Category: Garden

Start a dye garden

Set up a dye garden: Dye plants for gardens and containers

Ich gärtnere in einem Berliner Schrebergarten, mit begrenztem Platz, ohne Gewächshaus, und außer Färberpflanzen möchte ich auch Gemüse und Obst ernten. Diese Färberpflanzen hier sind meine “Grundausstattung”, und werden jedes Jahr wieder angebaut, auch wenn es eng ist… Ich färbe gerne mit ihnen, sie funktionieren in meinem Garten und bieten auch den Insekten was, denn der Garten ist ja nicht nur für mich.
When I first started, it was helpful for me to grow quite a few different plants to get to know them - but only a small number of each.
If you have even less space, only garden in pots and containers, or want to focus on just a few plants, this article will help you decide.

Die meisten Pflanzen ziehe ich in der Wohnung vor, anfangs nur auf den Fensterbrettern. Inzwischen habe ich noch ein Regal mit Pflanzenleuchten, weil der Platz sonst nicht für all das Gemüse und Färbepflanzen reicht. Noch ausführlicher über’s Vorziehen und die Ansprüche der Färberpflanzen habe ich im E-Book Farbe ernten geschrieben.

Plants to dye yellow

Weld (Reseda luteola)

Usually Weld is a biannual , forming only a basal leaf rosette in the first year - a rather unimpressive dye plant. But while many plants dye yellow, weld historically was considered special among these, in europe.
The dye it contains, luteolin, is more lightfast than many other yellow shades. The yellow is intense, sometimes almost neon-bright, with a tendency towards a green tinge. If you want to mitigate this, mix weld with other dye plants.
In the second year, the plant then forms a stem with many small flowers - traditionally it is harvested around that time. So you should reserve a spot for weld for two years.

Dyer's s chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria)

Dyer's chamomile is (supposedly) perennial, but I I find often the plants only bloom for one or two years. I had dyer's chamomile in the garden that kept coming back for four years - in between I cut it back hard when it wasn't looking good. But I also sow a few new seedlings every year, as not all of the plants are so long-lived.

I regularly pick the flower heads to harvest, and pruning back once a year can rejuvenate the plant. Blooms long into winter.
Their shade of yellow is softer and warmer than that of the weld.

Canadian goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)

Perhaps you already have this plant in your garden, or are surprised that I'm naming it here? Many gardener's here try to get rid of it, it is considered an invasive weed... Others value it as an important pollinator friendly plant, for infusions and as a medicinal plant. As if that wasn't enough, it's also a dye plant.
The goldenrod propagates not only through seeds, but also underground via rhizome, and is quite good at it. I like to leave them in the garden wherever there is space. In other places I dig them out. I enjoy watching the plants, visited by bumblebees, bees and other insects, enjoy the yellow flowers and some go into the dye pot.

Und wenn du vielleicht von Wau oder Färberkamille nur wenig hast, kannst du deinen Färbetopf mit Goldrute auffüllen! Möchtest du Blüten trocknen zum Färben im Winter, solltest du sie ernten, bevor sie richtig aufgeblüht sind. Sonst reifen sie noch aus und statt gelber Blüten hast du dann viele Samen mit dem fluffigen ‘Pappus’.

study of various fabrics dyed with goldenrod

Dye plants for apricot | orange | rust

Tickseed/Dyer's coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria)

Dyer's tickseed is a filigree annual summer flowerand can grow quite tall. You could add them to a mixed flower planting, placed behind smaller plants. Or you fill a bed with only this plant, which I really love, too. I mostly interplant them in the vegetable garden wherever I can make space.
During summer I harvest flower heads regularly. I try to only pick about half of them at any time, and then the other half the next time I get there, so there are plenty of flowers still for pollinators.

Dyes apricot, the higher the weight of fiber ratio is, it yields a rusty orange or even almost reddish brown.

Orange cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus)

The Orange cosmos wird nicht so hoch wie das Schmuckkörbchen (Cosmos bipinnatus), das du vielleicht aus Gärten kannst. Du könntest die beiden kombinieren, und die Schwefelkosmee vor die höheren Sorten pflanzen. Ich reserviere zwischen Gemüsebeeten gern einfach einen Streifen für die Schwefelkosmee, als kleinen Farbfleck. Sie ist einjährig, also belegt das Beet nur eine Saison lang.

Here, too, you can regularly harvest flowerheads, which are a bit larger but not as numerous as those of the tickseed. If you only use a few flowers for dyeing, you get delicate peach tones, similar to tickseed. If you use more of the flowers, the difference becomes apparent: you get intense, bright orange tones.

