areas, like here in Virginia, growing cotton is monitored and restricted. You can grow cotton here, but you must apply for a permit before planting. This is common in many Southeastern states and other cotton-producing areas.
Why is cotton growing restricted?
Cotton plantings and residue can spread a destructive pest called the cotton boll weevil, especially when mishandled. In areas where cotton is an economically important crop, the growing of cotton is often carefully monitored to prevent the spread or reintroduction of the boll weevil.
The boll weevil has been eradicated from many cotton-producing states, including Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, and Mississippi.
Your local extension agency is the best place to get information about growing cotton in your area. If you’re unsure who to contact, you can find a handy list of state extension agencies on the Old Farmer’s Almanac website.
Growing cotton in Virginia
Here in Virginia, the process is quite simple. Download and fill out the ‘Request to Grow Cotton’ form on the Virginia Department of Agriculture website.
Contact your local extension agency if you have more questions about cotton in Virginia.
How do I grow cotton?
Cotton is a long-season annual, so it’s easiest to grow in areas with long, hot summers. You’ll also need a plot that receives full sun and has plenty of space. Cotton plants should be planted 18 to 30 inches apart in rows 5 feet apart. The plants grow 3 to 7 feet tall!
Cotton seed germinates in 7-21 days at 70 degrees F. In zones 8-10, direct sow your cotton seeds after the last frost. Treat cotton like tomatoes in zones 5-7 and start seed indoors. Transplant seedlings out after your last frost when they’re 4 to 8 weeks old.
The plants start flowering in mid-summer, and the bolls take a few more months to mature.
Growing cotton isn’t legal in many areas, but you may need a permit. Knowing what your state requires and acquiring the proper permitting is essential to keeping cotton available to small growers, preventing boll weevil spread, and protecting commercial harvests.
Many gardeners already know the joys of fresh, crisp cucumber, the sweet tenderness of fresh asparagus stems, or the juicy, sweet, yet tart flavor of tomatoes still warm from the sun. However, when we begin growing our own food, we find many vegetables and varieties we can grow that aren’t found in the supermarket. This season, we encourage you to branch out and try one of these lesser-known or underrated crops. Many of these are tasty, nourishing additions to the garden that fell out of favor with the advent of industrial agriculture.
Southern Peas or Cowpeas
Cowpeas are an underrated southern staple crop. The greens can be used as a potherb, the young pods can be used similar to green beans before the peas harden, or you can harvest them as dry peas for use in recipes like Hoppin’ John. These peas are commonly mashed and fried like falafels in parts of Africa.
They’re good for the garden too! Many beneficial insects find them attractive, and they’re nitrogen-fixing. Some cowpeas, like Iron & Clay, are often grown as a cover crop for these reasons.
Salsify is rarely seen at the grocery store or even at farmer’s markets. It was brought to the Americas by European colonists, but it never gained widespread popularity. However, there’s always been a devoted few who love this crop.
Salsify has a unique, almost oyster-like flavor you won’t find in other root crops. It also keeps well in the ground, helping you to stretch the season and eat fresh garden vegetables longer.
Rutabagas or Swedes are hardy root crops that fell out of fashion with modern grocery stores and shipping, though they remain popular in areas with cold climates like Canada. They are also still common in pasties in parts of the US, especially Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
They have a unique flavor, which some people find takes a bit of adjusting to. That said, they’re a hardy and nourishing addition to winter meals. If you’re unsure you’ll like them, try Gilfeather Turnip Rutabagas, a famous heirloom cross between turnips and rutabagas selected and named by Vermont farmer Jack Gilfeather. They’re sweeter than most rutabagas and have tender, tasty greens.
Easy to grow and with a peppery zing, it’s hard to believe cress has not gotten much recognition among the fandoms of greens like baby mustards and kale. Once a winter staple in parts of the mountain south, cress is full of vitamin C, a once life-saving characteristic when times were tough. In fact, Belle Isle Cress earned its name when 17th-century Portuguese sailors shipwrecked on Canada’s Belle Isle survived the winter thanks to these greens. Try cress as a potherb, in salads, or in the classic British egg and cress sandwich.
These dark berries may look a bit ominous, but they’re a tasty, sweet relative of the tomato. Garden Huckleberries or Wonderberries have a huckleberry-like flavor, making them excellent for dessert fillings, jellies, syrups, and more.
