One of the most unusual plants we grow at Old Trail Farm is cotton! Cotton is not typically grown in our region because it doesn’t tolerate cold weather and it takes a long time to reach maturity. In northeast Ohio, our summers are too short to plant cotton directly into the field. It’s also a crop that doesn’t usually make sense to start as transplants because of the quantity of production required for a meaningful harvest.
In order to grow cotton at all, we first had to select a variety that matures more quickly than most. (We chose Red Foliated White Cotton from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which matures in 120 days.) We also had to start the plants in our greenhouse in March, well before transplanting them into the field when the weather warmed up in early June.
Cotton is in the same family as hibiscus and produces gorgeous flowers.
After flowering, the plants produce alien-looking pods called bolls.
The cotton fibers develop within these pods as protection for the seeds. As the plant matures, the bolls burst open and reveal the fibers within.
Why do we plant cotton at Old Trail farm?
Perhaps more than any other plant, cotton has had a long and impactful history in our country, one that Old Trail School teachers discuss at length in their Social Studies classes. According to Grade 4 teacher Dean Ruff, “In the 1800s American cotton was a crop that most of Europe wanted. Plantation owners in southern states became very wealthy growing this very difficult crop to harvest. Cotton was king and shaped the identity of our nation at this time.”
Since cotton was harvested by plantation slaves, it is extremely powerful for students to harvest the cotton bolls for themselves. The bolls are very sharp and must have been painful to harvest all day long. It is a lesson in empathy.
Cotton is also a beautiful plant that inspires artistic expression. Here are some of Mrs. Sapienza’s art students sketching mature cotton plants in the garden.
Past classes have also used the cotton grown at Old Trail in fiber arts projects.
Cotton is a complicated plant with many lessons to teach. It is certainly one we will continue to grow at the farm!