Dyer's Marigold (Tagetes erecta)

The Marigold wird besonders groß (bis etwa 80cm) und buschig – sie braucht im Färbergarten auf jeden Fall mehr Platz, als die niedrigen Tagetesvarianten, die man häufig aus Blumenbeeten an öffentlichen Plätzen kennt.
When conditions are good, these marigolds will become really magnificent and produce many of their large flowers. Tagetes in general are beneficial for soil health, but with this variety keep in mind they their space if interplanting with other plants. Marigolds then bloom continuously until the first frost.

Dyes various shades of yellow and orange. With particularly intense yellow flowers, I have also unexpectedly dyed a bright yellow-green.

Dyeing red with plants

Madder (Rubia tinctorum)

Madder contains dye in the roots, especially the red dye alizarin. If you want to plant it, note that it takes up its space in the dyer's garden longer than other plants. Madder is perennial, and in order for the roots to be thick and mature, harvesting is recommended after two, preferably three years. Madder can grow in beds, but I like to plant it in big tubs and containers. This will make root harvesting easier when the time's come. Madder grows quite tall, or rather long - even with support, the stems don't climb that high for me, they tend to fall over. These parts of the plants can then root again, which you can encourage by covering them with soil once they are long enough and reach the ground. Leaves and stems have small scartchy barbs. I wouldn't plant madder too close to a path or your sitting area.

Madder is part of the family of Ruubiaceae, along with other plants you may already be familiar with. Including Cleavers, Lady's bedstraw and Sweet woodruff. Another member of the family, lesser known, is Dyer's woodruff.
Their roots also contain some of the coveted dyes. But the roots are finer, not as strong as those of madder.

Once you harvested roots, you can of course dye with fresh roots. Traditionally, the roots were left to dry and stored after harvesting. In the process, substances in the root change over time and the dyes become more red.

Plants to dye blue

Dyer's knotweed (Polygonum tinctorum oder Persicaria tinctoria)

Dyer's knotweed wird auch Japanischer oder Chinesischer Indigo genannt. Die Pflanze ist einjährig, und wächst gut in Beeten und Gefäßen. Hauptsache, die Bedingungen stimmen: Sonnig und nährstoffreicher Boden. Wenn etwas nicht passt, bekommen die Blätter eine Rotfärbung. Das kann zum Beispiel zu intensive Sonne nach dem ersten Auspflanzen sein, besonders wenn die Pflanzen nicht abgehärtet wurden – das sollte aber wieder vorübergehen. Auch starke Winde und ausgetrocknete Böden können das verursachen. Der Farbstoffgehalt in den Blättern ist höher, wenn es den Pflanzen gut geht, und es viel Sonnenschein gibt.

As with woad, indigo dye is obtained from the leaves. The pigment can be extracted or a vat made directly with fresh leaves. Dyer's knotweed is ideal for dyeing with the salt rub method, the most simple way to dye with indigo.

Woad (Isatis tinctoria)

Woad gehört zu den Kreuzblütlern, das solltest du bei der Gartenplanung bedenken. Und er gehört zu den zweijährigen Pflanzen. Zur Indigogewinnung erntet man die Blätter im ersten Jahr – im zweiten Jahr enthalten sie weniger Farbstoff. Im zweiten Jahr blüht der Waid, und bildet eine hohe Blütenkerze mit vielen leuchtend gelben Blüten. Ein Insektenmagnet, der nach den Obstbäumen aber vor den meisten Sommerblumen blüht. Schon deshalb lasse ich alle Waidpflanzen zur Blüte kommen, und ernte die Samen. Die besten Samen kommen wieder zur Aussaat, die anderen nehme ich zum Färben – die sind für Bundle Dye schön. Wenn du nicht möchtest, dass sich Waid wild versamt, ernte alle Samenstände, oder schneide gleich die verblühten Stängel zurück.

Woad is resilient to cool temperatures. When I aI m running out of space indoors, I prefer not to start woad indoors, but sow in beds or in containers in the garden.
In my growing conditions, I find woad to be more hardy than Dyer's knotweed. It also thrives largely left to its own, as long as it's placed in nutrient-rich soil and I make sure it is not overgrown by taller plants. In summer hot spells I have to water it less often than most plants. Which makes sense, woad has been cultivated in Europe for a very long time and suits our climatic conditions well. (…until now? I wonder as I type.)

Plants to dye violet | grey | teal

These plants contain anthocyanins, which dye a range of colours depending on fiber type and dye ratio. They are also sensitive to pH changes and are among the more fugitive colors.

