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Growing Ornamental Cotton: In some areas it's fun. In others it's against the law!
Q. Mike - How difficult would it be to grow cotton in Delaware? Just for looks. Also where can I get seeds? Thanks.
---Paul; Bethany Beach, DE
Well, you'd think this would be pretty straight forward, now wouldn't you? Check to see if Paul's Delawarean climate has enough growing days for the plants to produce that white fuzz, find him a seed source and go home early...
So I look up cotton's scientific name, Gossypium ("Go-sippy-um")—sounds like you're telling a toddler to take a drink—and the photos reveal why people would want to grow it even if they don't have a long enough season to get a little cotton; the blooms are beautiful; a lot like hibiscus.
Back when I was editor of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine, we ran a letter from backyard cotton grower Marion Fried lander of River Bend, NC noting the beauty of those flowers. She added that the seed pods that precede actual cotton are also very attractive, that the pods and cotton heads look great in dried flower arrangements and that Hastings Seeds in Atlanta, Georgia carried the seeds.
A call to Hastings, however, revealed that a lot can change in 14 years. What was then a seed company is now the Hastings Nature and Garden Center. They hadn't put seeds up in packets for years, but said they'd try and find someone to help me.
Which was good, because I was striking out. The only small packet source I had been able to find so far was a Gurney's listing on the Internet that looked suspiciously old. I called Marilyn Black, who produces the Gurney's catalog, and she explained that it WAS an old reference; they hadn't carried cotton for quite some time. She was intrigued, however, and worked in the seed trade for years, so she said she'd hunt around for me.
I finally find a current source—"seedrack dot com" where the Whatcom Seed Company is offering ten seeds of "Upland cotton" (Gossypium hirsutum) for $3.39 (search under 'G' for "Gossypium"). Then Marilyn calls to say that Suttons Seeds in the U.K. sells 12 seeds of "ornamental cotton" (Gossypium herbaceum) for £3.99 under their "World in Your Garden" line; it's a different variety—the flowers are yellow, while the blooms of Upland cotton start out white and turn a beautiful rosy pink. Now we're cooking!
Then Pat Lemmerman, the seed buyer for Hastings calls to explain why the home grown cotton seed well is so dry. "It's illegal for home owners to grow cotton in Georgia—and any other state where cotton is a cash crop—because of the boll weevil eradication program", she explains, adding that they had to turn down a request from the governor!
…Which led me to Dr. Steve Brown, Cotton Specialist for the University of Georgia Extension Service, who explained that Upland cotton—the type grown by American farmers—is indeed a wonderful plant. Although each flower is short-lived, the plants produce them for four to seven weeks before they begin to develop those all-important seed pods. "The hibiscus-like flowers appear 65 to 75 days after seeding", he explained, "so someone in Delaware would have plenty of time to get a nice show—and if their summer stays warm through September, they might even get some cotton", he added, explaining that the pods mature about 50 days after the flowers are done—again, provided the weather stays warm.
"Cotton is a very warm climate crop", he stressed; "it does not like temperatures below 60°, so the earliest I'd put it in the ground up there would be around June 1st. You could start it indoors a few weeks ahead of time and transplant it out, but use big containers and get it out fast; the roots grow very quickly and the plants won't do well if they get pot bound. Cotton is self-pollinating, so you don't need a lot of plants," he added, "and if it does mature, you can collect the seed that'll be mixed in with the cotton lint for subsequent seasons. It needs very good drainage, and likes a lot of food and water after flowering. It's a tropical perennial, and Southern farmers actually have to kill the plants before harvest," he continued, "but up North it'll die naturally over winter."
And he doesn't see a problem growing it in Delaware. "That's outside the boll weevil eradication zone, which runs from Virginia down to Texas, and out to Tennessee and Missouri, so I don't imagine anyone will mind. Just don't take any plant material into a cotton growing state—especially Texas or Arkansas, where the weevil is still active."
In those areas, "some states will issue you a permit if you put up pheromone traps and destroy the crop if you capture a weevil, but some won't. Although the likelihood of a garden crop becoming a serious threat is small, there is the fear that a home owner could accidentally create a little safe haven breeding ground that might lead to an outbreak. Commercial cotton growers MUST buy into the program; they pay $4 per acre of cotton, and folks who work for the eradication service set up and monitor the traps."
So if you live in a non-cotton state, you're free to enjoy the flowers and pods. And if you have at least 120 growing days and get warm-weather lucky, maybe even see those pods split open and reveal the cotton lint—and next year's seeds—inside. If you're down South, contact your local Extension office and see if there's the possibility of a permit.
For more info, visit these web sites:
Ultimate cotton growing info: http://pubs.caes.uga.edu/caespubs/pubcd/B1252.htm
Boll Weevil Eradication program info; lists all states involved:
Our good buddy Dr. Jim Duke's fascinating treatise on cotton as a medicinal plant: