The Lost History of Jute Twine

Have you ever wondered how jute twine came into our gardens – and when?

According to George Drower in A History of Gardening in 50 Objects, that humble garden essential was unknown in the West until 1828 when Englishman George Acland established the world’s first jute-twine factory in Scotland.

“Acland realized the commercial potential of jute when he saw it being used by Oriya gardeners employed in the botanical gardens of the East India Company. They called it jhut, a term from which the modern name seems to have derived,” Drower writes.

“At this time, jute was still virtually unknown outside India where its fibers had been used for centuries to make twine, cord, and coarse fibers. It grew best in a hot, moist atmosphere in areas with considerable rainfall, and most was produced in India’s Bengal province.” There jute stalks were “gathered into bundles and immersed in stagnant pools or streams to undergo the process known as retting, which loosened the fibers and separated them from the stem. To speed up this process, the operator would stand in the pool and beat and shake the stems,” after which the fibers were dried in the sun.

Although jute wasn’t as strong as hemp, flax, and other fibers used for making twine, it was “hard-wearing and tear-resistant, and had the advantage of being much cheaper” – making it, Acland realized, “the ideal material for garden jobs.”

“Acland went to Scotland to raise capital ... and to find a location for a factory. He opted for Dundee, which at that period was an important textile center based around flax and hemp.” Although he founded his business in 1828, he struggled for years to adapt existing machinery to process the jute which is “far more woody and brittle than either flax or hemp.”

“Manufacturing began in 1832, yet business was initially slow.” Then in 1838 “the Dutch government placed a large order for jute bags to [transport] coffee beans from West Africa” and before long Acland’s new industry was booming.

“While Dundee was developing into an international center for the manufacture of garden twine, it was suggested to Acland that he should send the machinery to Bengal because the jute could be more economically spun there.” Yes, it certainly could be, but opening the first mill in Calcutta in 1854 proved to be “the first step in Dundee’s decline and eventual collapse as a jute products center” – which is why today my big ball of jute twine, and probably yours, is labeled “Made in India.”


“Enthusiastic Fillers”
to Hide Yellowing Bulb Foliage


Tasha Tudor was not only a beloved author and illustrator of children’s books, she was an avid gardener with a special love of heirloom flowers – including our bulbs.

But fading bulb foliage is never pretty, and Tudor offered some good advice for hiding it in a 1998 article by Tovah Martin for Horticulture magazine. The first four plants she mentions are hardy, self-sowing annuals in much of the country, which means you can plant them right now by just sprinkling their seeds on top of the soil and letting Mother Nature do the rest. (Planting in early spring will work, too.)

“Spring arrives late in Tasha Tudor’s New England garden,” Martin wrote, “but when it comes, it arrives with an onslaught of bulbs. The bulbs don’t last forever, though, so Tasha plans ahead for summer.

feverfew (This golden-leaved variety is my favorite.)

“Even before the foliage of the bulbs ... begins to turn brown, an underplanting is gearing up to mount the stage and steal the show. Of course, Tasha will insist that she doesn’t underplant specifically to hide the dying bulb foliage. The forget-me-nots [Myosotis sylvatica] and Johnny-jump-ups [Viola tricolor] ... now appear in profusion of their own accord. But at one time, they were certainly planted to take up the tempo as the bulbs fade.

“Meanwhile, other enthusiastic fillers take full advantage of Tasha’s hospitality. Feverfew [Tanacetum parthenium] seeds in wherever it finds open ground. Annuals are also tucked here and there in promising nooks and crannies. Sweet alyssum [Alyssum maritima] is Tasha’s favorite and most frequently employed annual for the purpose.... Later the dianthus [pinks] flushes out; valerian [Valeriana officinalis] adds flowers, and lady’s mantle [Alchemilla mollis] adds leaves. By June, you would never guess that the garden was once running rampant with narcissus and that beneath the lush garden, bulbs are slowly slipping away.”


A New, Very Old Way to Store Your Glads

Glads are easy to store. Every fall I just dry mine, dust them with a fungicide, and hang them up in mesh bags in a room that’s cold but never freezing.

Experiments at the University of Florida, though, suggest there may be a better way.

corms ready to bury in sand

According to Dr. Robert Magie in a 1993 article that was reprinted recently in Glad World, “When in the early 1960s gladiolus growers in Florida began placing freshly harvested, cleaned, and treated corms in soil storage with little or no curing” – which typically involves air-drying them at temperatures– “I conducted experiments to learn what ... effects the lack of ordinary curing would have on flower production and disease control.

“The results … were entirely unexpected. We harvested more marketable flower spikes and more sound corms when … corms were not cured as usual but placed in cool storage a few days after lifting. In other tests, the longer we cured the corms the poorer the production of flower spikes and corms.” Furthermore, when corms were cured and stored in “sawdust or sand, we harvested more spikes and corms than from corms cured in the air.”

'Peter Pears', one of the glads I'm storing differently this year

This makes sense, Magie says, because until humans “began to lift and store corms to be replanted, glad corms had always grown where the seed started to grow (except for the corms dug up and eaten by baboons). Natural conditions for all those millennia in native Africa were as follows: corms cured slowly in dry soil at the end of a six-month rainy season. They rested in warm soil until cool, wet weather arrived six months later…. Thus, glads were conditioned for a million years to a sedentary life in soil.”

I figure it’s worth a try, so I’m planning to store a few corms this fall in sand and a few others in sawdust (if I can find some) or the cedar animal bedding I use for dahlias.

If you try it, too, please let us know your results – and watch out for baboons!