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.
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 – I learnt my lesson there!
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, and in its second year the tall flowering stalk will start to shoot up. Harvest the dye stuff before it starts to flower.
The plants live for two years, but as it self-seeds, there should be a continuous supply.
Dyers Coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria):
Dyers Coreopsis is grown easily from seed with pretty and functional flowers.
They are a cut and come again flower; 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.
The flowers can be used fresh or dried. Golden Rod is colour fast and lightfast. Gather it on a warm day and hang upside down to dry for later use.
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
- Dahlias for yellows greens and reds
- Rudbekia for yellows and greens
- Roses for reds pinks and corals
- 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.
A barrow load of colour for the dyepot.