The Dye Plant Garden
Our dye garden is on an allotment plot in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, UK (hardiness zone 8, 52° N, 74m elevation, chalk soil). The site is in a sheltered setting with a sunny aspect. We specialise in three of the medieval grand teint prized for strong, fast primary colours: madder, weld and woad. These give a wide palette with different mordants, acid and alkali modifiers and overdyeing. We also grow Japanese indigo for increased yield, dyer’s broom which is of similar fastness to weld and two ‘lesser’ yellows: dyer’s chamomile and dyer’s coreopsis.
We recommend that beginners grow dye plants in trays or modules. If given plenty of light, water and protection from pests they will yield tens, if not hundreds, of seedlings. Sowing directly into the soil is risky with the small number of seeds in a typical commercial packet. Slugs find the newly germinated seedlings very tasty! However, not all dye plants respond well to transplanting. Weld is very sensitive to root damage and after planting out the leaves often turn brownish and die. Once you have plenty of your own saved seed it’s fine to sow woad and weld directly in prepared beds; dense sowing will beat the slugs and snails.
If you can tolerate plants in inconvenient places, letting plants self-seed saves time and effort, especially for weld. To facilitate self-seeding, try to maintain some partially bare, not too dry and fairly undisturbed soil. As mulching suppresses self-seeding and encourages slugs, some hand weeding will be needed. Another reason to start by raising plants in trays is that it teaches familiarity with the dye plant seedlings at their earliest stages, when they look very much like weeds. Mulching can be used in mid-summer after cultivated seedlings are established and before the seed from mature plants is released. After several years, any digging will stimulate woad and weld germination. Weld is a pioneer plant and the seeds remain viable for a long time in the soil. Woad seed is shorter lived, though a vigorous self-seeder from one year to the next.
The garden is made up of six small interlocking beds accessed by mulched paths. To bring out the beauty of plants like madder, weld and woad we plant single species en masse. This not only looks good, but crowds out the weeds and keeps the soil shaded and moist. To complement the predominantly yellow flowers of the dye plants, we grow insect-friendly blue flowering plants with a range of heights and habits: forget-me-not, scabious, viper’s bugloss, borage and lavender Self-seeding aquilegia (pinks and purples) and feverfew (white) are easily moved around to fill gaps if required. Finally, so the weld isn’t the only tall plant, we also grow patches of goldenrod and elecampane. Japanese indigo’s attractive pink flowers provide a valuable late nectar crop for honeybees when planted en masse.
Weld and woad’s natural life cycle is to germinate in summer and autumn, develop a rosette of leaves for over-wintering, produce a flower-spike the following year and die after producing seeds. Woad blooms in May and weld in June/July. Woad only gives indigo in the rosette stage. Weld can be used for dyeing as a rosette, but it makes sense to wait for it to reach full size as the whole plant contains dye. Both plants are a challenge for the aesthetically minded gardener because of the dramatic change in habit from first to second year. Traditionally gardeners would grow biennials in out of the way beds or pots in the first year and carefully transplant into show beds in the autumn or following spring. One strategy to keep dye plant beds looking pretty in the first year is to interplant with a few bedding annuals. Where biennials self-seed it is possible to get first and second year plants growing attractively together.
Soil Type, Fertility and Crop Rotation
Our light, rather poor alkaline soil is not ideal for woad or Japanese indigo, which will not thrive unless the soil is very fertile. We avoid synthetic fertilisers, preferring to use animal manure and home-made compost. Indigo depletes the soil of nutrients very quickly and a second application of manure is needed after the first leaf cut of the season. By contrast, our soil suits the madder and weld very well but if your soil is acid, use an application of lime before planting. In our experience, Japanese indigo does not thrive on the same ground two years running, even with generous feeding. Weld and dyer’s chamomile do not require high nutrient levels so we rotate these with Japanese indigo and woad. Research has shown that weld produces less yellow pigment if the soil has high nitrogen levels (Hartl and Vogl, 2003).
How much of each dye plant to grow?
This depends on the amount of material you wish to dye, the pigment yield from each plant, your ability to store dried plant material and, very importantly, the amount of time you have for harvesting and processing. It’s surprisingly easy to over-plant. Japanese indigo and woad must be processed as soon as they are harvested. We struggle to take an early crop from the woad because it coincides with the honeybee swarming season. Japanese indigo is ready in August and September when many people are on holiday, busy looking after children or, in our case, extracting honey.
We aim for a mix of dye plants with different harvest times to spread the task over the growing season. Weld and dyer’s greenweed can be harvested in early summer. Weld can be easily dried and stored but takes up a lot of space, even when cut into small pieces. We store weld in thick paper cereal sacks or storage jars. We are relatively new to dyer’s greenweed and so far have only used it fresh. Woad can be cut in June/July if planted early and will re-grow. Japanese indigo is best just before flowering in August/ September. Dig madder root in October or later. Nearly all the plants can be harvested more than once and flowers of chamomile and coreopsis can be picked continuously from mid-summer to late autumn. Chamomile and coreopsis will need to be harvested several times before you can obtain enough flowers to dye a worthwhile amount of fibre. Except for the indigo-bearing plants, all our dye plants can be dried for storage so a vital piece of equipment is the herb drier.
Getting the best from your dye plants
Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria) – Blue – Grand Teint Quality
A tender annual waterside plant from China/Vietnam. Closely related to UK native common bistort.
