How to Plan A Natural Dye Garden

9 February 2022

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The first few weeks of January are when I dig into planning my dye garden. The December holidays have passed; here, in the northern hemisphere, the days are slowly growing longer; and it’s when many seed companies release their new seeds catalogues for the year. I try to get my seed order in as soon as possible, so I can get my seeds started as early as I can. I start them in flats indoors and then move them outside as the weather grows warmer and the days grow longer. I always start many more plants than I will need for my own garden so that I can share them with friends and folks in the natural dye community.

I live in a city where I don’t have a lot of growing space, and my priority is growing dye plants, so my garden is almost exclusively made up of natural dye plants. I also live on a busy street and the exhaust fumes and brake dust are not great for growing plants meant for eating. This is a something to consider if you’re new to gardening and you live in a high-traffic area. If you’re unsure of the health of the soil you’re starting with, replace it with brought-in soil. The land I’ve been gardening is beside an old dry cleaning business, so I brought in new soil to avoid contamination.

image description: a lined index card, with handwritten notes for a knitting pattern

Last summer, ready to harvest.

This year’s garden is going to focus on a variety of colours.

My goal is to be able to dye a wheel of colours from my own garden, and I have been able to do this for the past few years. Using mordants and modifiers in the dye process helps me to develop an even wider range of colours. I usually dye twice as much yarn or fabric as I want in each colour and then, after the dyeing process, I modify half of the yarn or fabric with an iron bath to make the colour darker.

I already have some perennials in my garden, but this year I’ve chosen seeds from a variety of plants to fill out the space with colour.

Caitlin’s favourite seed suppliers

Salt Spring Seeds

Grand Prismatic Seeds

The perennials that I am currently growing are:

  • Madder (Rubia tinctorum). Mine are about six years old, mature enough that I can harvest a portion of their roots for dyes. Madder roots produce a turkey red or orange colour and are stunning. They take between three and five years to grow before you can start harvesting their roots for dye but it is well worth the wait. If you are a renter, and don’t want to have them directly in the ground, you can grow them in pots like I do.
  • Dyer’s Chamomile (Cota tinctoria). These plants will continue to force out blooms until November or December as you deadhead them, and they produce a buttery yellow colour that can be shifted to a lovely olive green with a bit of iron modifier.
  • Weld (Reseda luteola). The clear yellow colour from weld leaves is one of my favorites and can be shifted into a bright green with a dip of indigo or into a bold orange if overdyed with madder. It likes alkaline soil so be sure to add a bit of chalk or lime to your soil if your soil is acidic.
image description: a basket containing freshly-picked flowers and blooms

Some of the 2021 harvest.

image description: a small garden int he middle of a city sidewalk

The epitome of an urban garden, early in the season.

This year’s annuals will round out my colours and allow me to create a wide range of hues. This year I’m planting:

  • Japanese Indigo (Persicaria tinctoria). This is my go-to for growing blue dye. This type of indigo grows well here in Vancouver, the leaves are easy to process into dye, and doesn’t take up too much space in the garden.
  • Dyer’s coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria). Last year my crop was absolutely massive. These flowers dye a range of colours from coral to deep orange and are lovely when used for the ecoprint method. You get really crisp flower shapes.
  • Tango Cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus). The flowers of this plant, orange beauties, are delicate and must be harvested carefully, but the bees seem to favor them, and I want to make the bees happy! They also dye a fabulous pumpkin orange colour that I love.
  • Marigolds. Marigolds are a sunny addition to your garden and are great at repelling certain pests. They are a flower that likes to be deadheaded. When you remove blooms that are just past full, the plant will force out new growth and this process continues well into the autumn. The flowers dye a sunny orange/yellow that can be modified into an olive green with an iron modifier.
image description: ecoprinted fabric, orange and brown flowers on white fabric

An eco print with last year’s crop of dyer’s coreopsis.

image description: a close-up view of yellow flowers, a city street visible in the background

Dyer’s chamomile.

image description: a woman, a basket on her arm, stands in front of a small urban garden

Full bloom and ready for harvest.

My seeds should arrive in the next few weeks, and I will get them started a few weeks after that. If this is your first year starting a natural dye garden, start small with just a few plants and see how it goes for you. I encourage you to take notes, and if you’re planning your natural dye garden ask yourself:

  • Am I trying to grow a lot of one colour or am I trying to get a variety of colours?
  • Do I want to have annuals or perennials?
  • What plants will grow best in the region where I live?
  • Is the plant listed as an invasive species in my region? If yes, please don’t grow it! Woad is an invasive where I live, so I don’t grow this one.

Your answers to these questions will help you to grow a successful dye garden.

Happy gardening!

Resources

Caitlin’s online class through the School of Sweet Georgia (affiliate link)

Maiwa, Caitlin’s preferred supplier of prepared natural dyes and Maiwa’s guide to working with natural dyes

Fibreshed – a US-based non-profit organization that develops equity-focused regional and land regenerating natural fiber and dye systems. 

Canada’s Plant Hardiness Guide – a Canadian government resource for growing across the multiple climates

A deep dive into invasive plant species, with regional information. 

Books

The Modern Natural Dyer by Kristine Vejar

Harvesting Color by Rebecca Burgess

Wild Color by Jenny Dean

All images credit Caitlin ffrench

Copyright © Caitlin ffrench except as indicated.
Caitlin ffrench headshot

About Caitlin ffrench

Caitlin ffrench is an artist living in East Vancouver. She works with wildcrafted pigments from the land bases she visits and she uses string to make all sorts of magical things.

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