Growing your own dye stuff is like growing your own food; there’s something special about knowing how fresh and full of goodness it is. With a little planning you can grow a seasonal palette of colour that looks as fabulous in garden or vase as it does captured on cloth.
A small balcony (or patio) and a handful of tubs should supply you with enough material for a few dye pots, from which a whole rainbow of colour can be achieved.
Here's some tips to help you get started:
Reds and Pinks
Due to its invasive nature I grow madder in a deep tub and then propagate by layering and replanting the underground roots.
A sprinkling of lime in early spring helps to produce the red dye. Other than that, it takes very little looking after and appears to thrive on neglect.
Japanese Indigo (Persicaria syn Polygonum, tinctorum):
Start the seeds off under cover in early March and plant them out after the frost has passed. Once planted, it appreciates a barrow-load of well-rotted farm manure to give it a good start.
I also make a big bucket of fermented nettle feed which its seems to appreciate. Harvest the indigo leaves before the pink flowers appear, or when blue ‘bruising’ appears on a pinched leaf.
Japanese Indigo (Persicaria syn Polygonum, tinctorum) in flower. Note the bruising on the leaves.
Woad (Isatis tinctoria):
Woad is a member of the cabbage family and therefore best sown away from other Brassicas. Sow in early spring and be mindful of slugs.
It will produce large leaves in its first year which contain the dye pigment. It is best picked during a hot spell, just before it produces flowers, as that is when the pigment reduces.
Once harvested the leaves must be used the same day.
During its second year woad will produce an amazing amount of seeds. Save these for sowing the following year.
Yellows and Oranges
Weld (Reseda luteola):
Weld is the most permanent of all the yellow dyes and is key to a good green when used to over-dye indigo.
Weld is also biennial. In its first year it grows a basal rosette,you can carefully gather the outer leaves for the dye pot and in its second year the tall flowering stalk will start to shoot up. Harvest the dye stuff before it starts to flower.
Dyers Coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria):
Dyers Coreopsis is grown easily from seed with pretty and functional flowers, the more you pick the more they grow.
They give a good yellow dye that can be shifted to a rich burnt orange with an alkaline modifier.
Golden Rod (Solidago):
Lovely in a vase and also in the dye pot, golden rod gives beautiful clear yellows. It grows abundantly; just a few flower heads will give a huge pot of colour.
From the flower bed
This list is endless. However, these are my staples.
Some give better results than others and a lot depends on the soil, climate and season. Each year I like to experiment and grow different varieties of flowers, testing them out for their dye potential.
- Black hollyhocks for blues
- Scabiosa Black knight for blues, purples and greys on silk.
- Dahlias for yellows greens and reds
- Rudbekia for yellows and greens
- Sulphur cosmos for marmalade oranges and light ochres
- Dyers coreopsis for varying shades of yellow to soft tans.
- Marigolds for yellows and greens.
From the herb garden, or even the supermarket shelf, lovely shades from greys to greens can be achieved. There really is no limit to natures paint palette.