A Dye Garden ~ Planting a Rainbow

Updated: May 10

This post does contain links to resources I found helpful while planning my dye garden, one of which is an affiliate link. Should you make a purchase via this link I will get a kick back at no extra cost to you. It contains NO adds. However if you want to support my work directly, feel free to fuel me with a kofi.


Warning: before planting any seeds or starts I strongly encourage you to research noxious weeds in your area. For more information about this and to find tools to assist you in that research, see my post on Preventing an Invasion.


Wanna sort this post by color? Click the color listed to take you to that section.

Red

Orange

Yellow

Green

Blue

Purple


I love rainbow, so of COURSE when planning who I will plant in my dye garden, I look for plants that can yield a full rainbow of color. As a maker, color is the most obvious place for me to start and organize an undertaking such as a garden, but there are other things to consider; particularly grow conditions (I do live in a desert) and space. I organized this post in rainbow order, according to the colors I want to attempt to draw out of each plant - however dying fiber is not an undertaking we have a ton of control over and many plants yield a wide range of colors. I include more info about a plant under the color I hope to work with, but also list them again with out a description under the other potential colors they may give. They will be linked to their description.


A surprising amount of plant matter is needed to dye fiber. While some plants are willing to be dried or frozen and still yield their color, others must be worked with fresh. This info impacts how many of a given plant we must grow. Obviously if a plant must be used fresh we can't collect them over time and will need more garden space for that plant. I organized garden space based on each plant's yield and dye process.


Another thing to consider as I aim for one color or another with a plant is what mordants, if any need to be used. Mordant is a verb, a noun or an adjective and deserves its whole own blog post. I have the beginning of it hanging out in my drafts as I type this. (Now would be a great time to suggest you tap that Sign Up/Subscribe button at the top right of this page so you don't miss it when I publish.) In the mean time, if the term is new to you, it has to do with how we treat fiber so that it will be color fast. Different mordants will produce different colors from the plant.


One last interesting thing before we go on: notice how many of these planties have "tinctorum" or "tincotoria" in their Latin names. If you see a plant with either of these in their Latin name, chances are they have been used historically as dye plants.


Red:

Madder Root (Rubia tinctorum): Madder was my go to for red before I did any research because I have worked with preprocessed powder of madder root to dye yarn before and the color is RED, a glorious real red and also coral, salmon, brick reds and burnt oranges. Madder will require quite a bit of space all to herself (I plant to create 3 beds; each just over 2 ft square with their own madder plant). She needs this space because she must grow for two years before we can begin to harvest the root and once we do, we want to be able to find them! We also don't want to disturb them as we amend the soil or plant annuals next year. Madder Root must be dug up after the plant goes to rest in the fall and can be used fresh or dried for later use.

Plants I intend to grow: 2-4

Garden space needed: 2ft square per plant

Soil: deep, fertile, well-drained (amend with limestone if soil is acidic)

Light: full sun

Start indoors, 3 weeks to germinate

Mordant: Alum

Use the roots 2 years (or more) after first planting fresh or dry.


Dyer's Coreopsis (Creopsis tinctoria or sometimes listed as Calliopsis tinctoria)

Mordant: Alum


Orange:

Dalia: I will not be growing many dalias, but I hope to play in a coworker's garden a ton and she has a veritable DALIA FARM! Dalia flowers are used to dye fiber and need to be gathered just past their prime. They can be dried or frozen for later use. I have read that the flowers from 4-8 plants (depending on size) can dye 4oz of wool, so storing them over time will be key. There is a wide variety of flower colors ranging from reds and purples through pinks into yellows and oranges. However, all the flowers tend to offer similar color to fiber - a range of sunset oranges on wool (but yellow on silk and cotton). There is no need to separate the flowers by color. If you (or future Sönna) wishes to grow Dalia, she will need lots of sun, but have some shade in the afternoons if you live somewhere hot. She likes well drained, fertile soil and regular watering. She can be started from seed six weeks before frost, but the biggest and fullest flowers for dying will come from tuber starts from a friend or a local nursery. Also, we can dig up Dalia's tubers in the fall before the frost, shake off the soil and hang them to dry. After they are dry we can store them in a paper bag somewhere cool and dry and replant them next year.