They’re a great fruit option for renters who can’t put perennial fruit trees or bushes into their garden plots. However, be aware that the green fruits are likely toxic and should not be consumed.
Parsnips are another root vegetable that has been used since antiquity but quickly fell out of prominent use when industrial agriculture, shipping, and grocery stores made produce accessible year-round, replacing root cellars and home canning.
Parsnips have a sweet, earthy flavor. While they may not be gorgeous or Instagram-worthy vegetables, they are a great choice for a winter storage crop.
This crop may not win any beauty contests, but it does have great flavor. Celeriac has sweet, starchy, globe-shaped roots that are excellent to use in soups and stews, boiled and pureed, fried in butter, or grated into salads.
Celeriac thrives in cool weather, making it another great option for those looking to extend their season.
We’re not big into “superfoods” and don’t believe that any of these crops will change your life. However, we do think these crops are all a bit underrated. Roots like celeriac, parsnips, rutabagas, cress, and salsify can help you eat from your garden a little longer each year. Huckleberries are a fun, unique fruit to try and one of the few annual fruits you can add to your garden without a big investment. Southern peas are versatile, tasty, easy to grow, and full of protein. Try a few of these underrated crops in your garden next season!
This past summer, an unprecedented amount of people have felt the effects of climate change. There was flooding in the northeast, wildfires in Canada that spread smoke across the eastern United States, record-breaking summer temperatures, and varying weather patterns. While we can’t say definitely how climate change will affect our local area and business, we do know that we’re already seeing some changes. Here are a few ways climate change is currently affecting seed growers.
Not long ago, scientists referred to climate change as global warming, as overall, we expect to see an increase in temperature. Today, we call it climate change, as this better represents the scope of changes that will be seen across the globe. However, higher-than-average temperatures are still expected to be part of this change. In the last few years here in Virginia, we’ve seen higher-than-average temperatures across all seasons, including a few record-breaking days.
Increased temperatures during winter may seem enjoyable, but they can also be problematic. Cold winters help to knock back certain pests and diseases. Additionally, some plants actually need a cold period or “cold vernalization.” While we can mimic this for some species by starting their seeds in a freezer or cooler, other plants, like hardneck garlic, need to be grown outdoors where there are consistently chilly temperatures.
High temperatures in spring, summer, and fall can also affect what plants we can grow seeds for or when we can grow them. Many cool weather-loving crops, like English shell peas, fail to produce well when temperatures are higher than average, meaning that we sometimes end up with less seed. High enough temperatures can also prevent crops from flowering or even kill some crops before they can go to seed.
They also affect how well plants are pollinated. If you’ve ever noticed more bees flying around your garden in July in the morning or evening rather than mid-day, it’s the heat. Many pollinators can’t move around and pollinate effectively in high temperatures.
Increased Periods of Rain or Drought
While rain is a good thing, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Wet fields can spell trouble for farmers trying to get seed in on time. While you sometimes have plenty of wiggle room with crops you plan to harvest as fresh vegetables, crops that need to complete their entire lifecycle and mature seed often require the whole season.
Too much wet, humid weather can also cause trouble during the season too. Wet conditions can increase the occurrence of fungal diseases like powdery mildew. At the end of the season, like in July, August, and September, rain can cause issues again if it rains for long periods on seeds that need to dry out for harvesting.
In an article written by the Guardian, one of our Seed Growers, Jim Gerritsen, owner of the organic Wood Prairie Family Farm in Bridgewater, Maine, shared his experience with growing organic potatoes for seed over the last 40 years. He described how increased rain has lengthened his harvest time. Jim said, “You dig on a Monday. Then on Tuesday, you get an inch of rain, so you’re not digging,” he said. “You take Wednesday to dry out, and then you get back in the field on Thursday; then you get another half-inch rain on Friday. You’re not digging on Saturday because the ground [needs to] dry out, so maybe you don’t get back into the field until Monday.” He needs about 15 good dry days to harvest, but the increased fall rains he has been experiencing now mean those 15 days are often spread out over four or more weeks.4
Crop Losses from Major Weather Events and Natural Disasters
While our first concern is always the people involved in these intense strategies, it’s important to note that they can profoundly impact seed growers and farmers. In the last few years, we’ve seen several growers experience or narrowly escape a total crop loss due to natural disasters like flooding, wildfires, and hurricanes.
