Last month, we kicked-off our 2020 Dye-It-Yourself journey with some ideas on how to start thinking about and planning your dye garden. This month, we’re going to go a little deeper into what exactly we’re going to grow and how we think about sourcing seeds.
If you’ve had a garden before, you know that you can grow your garden from seeds or small, young plants called seedlings. Seeds themselves are pretty amazing. Think of a seed as a baby plant in a box, with its lunch. They can wait years (sometimes hundreds of years!) before they germinate, sprouting into plants. We’re starting our dye garden from seeds for three main reasons. First, we have plenty of time before the growing season begins. Second, starting plants from seeds allows us to really focus on the source of our plants and support companies that share our values. For example, when we choose to support seed companies that use only organic practices, we support earth- and people-friendly practices that benefit all of us. Third, few nurseries carry dye plants, so as a practical matter, if you’re going to grow dye plants, you’ll need to start them from seeds.
Our Top 5 Plants for a Home Dye Garden (with a short description, mostly from this source https://pfaf.org/user/Default.aspx)
- Dyer’s Chamomile (yellow): Anthemis tinctoria is an evergreen perennial that grows to about 2 ½ feet tall by 2 ½ feet wide. It is in leaf all year, in flower from July to August, and the seeds ripen from August to September. The species is hermaphrodite (meaning it has both male and female organs) and is pollinated by bees, moths, butterflies, flies, and beetles. It can grow in light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils and prefers well-drained soil. It grows in neutral and alkaline soils and can grow in very alkaline soils. It cannot grow in the shade. It prefers dry or moist soil. The plant can tolerate maritime exposure.
- Dyer’s Coreopsis (bronzy-yellow): Coreopsis tinctoria is an annual that grows to about 2 ½ feet tall by just over a half-foot wide. It is in leaf from April to November, in flower from June to September, and the seeds ripen from June to October. The species is hermaphrodite and is pollinated by bees. It is noted for attracting wildlife. It can grow in light (sandy) and medium (loamy) soils and prefers well-drained soil. It can grow in acid, neutral and alkaline soils. It cannot grow in the shade. It prefers dry or moist soil and can tolerate drought.
- Marigold (gold): Tagetes patula is an annual that grows to about 1 ½ feet tall by about a foot wide. It is frost tender and is in flower from July to October. The seeds ripen in September. The species is hermaphrodite (has both male and female organs) and is pollinated by insects. It is noted for attracting wildlife. It can grow in light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils, and it prefers well-drained soil that is dry or moist. It can grow in acidic, neutral, and basic soils. It cannot grow in the shade.
- Sulphur Cosmos (orange/yellow): Cosmos sulphureus (photo, above, courtesy of Grand Prismatic Seed) of is a prolific seed-producing annual herb considered native to Mexico and northern South America. It can grow to 6 feet tall, and it has very attractive heads of yellow flowers. It’s an annual in most growing zones, but can be a perennial in zones 9 and 10. It loves humid heat and hot dry conditions, and it will be fine in poor or sandy soil. More details on Cosmos flowers can be found here.
- Indigo (blue): Indigofera tinctoria is a perennial plant reaching a height of about 3-6 feet upon maturity. Branches are spreading or ascending and are often woody. The leaves are pinnate. In addition to being one of the major sources of deep blue dye, medicinally, it is used to treat a variety of illnesses. The plant is also used as a cover crop, and it also has a symbiotic relationship with certain soil bacteria that form root nodules and fix atmospheric nitrogen. It will grow in light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils and prefers well-drained soil. The soil can be acidic, neutral or basic (alkaline). It can grow in semi-shade (light woodland) or no shade. It prefers moist soil.
- Weld (clear yellow): Reseda luteola is a biennial growing to about 5 feet by 1 ½ feet. It is in flower from June to August, and the seeds ripen from August to September. The species is hermaphrodite and is pollinated by Bees and insects. The plant is self-fertile. It is noted for attracting wildlife. It can grow in light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils and prefers well-drained soil. And it can grow in soils that are acidic, neutral and alkaline (even very alkaline) soils. It cannot grow in the shade. It prefers moist soil.
Lots of options for yellow, right? Shades of yellow are the most accessible, widely available color from plants. Other colors can take longer or be more challenging to source. For example, shades of red have historically come from madder root, and it takes at least 3 years after planting madder before you can harvest roots for dyeing. Pink often comes from cochineal or lac, which are tiny insects, requiring different climate than is available in most of the United States. Though keep an eye out for nopal cactuses infested with cochineal in Southern California and throughout the SouthWestern US. We think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the range of shades of yellow dye that these five plants provide. And if you have room for indigo, you’ll be able to achieve blue and maybe even green by overdyeing one of your yellows.
You will probably want to order your seeds this month, that way you’ll have them when it’s time to plant. Here are companies we wholeheartedly recommend for sourcing your seeds:
- Grand Prismatic Seed: James Young and Guy Banner are the co-owners and farmers of Grand Prismatic Seed. They are committed to growing high quality open pollinated seeds that can withstand the stresses associated with high desert crop production. One area they are focused on is natural dyes. You can find more information about the company, their practices, and their dye plant seeds on their website.
- Thyme Garden Herb Co.: This family-owned farm on the Oregon coast uses sustainable practices, free of pesticides, herbicides, and commercial fertilizers to grow their plants and seeds. They harvest the herbs and seeds by hand as they ripen to their fullest in an attempt to provide the seeds that have the best possible chance to germinate. Their specialty is herbs, and in the plant world, dye plants and herbs often overlap (Sulphur Cosmos is just one example of that overlap).
- Craig Wilkinson: Fibershed member who specializes in indigo and offers seeds.
- Graham Keegan: Seeds and resources available on natural dyeing, especially with indigo.
Feeling Impatient To Start Dyeing?
As exciting as it is to plan a dye garden, sometimes it can feel like the actual dyeing part just too far into the future. If you’re feeling eager to start dyeing now, start saving your avocado pits in a bag in the freezer. You can also start saving the papery brown or yellow onion skins you remove from your onions before cooking them. As long as they are dry, you don’t need to freeze those. We will talk more in later posts about how to use these materials to add color to wool or silk.