Planting A Dye Garden

I've mentioned in past posts that I recently purchased a house, and now that the weather is warm I've turned my attention from painting and decorating to yard work. I'm in the process of planting a lot of veggies and flowers, and I've reserved a fair bit of space for a dye garden.

I wasn't quite sure where to start, as I've never grown my own dyestuffs before, so I turned to A Dyer's Garden by Rita Buchanan to help get me started. The book starts off with some great overall tips to help you choose which plants to grow:

  • Grow any plants that give good reds or blues because these colors are virtually unobtainable from uncultivated dye plants. Examples: madder, yellow bedstraw, indigo, and Japanese indigo.
  • Grow plants with such pretty flowers and herbs with such pleasant aromas that you'd want them in the garden anyway. Examples: marjoram, dahlia, zinnia, and purple basil.
  • Grow plants that are prolific, cheap, and easy so that you won't mind chopping them off in midseason and dumping them in a dyepot. Examples: marigolds, yellow cosmos, tansy.

With those basic and important pieces of advice under my belt, all that was left to do was pick my plants. A Dyer's Garden features thirty annuals, biennials, and perennials, all of which are productive and easy to grow (good for me as my thumb is still a very light shade of green!). Each plant's entry in the book features information about yield and ideal growing zones (I live in climate zone 5—you can find yours here), as well as dye swatches on a variety of materials with different mordants, information on growing conditions, and an explanation on how to dye with each plant.

All this made it easy for me to narrow down my garden choices based on what I felt comfortable growing, what colors I liked, and what I could get the most color from in a small amount of space. It's my first year, so I think I'll start small with these plants:

  • Madder It produces a great red, and it takes a few years to establish itself so I want to get it started sooner rather than later.
  • Yellow cosmos An easy choice because I've already planted some—I didn't even realize they could be used for dye! They produce a range of nice yellow-oranges.
  • Black-eyed Susan This plant is hardy, rarely bothered by pests, and it can produce colors from dusky yellow to deep dark brown.
  • Sunflower The tall plants will be great along my fence, they attract bees and butterflies, and they produce a range of soft greens.
  • Japanese indigo Perhaps the most ambitious plant on my list, as it's the hardest to find and the most finicky to grow. But I love blue, and this plant has a much higher yield than woad (which is classified as a noxious weed in many states anyway), so I'm game to try it out!

Have you grown your own dyestuffs? If so, what helpful hints do you have for me? I'd also love to see links to photos of your garden and things you've dyed from it!

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