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Growing a Dye Garden


Growing a Dye Garden

Elizabeth McTear

One of the major reasons we purchased our house last year in Germantown, Philadelphia was for the large backyard. Both my husband and I are gardeners, and for years all we could grow in our shaded patch at our old apartment were decorative plants.  But the amount of land we now own, with south-facing full sun exposure, means big new plans for our green thumbs. 

As it stands, our yard is large enough to accommodate a patio, a large veggie and herb garden, and a large dye garden for me. Additionally we will have a fire pit with a second seating area, for summer nights with beers and stargazing, which is a rarity living in a big city. However, my first objective this year was to start seedlings for plants appropriate for dyeing but not necessarily readily available at a plant center or nursery. I sourced seeds from various reputable sites: Strictly Medicinal SeedsSeed Savers ExchangeThe Woolery, and Companion Plants.  I set up an indoor growing center  and started planting. 

That is, after doing a large amount of research and planning. 

A couple books I found to be especially helpful in my quest were Rita Buchanan's A Weaver's Garden and Betty E.M. Jacobs' Growing Herbs and Plants for Dyeing

The plants I have growing in the garden thus far are:

  • safflower
  • yarrow
  • hopi black sunflower (pictured above, left)
  • marigold
  • calendula
  • indigo (pictured below, left)
  • madder
  • dyer's chamomile
  • hollyhock
  • dyer's woodruff
  • woad (pictured below, right)
  • borage (pictured below, center)
  • bronze fennel
  • hopi red dye (pictured above, right)
  • joe pye weed
  • coreopsis
  • cosmos
  • purple basil
  • wormwood

Some things have grown more vigorously than others, some have been snacked on by enterprising groundhogs and raccoons, and others have had a stunted start, though that could be due to the later spring chills and heavy rains this year. I've taken to generously sprinkling cayenne pepper on the vulnerable plants and it has helped discourage hungry critters.  I've found that having rounds of seedlings going is key, as things will be lost, but also the volume I'll have to harvest will require regular renewal of plants. And while I don't plan on dyeing exclusively from the garden (it's big, but it's not a several fields big and I'm not a full time farmer), I'm aiming for this to be a source of education and inspiration, which it already has become. 

A goal of mine is to open the garden up for workshops, to teach curious artists how to unlock and enjoy the secrets that seemingly mundane plants hold for us if we employ enough expertise and patience.