Propagation: Seed is only viable for a year. Plant in heated seed trays from early April. Plant out in sunny position May/June. Grows from cuttings readily.
Critical factors: Needs a run of hot summer days to get going. Grows better in a greenhouse or polytunnel. Demands heavy applications of fertilizer and annual crop rotation. Water regularly (every day on hot summer days). Long growing season and mild autumn essential for plants to flower and set seed. Dies with first frost.
Tips: After stripping the leaves from the first cut, put the stems in buckets of water with a little liquid fertiliser. They will soon sprout new leaves for an extra harvest. To encourage the plant to flower and set seed earlier, grow some plants separately and treat them harshly (water sparingly and restrict fertiliser). To make seeds last longer dry them out with silica gel and freeze them. Harvest the plants before they flower as indigo yield drops thereafter.
Common madder (Rubia tinctorum) – Red – Grant Teint
Hardy perennial clambering plant from Asia. Closely related to native wild madder and the common weed cleavers/goosegrass.
Propagation: Difficult to grow from dried seed but easy to take root cuttings from the underground stems in spring.
Critical factors: Needs to grow for three or more years before roots reach a harvestable size. Very invasive. Aerial parts die back at the end of autumn. Hard to keep madder beds free of weeds.
Tips: Grow in deep containers (60cm minimum) or beds with barriers to control underground shoots. Fertilise and mulch over winter for weed suppression. Most of the best roots are usually near the surface. Grow in light sandy or compost rich soil.
Weld (Reseda luteola) – Acid Yellow – Grand Teint
Summer flowering, tall biennial wild flower native to UK (see right). Closely related to wild mignonette.
Propagation: Grow from seed in modules or allow to self-seed.
Critical factors: Very sensitive to root damage. Need to grow a lot of plants to get enough colour for a serious project.
Tips: Allow plant to self-seed. Grow en masse for visual impact. Do not over-fertilise. Best grown in soil previously used to grow woad or Japanese indigo.
Woad (Isatis tinctoria) – Blue – Grand Teint
Native spring flowering biennial in the cabbage family (see left).
Propagation: Easily grown from seed. Prolific self-seeder.
Critical factors: Indigo dye only obtained from rosette leaves. Needs heavy fertilising for best results. Some people dislike the smell of the leaves.
Tips: If flowering second year stems are cut before they seed, the plant can often be induced to return to its rosette stage when the leaf can be harvested again for indigo.
Dyer’s greenweed (Genista tinctoria) – Acid Yellow – Grand Teint Quality
Summer flowering perennial shrub. Broom family.
Propagation: Grow indoors from seed in spring in trays. Self-seeds easily. Ignore seed packet advice to sow in autumn.
Critical factors: Susceptible to aphid attack in late summer, though natural variability seems to leave some plants unaffected. Prefers damp acid soil but will grow in alkaline soils if cared for.
Tips: Best cut in spring but can be used throughout the growing season. Vigorous once established, when pruning will yield much dye material. Showy cultivars available commercially.
Dyer’s chamomile (Cota tinctoria) – Warm Yellow – Petit Teint
Weak perennial, i.e. it invariably dies in mid-summer of the second year.
Propagation: Grows very well from saved seed and transplants easily. Self-seeds to some extent.
Critical factors: Slugs and snails threaten the survival of young seedlings. Protect in spring/early summer with organically approved slug pellets applied sparingly.
Tips: Growing first and second year plants extends the harvest season from June to October. Seedlings can be kept in a tray all year without flowering and transplanted the following spring.
Dyer’s coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria) – Orange/Gold/Brown – Petit Teint Quality
A very pretty prairie annual from North America
Propagation: Grow from saved seed. Rarely self-seeds in UK.
Critical factors: Susceptible to slug and snail attack. The blighters have a habit of chewing through the main stem near the ground, often killing the plant. Use organically approved slug pellets sparingly.
Tips: Plant seedlings en masse (four inches apart) for a good display. Water regularly in hot weather and pick frequently to prolong flowering life.
We find it deeply satisfying to grow our own colour. It brings us into a very close relationship with the small patch of land we rent and the plants, insects and other animals that we share it with. Yes, we could buy quite a lot of plant dye pigment for the price of maintaining the allotment and it does take a substantial investment of time. However, using home-grown colour in a piece of textile art or functional clothing is without price.
Hartl, A. and Vogl, C. (2003) The Potential Use of Organically Grown Dye Plants in the Organic Textile Industry... Journal of Sustainable Agriculture,
Vol 23(2) pp.17-40.
Kings Seeds (formerly Suffolk Herbs) www.kingsseeds.com
Ruhlemann’s (very good range) http://tinyurl.com/ruhlemann-h...
British Wild Flower Plants www.wildflowers.uk
Saith Ffynnon Wildlife Plants www.7wells.co.uk/
About the Authors
Susan Dye has over ten years’ experience using plant dyes on yarn, fibre and fabric and offers one-to-one and small group tuition from her home. She enjoys spinning and felting but finds more scope for visual expression through fabric and stitch.
Ashley Walker is a horticultural therapist interested in the psychological benefits of working on a craft project from raw materials to finished product. He is also researching beekeeping as therapy.
This article appears in edition #261 of the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers.
The Journal is published on behalf of the Association of Guilds of Spinners Weavers and Dyers. It covers a wide range of textile subjects, including articles on historic textile techniques and cutting edge modern design.