September 12, 2012


Last year's broom corn in September

Growing up, my mother instilled in me an appreciation for good brooms. She accomplished this task by simply commenting with far more frequency than one might think the humble broom deserves, how much she appreciated good brooms, and how hard they are to come by.

One summer when I was about 10, I remember going to visit an Amish family in Pennsylvania Dutch Country and waiting awkwardly outside while my mom surveyed the hand-crafted brooms. She eventually picked one out that suited her needs. I recall that she paid around $100 for it, maybe a little under. She assured me, that a good broom was well worth that price, as it would last a lifetime.

Over the past few years, I have dedicated a small section of the garden to broom corn--the common name for the plant traditionally used to make brooms. The name is a bit confusing, as it is not a type a corn, but rather a type of sorghum. Similar to corn, broom corn has a tassle that emerges out the top of the plant. Unlike corn, the end of the tassles hold the seed heads, as opposed to just the male flower. It is these tassles, also referred to as seed stalks, that broom-makers use to make their craft.

Based on the last few years in the test plot, broom corn does quite well here. Sorghums, native to central Africa, are quite drought tolerant, but also are frost intolernat. Broom corn is slow to take off in the spring (I plant it after the last frost), but in late August and into September when most everything else seems to be begging for more water, the broom corn stands tall and continues to grow steadily.

Harvested, threshed and dried broom corn

The material I harvested last year and the year before were shorter than what most standard-sized brooms utilize. For example, the broom corn in the broom my mother purchased from the Amish family back when I was 10 was about 2 feet in length. What I have been able to harvest just before the first frost threatens in October, is on average about 12 inches, with some plants producing longer tassles. Considering that in these two years, the seeds have yet been able to reach maturity before they need to be harvested because of frost, I would primarily attribute the small sized broom corn to the length of the growing season.

While the broom corn I've been growing is shorter than what may be able to be grown in Tennesse, it is functional nonetheless. Earlier this summer, I finally got around to actually making a broom. I am quite pleased with what I created, given that it was the first attempt. The actual assembly of the broom only took me about 30 minutes. But, that is in addition to threshing the seed from the stalks, soaking the stalks, making the handle, and of course growing the broom corn.

After harvesting the stalks, the first step is to thresh the seed. Since the seed has yet to be fully mature, this step proves a little more laborous than if the seed were ripe and ready to be realeased. While somewhat time consuming, it is not difficult, and easily something that could be done while talking with a friend or watching a movie, as long as you have both hands free.

After removing the seeds, I let the stalks thoroughly dry out. This is important so that no moisture is trapped with the stalks are then bound together in the broom which could encourage mold to grow.

The broom handle, made from cherry wood on the lathe

Brooms require a handle of some sort. While the stalks are drying out, its a good time to make the handle. I used a piece of dead cherry I found in the forest. The wood was already well cured by the forest so I didn't have to take any steps before making it into a simple handle on the lathe. If you are making a handle, it is important to leave a few inches of wood at the end of the handle to which you can attach the broom corn. This section should be smaller in diameter than the actual handle, so that when you attach the broom corn, it is more likely to be flush with the handle. Such details, however, do depend on the overall aesthetic or design that you want to achieve. After ample sanding, I treated my handle with a few coats of linseed oil and considered it done.

Mother Earth News has a good article about making brooms. While I did not follow the exact method proposed, as I wanted to make a smaller broom than what the author provided steps for, I did glean some good tips. For example, soaking the stalks for at least 15 minutes before making the broom softens the stalks so that they flatten against the handle more easily. Also, I drilled a hole, as the article suggested, through the end of the handle, through which I threaded the string which I used to attach the broom corn to the handle.

Finished broom
I used cotton twine to tie the broom. My method was rather simple. I attached each stalk one at a time, pulling the string tight and wrapping it around the handle, before attaching the next stalk. I repeated this, until I had filled up all the available space on the handle. I then proceeded to wrap the string around all the stalks several more times, making sure to pull the string as tight as I could. Next, I tied off the string, and cut the ends of the stalk as best I could to fit the curve of the handle. Finally, I trimmed the end of the broom, so that the strands were all the same lengh.

Perhaps not as sturdy as those Amish brooms, but we'll see! So parents, be warned, sometimes children listen a little too closely to what you say.