Updated: Mar 15, 2022
Happy March 1st!
The first indigo story in March is from Bernadette Puleo who is a textile artist, indigo grower, and founder of Indigo Garden Arts Studio located in Long Island, New York.
Introduction from Bernadette Puleo
My name is Bernadette Puleo and for as long as I can remember I have been painting, drawing, and making things with the cloth. Being a seeker, I am always looking to explore new avenues of creativity. So, in 2002, when I saw a small classified ad for indigo seeds in the back of Fiber Arts magazine, I decided to order them. This started my investigation of the mysterious Persicaria Tinctoria or as it is commonly known - Japanese Indigo. Indican, which produces the indigo pigment, resides within the leaf of the plant. It is the magical process in which the indigo pigment expresses itself on cloth through oxidation, that captivated me.
One can literally watch the color change from yellow to green to indigo blue! I consider myself a messenger of one of nature’s secrets.
Through the years I have used my indigo-dyed cloth to embed in pulp to create pulp paintings, experimented with shibori techniques to make resist patterns on cloth, and more recently used the pigment to create embroideries and watercolor paintings. This is just the beginning of my exploration of this marvelous pigment. I look forward to the journey that lies ahead.
After I retired from my career in which I designed prints and embroideries for the children’s apparel market, I decided to devote my energies to Indigo full time. At the end of 2021, I officially opened my business in which I plan to share my knowledge of indigo, encourage others to try growing and dyeing, and offer my creations to those who would just like to possess cloth or artwork made from this magical pigment.
You can follow my story and keep up with my offerings on Instagram
@indigogardenarts or Bernadette.puleo and Facebook/Indigo Garden Arts
1. Location & Environment
I reside on the east coast of the United States on Long Island, the town of Huntington, in the state of New York. This area is growing zone 7b. My home is on a 7-acre parcel of land which used to be a nursery for landscape plants and shrubs but is mostly wooded now. The land is also on a hillside which makes it difficult to plant a substantial amount of indigo, but there is a patch of land that is cleared out and in a sunny enough location that I am able to cultivate my plants.
All photos were submitted by Bernadette Puleo, the founder of Indigo Garden Arts Studio
2. Indigo plants & practices
The best indigo plant for my growing zone is Persicaria Tinctoria (formally known as Polygonum Tinctorium) or as commonly known as Japanese Indigo. It is not native to my area and is considered an annual. Therefore I must start the seeds every year. This can be a little tricky as our Spring season has been very cool the last few years. I start them indoors without grow lights. I place them in a west-facing window in a portable greenhouse that has 5 shelves.
Once they germinate, which takes about 7 days, I constantly turn them so they grow as straight as possible. I also plant a few seeds per cell because they support each other as they grow. I only start them in mid-April - 3-4 weeks before I bring them outdoors. Otherwise, they get too leggy and weaken.
Once outside, I keep them in my vertical covered greenhouse so I can protect them from the cool night air. In another 3 weeks or so, at the end of May, when the plants have become more established and the soil is about 65ºF, they are ready to be planted in my rototilled field.
My rows are a little closer than recommended because of my lack of space but the plants don’t seem to mind. At that time I feed them with Fish Emulsion to provide the nitrogen that they love. This year for the first time I plan on laying some hay mulch to discourage weeds and conserve moisture. Whatever doesn’t fit in my field, I pot up to sell at fairs and farmer’s markets.
By mid-July, I am ready to harvest for the first time. Being that I work alone, I harvest about 5 lbs (2.26kg) at a time which yields 213g pigment that reduces to 36g of dried pigment. I love everything about the Aqueous Precipitation Extraction process. Being that I ferment my plant material in a very warm, sunny place, they usually are ready in 24 hours to aerate and flocculate. Fresh leaf stamping and dyeing are also some of my favorite practices. I not only use the pigment for dyeing, but I also make watercolor paint and soft pastels to use in my art. I am constantly amazed at how many colors indigo so generously gives me through the dyeing process.
Along with cooler Springs, I have also witnessed warmer Autumns which provides the time for my plants to go to seed. I have been able to keep my plants in the ground all the way to November the past few years when I pull them and dry them indoors before a frost warning. I will then harvest the seeds, winnow them and prepare them for planting. The cycle begins again. I have to thank Rowland Ricketts (rickettsindigo.com), John Marshall (johnmarshall.to), and Brittany Boles and her awesome FB group Indigo Pigment Extraction Methods for their generosity in sharing their knowledge, without whom I would have never progressed this far in my journey.
If you are interested in hearing more of my story you can watch my interview on Brittany Boles's “Blue Biographies” series on Facebook. I am episode #8 in the first season. The series resides in her IPEM group as mentioned above. I am inspired by all my fellow indigo growers and artisans, too many to name.
3. Culture & Story of the region
I am a 2nd generation American of Italian descent. I grew up on Staten Island, a borough of New York City, where my dad had a lush terraced garden in our backyard. As a little girl, I called it my secret garden. I inherited my love for gardening and beautiful natural scenery from my dad. My grandparents planted a huge garden when they moved to Staten Island from Manhattan in the 1920s. I speak English exclusively as my parents only spoke Italian when they didn’t want me to know what they were talking about.
On our Interactive online map: https://viewer.mapme.com/indigoshademap/location/8e72505f-89fe-471a-bc74-6b5128ebec35