Grackle & Sun

A Hope-filled Plan: Dye Garden

For all the successes that I’ve had with welcoming volunteers into our yard, our raised bed gardens have failed miserably the last couple years.  In all fairness, the weather in St. Louis is shit for most of the “growing season”.  Last summer we had record droughts, a truly inhumane number of days over 100F, and record lows for the Mississippi river (which are still in effect).  I planted radishes in the beginning of June that finally germinated a month later and didn’t grow an inch until mid-September.  The harvest, if I’d picked it, would have come in October.  I kid you not.  Radishes typically go from seed to harvest in roughly a month.  That should tell you how bad it was.

So this year, I’m doing something totally different.  I’m planning a dye garden instead.  Who needs food, anyway?  It’s kind of surprising how few places have a fully stocked catalog of dye plants.  I ended up ordering seeds from 2 different places—The Woolery and Horizon Herbs.  After I’d already ordered from the other two, I found this shop.  Harold has a great assortment of seeds!  I look forward to ordering from this shop in the future.

Here’s what I got:

  1. Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica)
  2. Madder (Rubia tinctorum)
  3. Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca)
  4. Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
  5. Our Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum)
  6. Gipsywort (Lycopus europaeus)
  7. Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)
  8. Dyer’s Woodruff (Asperula tinctoria)
  9. Woad (Isatis tinctoria)
  10. Weld (Reseda luteola)

I’m hoping to add black hollyhock, coreopsis, and blue false indigo to the list, as well.  To my knowledge, none of the above plants are native to my region, although many have been naturalized.  However, coreopsis (coreopsis tinctoria) and false indigo (baptisia australis) are. There is a variety of nettle native to North America, but I didn’t find it offered at either of the seed companies I used.  My hope is to eventually have a dyer’s garden that is at least in part native varieties.  I already have pokeweed, goldenrod, and elderberry growing in my yard, and I’m trying to figure out what else I can grow.  The majority of native dye plants from this region (that I know of) are trees.  Not the easiest thing to toss into an urban garden.  But I think this will be a good start.  I kind of missed the boat for planting native seeds this year—most need a good period of wet/cold to germinate, and the recommended time to plant is in December or the very beginning of January.  I am hoping to add a number of native varieties this spring, though, by ordering actual plants  The very excellent (and friendly) Missouri Wildflowers Nursery sells both seed and plants.  My wish list is loooooooooong.  Lol.

Now, where to put it all…

Do any of you have dyer’s gardens?  What do you grow?  Any growing tips?  I’d love to hear!

Live happy, dye happy!  And get dirty!

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42 thoughts on “A Hope-filled Plan: Dye Garden

  1. Good luck! I look forward to seeing what you come up with. I don’t have any garden yet, but will be planting a “native” garden this year and am keeping my fingers crossed :)

  2. I have two osage orange trees, but they are only 6 foot saplings. There are 2 Nancy’s at The Woolery, and I am good friends with the manager Nancy, not the owner Nancy. Hope they right by you.

    • Luckily, i have free access to many native plants and trees on my parents’ farm. I ordered the seeds on Saturday, and I alreadt got confirmation from the Woolery that they have shipped. So far so good…

  3. Go girl, I actually work for a seed company here in Oz… non hybrid open pollinated vegetables,herbs and flowers…you could try fennel , chamomile or marigolds. We are having record heat at the moment so I can sympathize with you, it is very frustrating when the weather goes a rye …….

    • That’s so cool! The job, that is, not the record heat. The drought/heat was so bad last summer that farms were having to sell off entire herds of cattle and horses, because not only was there no grass, but no hay either. Crazy. And scary.

  4. One thing you can do, which I did last year, is pick up trays of marigolds at a nursery at the beginning of the season. They usually will force an early bloom. Then pick off all of the flowers. They will just keep producing blooms all season. We went out every few weeks, picked the heads and put them in ziploc bags in the freezer until I was ready to dye with them. I still have alot left from last year. And marigold exhausts more quickly than golden rod, gives a wider range of color (orangey and mustard tones) and will blend with other colors to make beautiful greens and oranges. We tried to start indigo inside last year, but it needs a long hot summer, which we just don’t get in the Northeast.

    St. Louis got hit really hard last year on the weather front – actually for the past few years. I will be thinking of you as I watch the Weather Channel. Weld is a weed, as are alot of dye plants, which make them hardier than alot of other plants. It will go well. It is your destiny so it has to.

    • Thank you. I’m going to remember that it’s my destiny when I’m turning up this rocky Missouri clay by hand. :D
      The marigolds are a good idea. They are one of my favorites from when I was a kid. My mom has the greenest thumb ever, and she always has the hugest marigolds. Mine always stay small. Maybe I need to talk to them more.

