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Traditional dye plants offer intriguing materials for the gardener who is also a spinner or weaver, or who just wants to experiment with the vast usefulness of the natural world. Nature has its own subtle palette of colors and this little garden represents a few of the dozens of plant dye possibilities, which even include some nuts, fruits, vegetables and other common foods.
And even if you’re more inclined to pick up some easy powdered dye at the corner store than to make a dye bath from the plants in your garden, you still might appreciate this connection to history and tradition. All of these plants are desirable garden plants.
A separate garden isn’t necessary to grow dye plants, as you can incorporate them into an existing flower border or bed (and you might unknowingly be growing dye plants already), but this small corner bed can give you ideas. Some, such as indigo and weld, are traditional dye plants, while others are more common garden plants and might surprise you. Growing the plants is easy, and if you have enough plant material to harvest, dyeing is a fun project and not difficult. But getting the most vivid colors from plant pigments and making more permanent dyes involves mordanting, or treating the fabric or yarn before you dye it with a metallic compound, such as alum.
Mordanting is a process that involves more than I can detail here, so do some research if you’ve never done any natural dyeing before. Different parts of the plants can yield different colors. The type of material you’re dyeing, the length of time you leave it in the dye bath and the type of mordant you use to pre-treat can also vary the colors, sometimes dramatically. Allow for some unpredictability; it’s part of the charm of natural dyes.
This garden is designed for a full-sun location with good drainage. Many of the plants are annuals, which also makes them suitable for interspersing in a vegetable bed. The indigo is perennial in climates with long, hot summers such as Texas, where I live, or it can be grown as an annual in other locations. Also on this list is a perennial hibiscus shrub, called a rose mallow, which is hardy as far north as about Zone 5. Plant this one in a permanent spot in the garden, where you can enjoy its beautiful, large flowers from year to year. Yarrow and black-eyed Susans are also perennial and can be grown from root divisions from neighbors or from another area of your garden.
Prepare this bed as you would any other, pulling weeds and adding compost and other amendments to improve drainage and correct any soil deficiencies. Most of the plants in this garden can be started from seed indoors and then planted out after the average frost-free date in your area. Keep the bed well weeded, mulched and consistently moist until plants get established, then back off on the water, allowing soil to dry slightly between waterings.
Harvest from the garden regularly through the season to gather enough material to fill a dye bath, and in the fall you can cut the entire tops off. Some plants are best used fresh, but flowers can be preserved in the freezer, and leaves, stems and tops can be dried, either by laying them out on screens or by hanging them in a dark place that gets good air circulation.
To find out more about the process of mordanting and other steps for natural dying, try these two excellent volumes by Rita Buchanan.
• A Dyer’s Garden (Interweave Press, 1995)
• A Weaver’s Garden (Dover Publications, 1999)
Kathleen Halloran is a contributing editor living and gardening in beautiful Austin, Texas.
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