Tag Archives: cotton

Is it Illegal to Grow Cotton?

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.

The Texas Department of Agriculture reports that the boll weevil has been nearly eliminated from Texas, which has been an intense and expensive process. Texas currently accounts for almost 50% of U.S. cotton acreage and about 40% of U.S. production. Their strict guidelines are an attempt to keep Texas production competitive. 

Erlene’s Green Cotton
Erlene’s Green Cotton

Where do I find out if I can grow cotton?

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.

Find out more about why we offer heirloom cotton in our Cotton Growing Guide.

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. 

Heirloom Fibers: Growing Colored Cotton

In the United States cotton is deeply tied to its role in slavery and the atrocities committed against African slaves. Gardeners growing cotton today get an important piece of living history. Slaves were forced to cultivate acres of cotton and harvest the fiber from sharp bolls all day long in the hot sun. While no one can truly imagine the horrors African slaves went through growing cotton can help keep their story alive.

It’s also worth noting that before cotton was ever grown in the United States it was cultivated for thousands of years in Africa, Asia, and South and Central America where different varieties were first domesticated. We tend to think of Europeans and their descendants who colonized North America as having bred this important important fiber crop when in fact they’ve played a relatively small role in cultivating different cotton varieties. It was instead Africans, Asians, and Native Americans that were the original cultivators of cotton including many colored varieties.

Colored Cotton

Arkansas Green Lint Cotton

Thanks to commercial farming operations if you ask most people what color cotton is they’ll say white. In reality cotton cultivars come in many colors including brown, blue, pink, green, red, and tan. At Southern Exposure we offer 6 cotton varieties including green, brown, tan, and white varieties. In the United States these colored varieties were sometimes grown by slaves prior to the Civil War for use in their own clothing as they were not allowed to grow the same white cotton as their masters.

While these older, colored varieties are certainly beautiful most of them have a shorter staple length than most modern varieties making them less than ideal for industrial spinning operations. For this reason commercial growers solely grow white cotton and colored cotton varieties are now relatively rare.

This doesn’t mean that colored and heirloom varieties don’t have benefits though. First many of these heirlooms are more drought tolerant and pest resistant than their modern cousins and even though they cannot be spun on an industrial scale they can be used by home spinners and small crafts people. Their natural color also means there’s no need to dye them. Today chemical dyes used for clothing are a major source of water pollution.

Why Grow Cotton?

  • Growing cotton can help connect you with important history even if part of that history is a negative.
  • Cotton is a wonderful ornamental plant and can be used in bouquets at the flowering stage or when the bolls mature.
  • It’s relatively easy to grow and drought tolerant.
  • It can be used for truly homegrown and handmade crafts.
  • Growing an heirloom cotton helps keep biodiversity alive. These varieties may be important for breeding future varieties. Whether it’s breeding colored cottons with longer staples lengths for mechanized spinning or cottons that are more resistant to certain pests.

Cotton is annual and can be direct sown in zones 8-10 after danger of frost has past. Though cotton isn’t grown commercially in the northern United States it can in fact be grown there with a little extra effort. In northern climates (zones 7-5) cotton should be started early indoors like tomatoes or peppers and transplanted out because it is frost sensitive and takes 130 days to reach maturity. For more detailed growing information check out the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange Cotton Growing Guide.

*Note: Some states including Virginia require growers to have permits in order to grow cotton. Please check with your local extension agency. 

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