      • They were among my Gram’s favorites too. One of my memories is collecting the seeds from the flowers in the fall, putting them into envelopes and then planting those seeds in the spring for the next year’s flowers. The family is not fond of the smell when I have them going in the dye pots in the kitchen, but I kinda like the smell – reminds me of being little with Gram.
        Oh, and the smaller heads are preferable for this manner of collection as it does not take as long for them to form – you will get more flower heads in the long run if you use the smaller flowers.

  5. My neighbor is a dyer and spinner, she has grown marigolds and indigo and used them for her yarn. I love watching when she dyes with the indigo, it’s magical! Happy gardening. :)

  6. I have also just convinced myself that since we are having yet another mild winter, it would be useless to try to grow anything edible. The bugs and heat destroyed everything I planted last year. Even the black walnut that I use for dye produced only a handful of nuts. It is all very worrisome. Good luck on your crop. I will be looking forward to watching its progress.

    • That happened to us last year, too! Super mild winter + an uncharacteristic real spring with rain = pest problems the likes of which I’d never seen before. Aphids took out my goldflame honeysuckle, and I had to cut every blossom off of it by hand. Downy mildew took out both of my ninebarks—the coppertina and the diabolo. They never recovered, and without functioning leaves, died instantly with the 100 degree weather. It was nuts. Here’s wishing for a good growing season this year!

  7. loulouandlillybean on said:

    This is such a good idea! I’m going to see if the gardener will let me have a little spot in his garden for some marigolds and indigo this year.

  8. Oh yeah, time to order seeds! Last time I cultivated in trays in my small greenhouse, it’s busted now so I have no idea what I can do. I mean the new flowerbed already tilled and everything! You’ll love the coreopsis, it can give you a crazy dark orange. And keeps well both frozen and dried like the Dyer’s Chamomile. (I have so many of the latter that I’m considering offering them up for sale – just keep picking and drying, they come back again and again). That way you have a bigger window for when you can dye. I can’t believe you are sowing nettles!!! Are you aware they will take over the place? They have these strong roots that move underground and not even poison will get them. I suggest getting a couple of big tubs to grow them in…

    Off to order seeds – and find some plastic to cover that greenhouse….

    • I LOVE seed ordering time. I’m planning on starting these in little pots, but even though I have a south-facing sunroom, all the seedlings get so leggy. So, I might direct sow. Not sure yet. Typically, our growing season here is that it’s cold through February, March is too wet to work the ground, April will tease you with 80-90 degree days and then snow again, and then BAM! It’s May and it’s summer. Period. So frustrating. It’s really hard on seedlings, and I never know when to plant them. Actually, the most success I’ve ever had growing seeds—-I planted them all out into little starter peat pots, but kept them outside. That way they got the full sun, but I was able to bring them in if it got too cold, and put a cover over them when it got too hot. They were all perennials, so I planted them out later in the season when they were big enough to handle it on their own.

      Nettles! They grow wild here in the woods and such, but not up where I live in the city. And they’re good for you. I’m excited about making nettle tea as much as nettle dye. I’m going to plant them in a corner that I don’t mind if they take over. Or maybe a bit tub. It’ll be ok. ;)

      • Just don’t count on them staying in that corner. I live in the country. Ask me how I know… ;)

      • Oh, and make sure that neighbour of yours doesn’t spot them!

      • Yes. I’m planning for everything I plant to be on the opposite side of the yard from that neighbor. (Grumble, grumble)

      • Have you tried using a cold frame? It won’t help when it is really cold, but might help in the in-between season when the seedlings are already quite large but it’s not quite warm enough to keep them outside on their own. You can either build one from recycled materials, or you can buy plastic ones pretty cheaply too.

        And talking about nettles, they’re nice in savoury pancakes too (although thinking about it pancakes are not really very paleolithic… ).

      • I actually have some old storm windows saved for making cold frames. Another project on the list… But your’re right, that would be the best solution.

  9. I love your plans! I too have been ordering seeds, will write a blog post about them soon. Like Pia I definitely recommend coreopsis, it’s pretty and you get great strong colours, a good range of oranges and yellows.

    The most exciting new thing I will try this year is Japanese indigo (not sure if this is the same as your false indigo?). It is not fully hardy, so I will need to keep it warm until May at least, but I am hoping it’ll work out.

    • I can’t wait to hear about your plans, too! Japanese indigo is the “true” indigo. The plant that I’m talking about is called false indigo, because it’s a totally different plant that also makes blue dye. It is a native plant to North America, and is what the settlers used in lieu of Japanese indigo. I don’t think the dye is quite as strong, but someone on one of the natural dyeing forums on Ravelry recently sent a link to the group to a copy of a public domain book called Katherine Pettit Book of Vegetable Dyes. It is an absolute treasure. She lived in the late 1800’s–early 1900’s, and so the book tells of what they knew of dyeing at that time. But, she has a recipe for dyeing with false indigo, because she was from Kentucky, and it would have been what they used. That is what inspired me to order the native seeds over the Japanese indigo. I’m sure I’ll add the latter soon, but I wanted to give this a try first.