Plants I intend to grow: 1 or 2 just for fun

Garden space needed: 1-4ft square per plant (depending on how we choose to culitvate them)

Soil: deep, fertile, well-drained (amend with limestone if soil is acidic)

Light: full sun, but shade in the afternoon if its hot out

Start indoors or grow from tubers

Mordant: Alum

Use fresh or dried flowers


Dyer's Coreopsis (Creopsis tinctoria or sometimes listed as Calliopsis tinctoria): Dyer's coreopsis is a lovely little annual flower that will happily grow two plants in a square foot. Pinterest is full of beautiful orange fabric swatches dyed with Dyer's Coriopsis. I'm gonna try for some reds, but hope to get my oranges with alum as a mordant. The entire plant top can be used, leaves, stems and flowers, however the plant matter, including flowers can be dried and stored for later. Dyer's coreopsis is one of those plants that give more flowers the more you take. So I plant to continue to harvest this one all summer.

Plants I intend to grow: 12-15

Garden space needed: 2 plants per sq foot.

Soil: fertile, well-drained - gonna need lots of water here to stop it from going to seed too soon.

Light: full sun

Direct sow after danger of frost is past

Mordant: Alum

Use fresh or dried flowers


Yellow:

Marigold (Tagetes erecta, T. patula, and hybrids)

So... I love Marigold. Dye garden or no, I would be planting them everywhere. They are a deterrent to pests who wish to cause trouble in the garden and the witch in me feels that power must extend energetically so I like to have them growing all about my house. They are bright and honor the sun, giving flowers and self seeding freely all summer. They love full sun but need a good watering regularly during dry spells. Marigold flowers lend their color as a beautiful bright to soft yellow with a simple alum mordant. The leaves without flowers however will offer a softer yellow with an alum or tin mordant and a lovely sage green with a coper or chrome dip.

Plants I intend to grow: as many as I can - whose counting? They will be scattered about everywhere.

Garden space needed: 1sq foot per plant (but I have often crammed them in planters with others much closer than that and they were perfectly happy.

Soil: fertile, well-drained

Light: full sun

Direct sow after danger of frost is past, start indoors 6-8 weeks before last frost or purchase starts.

Mordant: Alum


Yarrow (Achillea millefolium & hybrids)

Obviously, considering that I named my third child after amazing plant, I love yarrow. From a medicinal and magical perspective it is a very powerful plant. From a dyer's perspective it it isn't quite as versatile - BUT I DON'T CARE A WHIP! I must grow it in my garden and it offers a gentle yellow to fiber that belongs in every rainbow. It loves full sun but will grow happily in partial shade. I have a neighbor offering me transplants, so we shall see how Yarrow does this year. I may need to simply care for her and let her recover after the traveling, rather than harvest. However, yarrow grows abundantly here in Methow Valley and I may forage for a dye bath's worth in the late summer. The flowers need to be used fresh, and the tops of 12 plants are needed to dye 4 oz of wool (and I wouldn't want to take the ENTIRE TOP of each plant, this means the tops of 24-32 plants are needed for my one skein of yarn).

Plants I intend to grow: 3-5 right now, but they wont be in the garden beds

Garden space needed: 3ft square per plant (according to the books, but yarrow can hold its own along the side of the road with all the wild grasses so I think she will be fine with less space)

Soil: fertile, well-drained (again - according to the books, but given the very not fertile places I've seen her thrive, I think well drained is more important)

Light: full sun, or partial shade

Start indoors 8 weeks before last frost, purchase starts or transplant from a neighbor.

Mordant: alum, tin, copper or chrome


Weld (Reseda luteola)

The yellow Weld gives to fiber is especially color fast, bright and generally happy. I started two plants indoors quite a long time ago and they are have not grown beyond their two little leaves, so I hope what I was reading about direct sowing them is gonna work out for me. This is all a grand experiment after all! The whole plant can be used, but more color is concentrated in the flowering seed stocks. Weld sounds like a picky and stubborn little guy. He doesn't like to be transplanted at all, is known to try and grow everywhere but the garden bed we set aside for him, will not flower the first year unless he up and decides to (which is known to happen)! I'm not quite sure how this will go, and I'm happy I have lots of other yellow options, but I'm gonna at least get to know Weld and perhaps make a dye bath or two next summer. For reference, incase future Sönna gets along well with Weld and does want to dye with him, he can be dried and used later and 12 rosettes or 6 seed stocks can dye 4 oz of wool.

