From plant to finished product, cotton makes a long journey, starting with a small seed. Once planted, the seed grows into a plant, eventually producing as many as 100 pods that each produce 500,000 fibers, about 1 1/2 inches long. Once harvested, these fibers are transformed into a variety of everyday products. Gardeners in the southern states with the required amount of sunny days may find cotton a fun and interesting plant to add to their own garden or landscape.
Cotton is no newcomer to the fabrics scene. Fragments of cotton fabrics dating back to 3,500 B.C. have been found in Mexico and some dating to 3,000 B.C. in India. In the United States, cotton became an important cash crop when the country was first settled. Slaves were used on the larger cotton farms and plantations to handle the tedious job of handpicking the cotton. After slavery was abolished in 1865, newer methods for harvesting the cotton were introduced. Nowadays, cotton grows in almost a dozen countries, including the United States.
Cotton requires long, sunny periods in order to mature, with a minimum of 160 frost-free days in a growing season. Fourteen states located in the southern half of the United States offer the growing conditions necessary. Referred to as the Cotton Belt, these states offer sunshine, water and fertile soil, the three most important requirements for growing a productive cotton crop.
Two types of cotton grow in the United States: Upland and American Pima. These plants get their start from seeds planted in moist soil. After the plants grow for five to seven weeks, small flowers appear. The flowers pollinate, changing from white to pinkish red before falling off the plant, leaving a small, green cotton pod called a boll. The boll contains 32 seeds from which the cotton fibers will grow.
Once the bolls start to crack open, the fluffy contents start to push out of the covering. The cotton dries and fluffs up before being ready for harvesting. While cotton used to be picked by hand, commercially produced, mature cotton bolls are machine harvested nowadays. In gardens or small fields, the dry cotton is simply pulled from the bolls and stored until the seeds are ready to be removed from the raw cotton.
Growing cotton in the garden makes a fantastic science and history lesson. In the commercial world, cotton is used in a variety of products including clothing, medical supplies such as bandages and gauze, and healthcare aids such as sanitary napkins and tampons. Oil also is made from the seeds of the cotton plant, with the remains of the seed going to livestock feed.