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Seed Starting in Wool

I am a curious gardener. I like to try unusual things just to see if it will work. Well, here is my latest one. I am trying out raw sheep wool for seed starting.

Now, how did I randomly come across a bag of sheep wool? I have great neighbors! Heidi owns a yarn shop near me in Port Gamble, WA, called The Artful Ewe, filled with beautiful fiber. She is a self-described "Indie dyer, knitter, spinner, weaver, felter, and yarn shop mistress," and she's my neighbor.

A few months back, I was at her house, gleaning extra apples from their backyard orchard, and we started chatting about where she sources her fiber. I asked if there was ever any waste material and what she does with it. Heidi said she does occasionally have unusable material and that it usually goes to waste. I asked if I could have it, and she said yes.

Fast forward to last week, and I got this message in my Instagram inbox. "Hi Cari, I have a Dorset fleece (washed) staple too short for me to spend any more time with it. Great for garden mulch if you want it!"

I was so excited! I've never played with raw sheep fiber before. She left it outside her garage door in a large space saver bag. I was shocked! It was way more than I anticipated. I thanked her profusely and mentioned the kids, and I will love playing with this raw material before it goes in the garden. She said it could be carded and worked into wool. I've never tried that before, sounds fun!

I got it home and started examining the fluffy wool. It was beautiful. As I worked my fingers through the soft fibers, I began thinking about this material and how it could be used in the garden. Quickly, the seed starting enthusiast who had a tray of sprouting dahlia seeds to plant thought, "I wonder..."

Cue the grow lights! Let's do this.

Looking around the internet, I found a few places that spoke of the benefits of using sheep wool in the garden. A local farmer and a YouTube video by The Middle-Sized Garden, which featured Steven Edney, a dahlia gardening expert of The Salutation Hotel & Garden in Kent, UK, said wool is a wonderful mulch. Not only does it help retain moisture and block out weeds, but they both said it deters slugs. WHAT!!! Hold the phone. Slugs, you say? You have my attention.

Further research found sheep pellets for sale by many large garden suppliers marketed as a natural fertilizer/mulch and organic slug repellant.

Fascinating stuff.

As I sat there learning about all the tremendous benefits of wool, I began to wonder how it would work as a straight-up seed starting medium. I began ticking off the list in my mind. What do seeds need to germinate and grow?

  • Light: The airy texture of the fibers would allow plenty of light penetration
  • Heat: Wool is known for its ability to insulate effectively.
  • Moisture: Wool can absorb up to 30% of its weight in water without feeling wet.
  • Well-draining medium: Wool is an effective wicking material (ability to absorb or draw off liquid by capillary action)

It seems to me that wool might work. What's the harm in trying? I can handle losing a few seedlings.

So I grabbed a clean seedling tray that had nine cells and filled it with wool. There were bits of dirt, grass, and likely poo tangled in the fiber. I did card it some to break up the chunks and rolled it into a tight spiral. I'm not sure that was necessary, but I was having fun playing with it.

After dousing the wool with water and letting it drain, I carefully made a dibble in each cell and placed a sprouted dahlia so that the sprouted root was below the surface and the seed pod protruded halfway above the soil. I covered the tray with a plastic bag to retain moisture until the seed leaves or cotyledons had sprouted.

It's been three days since I planted them, and all nine seedlings are doing well. Yesterday, I did top dress the tray with a bit of vermiculite heavy seed starting mix because I noticed that the top of the wool was drying out very quickly. After inspecting today, everything looks great.

Top-dressed wool starters

This is most definitely an experiment, and so I will track the progress throughout the growing season and share my findings here on the blog. If this works out, I may have to find a sheep farmer to get more of this stuff! Thanks, Heidi, for making this fun winter project possible.

References

Here is an article that did a test to show how slugs and snails react to human hair vs. wool: https://www.slughelp.com/hair-wool-against-slugs-snails/

Wool Pellets for Sale: https://www.wildvalleyfarms.com/wool-pellets.html?gclid=Cj0KCQiA3smABhCjARIsAKtrg6LnJ6vkxBaGzKpA8Wj9upI__rQc8XOsXjT6OgykztSxNrribaVyzWwaAnTTEALw_wcB

The Science of Wool: https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/875-wool-fibre-properties#:~:text=Wool%20can%20absorb%20up%20to,fire%2Dresistant%20and%20antistatic%20properties.

Carilyn Mae

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