Plants I intend to grow: 12

Garden space needed: 2 plants per sq foot

Soil: fertile, well-drained - water deeply once a week during hot dry spells.

Light: full sun, or partial shade

Direct sow - this little guy does not like to be transplanted but if you must be cautious of his tap root.

Mordant: alum, tin, copper or chrome


Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida)

Leaves and stems, no flowers

mordant: alum on wool


Green

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida)

Black-eyed Susan grows like wild in Methow Valley. They take over garden beds and insist on lending their bright faces to every yard. I will not be placing them in a garden bed for just this reason but will happily accept their presence along my fence. I will be drying the flowers for later use. Flowers from about 12 plants can lend an earthy olive green to 4 oz of wool, so repeated harvesting and drying is helpful. I may also forage for them given that they are so abundant where I live. Unlike Yarrow, the more flowers we harvest from Black-eyed Susan, the more she makes, so really, the flowers from 12 plants are all we need to dye a skein of yarn. You will find I listed her under yellow and that is because while the flowers give us an olive green, the leaves and stems will give a bright yellow. Keep them separate when harvesting.

Plants I intend to grow: 3-5 right now, but they wont be in the garden beds

Garden space needed: 4ft square per plant (according to the books, but like Yarrow, I see her growing wild and happy all crammed in with grasses and other plants)

Soil: average soil, but water well during dry spells to prevent drooping.

Light: full sun

Best to propagate by division or purchase from a nursery, but it will self seed in years following.

Mordant: alum, copper, or chrome


Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

I COULD use the bright happy full blooming tops of 12 sunflowers to dye 4 oz of wool, but I probably wont. I am not sure I could bring myself to cut their heads off. But I'm planting them for the supposed purpose of dying yarn green. With tin or copper as a mordant the results are often a bright green and its tempting to try. The flowers must be used fresh.

Plants I intend to grow: 12 or so

Garden space needed: 2-4 ft square per plant

Soil: average soil, but water well during dry spells to prevent drooping.

Light: full sun

Direct sow, 1 in deep after last frost

Mordant: alum, copper, or tin (alum with a copper dip can be especially bright green)


I plan to try for green by dying my fiber yellow first and then doing a dip in an indigo bath. This has worked quite nicely for me in the past.


Blue

Indigo (Indigofera suffruticosa)

I have had the opportunity to dye with indigo vats made from fresh leaves and powdered concentrates and every time was magical. MAGICAL. I will be sure to make a video of the moments when we pull the fiber from the bath and it is a dull yellow and then as it oxidizes, transforms to a deep stunning blue. The idea of getting to participate in that process again is quite exciting. I have never grown indigo myself, so this will be a huge learning process. The leaves must be used fresh and up to 1/3 of the leaves can be taken from a blooming plant every 2 weeks. This means that I must grow enough to dye with at each harvest. I will need the leaves of 2-4 plants to dye 4 oz of wool. I hope to also dye some fabric and do some sewing over the winter.

Plants I intend to grow: 12

Garden space needed: 1 ft square per plant

Soil: fertile, well drained soil with regular watering

Light: full sun

Start indoors after an over night soak

Mordant: no mordant is needed


Purple

Hopi Black Sunflower, Tceqa' Qu' Si (Helianthus annuus macrocarpus)

This particular sunflower has been used by Hopi People to create deep purples, blacks and blues. The basket makers and fiber artists are very protective of their methods and most of us playing about with this happy flower's seeds tend to get soft lilac purple and grays. I love that I don't have to lob off a sunflower's head to dye with Black Hopi Sunflower because it is the seeds that we use. If I had my way I would surround our yard with sunflowers.

Plants I intend to grow: 12-15

Garden space needed: 2-4 ft square per plant

Soil: fertile, well drained soil with regular watering

Light: full sun

Direct sow, 1 in deep

Mordant: alum


Have you grown a dye garden? Do you have suggestions for me to add to my list? Let me know in the comments!

I found this book to be especially helpful to me as I planned a dye garden. I will be sharing the resources including websites, books and blogs, that I find myself returning to as I explore gardening in my own garden for the first time. Much of what I find online is saved to my Pinterest board, Dye Life. Click the image below to check it out and follow me on Pinterest to see what else I find in the future.

Happy Making Maker Friends!

~Sönna







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