Fires Near and Far
In an interview for Think Out Loud, Sarah Kleeger, the founder of Adaptive Seeds, talks about the tough decisions and work they had to put in when the Holiday Farm Fire approached within 10 miles of their farm in 2020.
She told Think Out Loud that when they knew it was time to evacuate, they took all their seeds with them, which took 8 to 10 pickup and trailer loads. They were allowed and continued to go back to the farm wearing respirators to harvest additional seeds. Thankfully, the farm escaped unscathed, but Sarah said it was an important learning experience about what they may need to do again in the future.3
As some of you may know, wildfires can also take a less sudden toll on crops. Smoke and ash in the sky can prevent crops from getting enough sunlight, causing slower growth. The ash and chemicals in the smoke can also clog plants’ stomata, making respiration and photosynthesis next to impossible.
Sadly, Hardwick Vermont’s Riverside Farm, an organic farm just miles from High Mowing Seeds, wasn’t so lucky. When record rainfalls hit Vermont early this summer, their fields, which they’ve been growing on for over 30 years, flooded entirely, and they experienced a total crop loss. Thankfully, the community that values this farm so much has stepped up to help them recover.
While these events may seem scattered, they’re happening with more frequency. While we’re glad both of these farms turned out okay, some may not survive losing an entire season of income. Losing just a single seed grower can also significantly impact small seed companies like SESE, Sow True Seed, High Mowing, or Fedco. This, in turn, affects the availability of seeds for gardeners and farmers and, ultimately, global food production.5
Changes for Native and Naturalized Species
Climate change isn’t just impacting the species we grow in our gardens. It’s affecting the plants, fungi, insects, and animals that share these locations with us. As gardeners, we may find that different weeds are present in our gardens or that fewer birds are visiting our yards. So far, one of the most notable changes for gardeners has been the loss of many pollinators and beneficial insects.
Unfortunately, we can already see that climate change is quickly contributing to the decline of insects. Recent studies have shown that 41% of known insect species have declined steeply in the last decade.1These species make up the basis of our ecosystems, and many are now facing extinction.
What Can We Do?
Reading about these issues can bring a sense of gloom and hopelessness, yet all is not lost. There are many things individuals can do to improve the plight of seeds.
As a gardener, one of the easiest and best things you can do is to save seed from at least one variety. When you save seed, you’re preserving genetic diversity and helping to adapt an open-pollinated variety to the changing conditions we face.6
Support Small Organizations
Small seed organizations need all the support they can get in these troubled times, and they deserve it, too. Many, like Adaptive Seeds, are working hard to adapt and breed varieties that will hold up well in this changing climate. That’s one of the reasons we’ve compiled a list of small seed companies on our website. Though not comprehensive, we’ve included seed growers from the United States’ northern, eastern, and western regions that support social justice causes, sustainability in farming and gardening, and saving your own seed.
Diversify What You Grow
If you cultivate a large plot, whether as a gardener, seed grower, or farmer, now is a great time to diversify. Growing a mix of crops will help lessen the blows when you have rough years with certain crops. Growing a diverse mix will help show you what varieties and traits are best performing in your changing area.
Start a Seed Library
Starting a seed library is an excellent idea if you’re up for some community involvement. In addition to preserving genetic diversity, seed libraries help to revitalize communities, improve food sovereignty, and help adapt seeds to a specific area. Read the Mother Earth News guide to get started with a seed library.2
Climate change is here whether everyone accepts it or not. It’s affecting our farmers and seed growers across the country. Recognizing these changes and doing our best to adapt and preserve seed will help us see a hopefully more stable future.
3. Hernandez, Rolie. “Climate change affects seed growers.” Oregon Public Broadcasting, 15 Oct. 2021, https://www.opb.org/article/2021/10/15/climate-change-affects-seed-growers/#:~:text=Drought, extreme heat and smoke,and entire losses of crops.
4. Nargi, Lela. “‘No normal seasons any more’: seed farmers struggle amid the climate crisis.” The Guardian, 16 Oct. 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/oct/16/seed-farmers-climate-change
5. Singh, Rishi P, et al. “Impacts of Changing Climate and Climate Variability on Seed Production and Seed Industry.” Science Direct, Birsa Agriculture University, 19 Dec. 2012, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/B9780124059429000025
6. Van Eendenburg , Hannah. “Seed Saving at the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis.” Green America, greenamerica.org/story/seed-saving-front-lines-climate-crisis. Accessed 1 Nov. 2023.