  10. @Heidi – I do have a cold frame but it will only hold a fraction of my seeds, like, one type! As well as being too far from the house, I simply forget to water it…

  11. dyefeltsool on said:

    That’s so exciting. I can’t wait to see how it turns out!
    I really enjoy using Purple Sandcherry, but that is a bush so it depends on the size of your garden. I’ve had great results with irises too, the purple ones go blue/green with alum {see:}
    Coral bells make lovely leaf impressions too.
    Hmmmmm…trying to think what I would add to my dye garden. We just moved to a new place so I don’t have any sort of garden just yet, but that’s a great idea to take a bit of the yard and turn it into one.

    • I’d not heard of sandcherry before. Will have to look that up. There are some native varieties of iris that I would love to grow, but unfortunately, they are water-loving plants. Until I figure out how to set up a rain garden, I’ll have to find some deeply coloured regular iris to plant. Did you use bearded or Siberian? I’m curious, because the leaves of the Siberian iris when dried make beautiful material for weaving baskets. Not that I need another craft in my life, lol. But I kind of love natural basketweaving…

      • dyefeltsool on said:

        Oooo, I didn’t know about the basket weaving. I wish I had enough time to perfect all the amazing handicrafts there are!
        I’m not sure what the iris was I used – it was a from-Mummy’s-garden iris :) But I google searched pictures and I think it’s a purple bearded iris {see:} It looks like that one.
        Now I’ll have to figure out if I can find the time for basket weaving and therefor splurg on some Siberian Irises :)

  12. Sympathies on the heat and drought front. My new zealand flax died last week! Apparently 46C is too much for it… best wishes with your dye garden!

  13. Monique on said:

    Hello everyone,
    Interesting comments. I am curious about the Madder seeds. Ritcher’s Herbs in Canada told me several years ago that they no longer carry Madder seeds because the seeds do not germinate very well and it is best to start Madder from cuttings. I heard the same thing from a botanist here in New Mexico. It is a complicated process to get seeds to germinate.
    My experience was: I seeded 10 of about 3 to 4 seeds. Only one pot came up. Once in the ground, it prospered very well. I had to wait 3 years for the roots to be large enough to harvest.
    The tiny roots, I replanted and are now doing fine.

  14. Monique on said:

    Please do ask around. You may also e mail Ritcher’s Herb in Canada. Even if the seeds come up, it takes at least 3 years for the roots to produce the dye.

    If the seeds take, once the seedling is in the ground, it is easy to grow.
    Good luck.

    • Well, the consensus is that they are hard to germinate, often taking upwards of a month—if they come up at all. It is well-known, however, that they have to grow for at least 3 years for the dye to be ready to harvest from the roots. It will be the plant spirit that teaches me patience, lol.

  15. Monique on said:

    as you wait for the plant spirit to work, you could buy the plant extract or roots.

  16. Monique on said:

    Hello again,
    I do not want to bust your happy bubble but do you know that Woad will kill close vegetation growing next to it. It takes close to two years after woad has been removed before anything grows again in that spot. You may want to check with the extension office in your area.
    It produces a gorgeous blue but again, dyeing with woad can be tricky.
    Good luck.

  17. I grew up in St. Louis, and the soil was so much clay!!! My mom nurtured her roses and always had good results but she worked really really hard at it. Woad is an awesome dye but as Monique points out it is an invasive pest. Maybe you can harvest some from the wild? I’m not sure if it’s a problem in Missouri yet…
    I have been thinking about nettles lately also, but I’m interested in harvesting it to try and spin it and turn it into cloth of some kind.
    Good luck with the garden!!!

    • Thanks! The plan for the woad is to put it into a bricked garden bed to help keep it put. I thought that I’d have seed planted out this month already, but it’s stayed really cold this year. I can only hope that has helped to kill off some of the nasties we had to contend with last year because we didn’t have a real winter. Never know in Missouri, though, do you?

  18. If you are going to plant stinging nettles, may I suggest that you plant them in a large pot. The roots branch out and send up suckers and it doesn’t take long before they can take over a large area. I have a field full of it. Good luck though, you might try the seed savers exchange also.

  19. I have fennel, chamomile and lavender planted in pot right now. I planted them a week ago and the Chamomile has crazy sprouts already. They’ll need a bigger pot soon. I normally plant directly in the ground but we’ll be moving this summer so I want to be able to take everything with me. (I’ll have to uproot some of my mint plants too…) I’m also planning to plant onions today.

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