The fact that cotton makes most people think of the South has not stopped one Long Islander from growing it here.
Gloria Cassell, who has a plot at the Roosevelt Community Garden on Fulton Avenue, cultivated the cotton from a plant her dad brought home five years ago from Tamms, Illinois, where family members grow the plant as a hobby. “He brought it back and said, ‘If anyone can figure out what to do with this, I know you can.’”
A learning curve
An avid gardener since moving into her Roosevelt home in 2012, Cassell, 43, had already transformed her once-bare yard into a lush paradise with hydrangeas, roses, boxwoods, peonies, lilies and other perennials.
Despite her green thumb, Cassell said she soon realized that there was much to learn about growing cotton.
“I didn’t know at the time that cotton requires 180 days from seed to harvest,” she said.
Storing her cotton indoors during the first winter, Cassell then planted 10 seeds from the original plant in a container the next spring. From those seeds, two seedlings sprouted in her greenhouse the following December.
“To actually see it to fruition, it was like, ‘wow,’” she said.
Through research and trial and error, Cassell honed her cotton-cultivating skills. These days she keeps the plants indoors under heat lamps and lights from January to May.
In early May, she moved 16 cotton plants into the 10,000-square foot, 49-plot community garden alongside dahlias and other flowers she has grown there since it opened last year. Each will mature to about 3 feet tall.
“As I went along I’ve learned more and better techniques in keeping it thriving,” she said, adding that she grows the cotton in containers, using organic potting soil and watering them one inch a week.
In the South, cotton can be harvested in November; here, Cassell harvests in October, before the first frost, separating the seeds from the cotton for planting.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” she said. Among the things she's learned is to take care while working with the prickly plant, having punctured herself while not paying close attention.
Cotton and black history
Cassell’s cotton played a role in the African American history programming this year for the Town of Hempstead, where Cassell works in the Communications Department.
For Black History Month in February, Cassell’s plants were part of a display with the theme “Black Migrations,” exploring how freed slaves migrated north.
“I said, ‘Let me plant some cotton seeds so we can have it for the display at Town Hall,’” Cassell said.
Working with Hempstead Town Senior Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby, Cassell was able to include cotton in this year’s Juneteenth program commemorating the abolition of slavery.
“I really prefer this to be a living exhibit. I don’t want to just keep it at home,” Cassell said, adding that school groups saw both exhibits. “It was good, because people that came to the Black History program were able to come back a few months later and see the progress of it.”
Reactions to the cotton ran the gamut from surprise that it was grown here to very emotional, noted Terri Banks, executive assistant to Goosby. "One of the most moving moments was a woman who cried at seeing the cotton because her grandparents were sharecroppers that picked cotton," she said.
With the development of the cotton gin in the 1790s and the expansion of textile factories in the early 19th century, cotton became a major commercial crop and the main engine of the Industrial Revolution, explained Alan Singer, professor of secondary education and history at Hofstra University. "It leads to the development of the domestic slave trade, where enslaved Africans are transported from Virginia and some of the older tobacco colonies to the deep South.” It is estimated that about a million slaves were taken South to develop the cotton industry, he said.
“We wanted everyone to know about it and our children to learn about it and how important an industry it was for this country,” Goosby said.
Sharing her knowledge
Cassell plans to give away plants and seeds to gardeners and community members at the garden’s harvest festival in November. She will also lead a demonstration with tips on how to sow seeds.
“As long as they have space indoors, you can always just bring it in, no different than you would do a tropical plant once the season is over,” she said. Many people have never seen cotton growing up close, she said, yet, “It’s a part of our story.”
Andrea Millwood, associate director of North Shore Land Alliance, which manages the community garden, said the organization is working to incorporate cotton into its educational programs, “where students and adults can learn about horticulture, their environment and healthy living.”
For her part, Cassell is researching how to spin the cotton. “That would be next on my wish list, if I could learn how to spin the cotton into yarn. Then I think it will be even more momentous, if I can accomplish that,” she said, explaining that her sister is a knitter. "I would love to involve her in this process by producing a blanket or a sweater from the cotton I'm growing."
Fall Harvest event
WHAT Fall Harvest featuring a cotton presentation, garlic planting, fall cleanup and educational activities for kids.
WHEN I WHERE 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 2 at the Roosevelt Community Garden, 59 E. Fulton Ave., Roosevelt