Sunflower Hopi Black Dye (Helianthus annuus)

This variant of Sonnenblume wird sehr hoch, und wird im Laufe des Sommers am besten abgestützt, damit sie bei Wind nicht umknickt. Sie ist also nicht gut für kleine Pflanzgefäße geeignet.
It usually has one large main flower and many smaller secondary flowers. It is a traditional dye plant of Hopi people and the dark seed (hulls) are harvested for dyeing. I like to use the seeds for bundle dye. I don't harvest all the flower heads, I also leave some in the garden for the birds to feed on. The only chaffinch I ever saw in our alotment was nibbling at the sunflower buffet.

Schwarze Stockrose (Alcea rosea ‘nigra”)

Hollyhock (also called mallow) is biennial or perennial. In the first year they only form a rosette of leaves, in the second year they grow up to 2m high flower stalks. So you can only start harvesting flowers in the second year. I pluck off the blossoms and dry them after they have closed again. So the flowers can still set seed. If all flowers are cut back before seeds are ripe, hollyhock may sprout again for another year.

Much like sunflowesr, I wouldn't recommend growing hollyhock in containers, it has a long taproot and does better when given decent space to root.
Do not space hollyhocks very close together. They are susceptible to mallow rust, a fungal disease. If they are not spaced airy and can dry off well, they are particularly at risk.

Dunkle Blueten von schwarzer Stockrose
Black hollyhock

There are other flowers that dye similar: For example deep dark varieties of dahlia and scabiosa or Black or chocolate cosmos. If you want to use those for dyeing, look out for varieties with the darkest, almost black flowers.

Dye plants for containers and planters

Are you looking for dye plants that are suited for a balcony garden? The first choices that come to mind are Tickseed and Orange Cosmos. In large pots (from about 18 liters) I have also grown beautiful tall Dyer's marigold.
Dyer's marigold and Tickseed grow quite tall. If that doesn't go well with your location: There are more compact, short varieties of Tickseed - and also different types of marigolds. Dyer's marigolds are particularly good for the dye pot because they have such large double flowers, but they also grow quite tall. Smaller varieties with smaller buds aren't as productive, but still yield dye, and great for bundle dye. I especially like Tagetes tenuifolia – they smell wonderful, maybe you like them in tea too. And the small filigree blossoms are beautiful in bundle dyeing.

Of course, you can also plant Dyer’s chamomile, weld and woad, in sufficiently large pots or raised beds. The last two have taproots, so they need more space underground than a small pot or balcony flower box would provide. And madder is also good for planting in containers. Do not choose a container that is too small (I would choose from 20L, preferably bigger), then madder plants should get through the winter alright in it. These also don't dry out so quickly in summer.

In general: Plants in pots need a little more attention. They dry out faster and will probably need more fertilizing. The smaller the container/amount of soil, the more attention is required.

And when is a good time to sow?

Information about a good time to sow usually can be found on seed packages, and here are my sowing recommendations. But of course this is depending on where you are gardening! With my garden in Berlin I can stick to these general recommendations. But there are also areas in Germany where it is milder and where sowing and planting is possible earlier. Elsewhere, for example at high altitudes, both are recommended later.

How to not sow too early: count back from the last frost date

If you are new to growing plants from seeds and there's noone local with gardening experience you can ask: The most important date I look out for is when the last frost (or nights below six degrees C, for sensitive plants) can be expected. If you don't have a greenhouse or lots of cool temperature indoor space with grow lights, then this date is important. You can also look at the number of hours of daylight, but as an amateur gardener, the temperature has been a helpful guideline for me so far.

For me, that's usually mid-May (in 2021 it was a little later, which meant it was getting very crowded in may growing area). Plants that grow rather slowly like weld I sow up to eight weeks before this date, most others closer to six to four weeks.
Sunflowers grow quickly, and I sow them at most two to three weeks before expected planting-out-date. If they have to stay indoors for too long, they lack light and the plants cannot grow strong and robust.

So, if you don't have a (heated) greenhouse or similar, or grow in a very mild climate: Better not sow too early, no matter if you sow directly outside or prefer starting seeds indoors like me.
For me it's sufficient to seed dye plants in April, and sunflowers in early May.

Do you have any recommendations for the dye garden, or a question? A favorite plant? Do you prefer plants like me or do you sow directly outside?

Seeds for the dye garden

  • Set Saatgut Faerberpflanzen
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  • Farbe Ernten. Färberpflanzen für Garten und Balkon E-Book
    Farbe Ernten. Färberpflanzen für Garten und Balkon E-Book

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Dyeing yellow with goldenrod

Gelbe Stoffe gefaerbt mit Goldrute und Faerbetopf

Ab dem späten Sommer ist sie kaum zu übersehen, steht in voller Blüte: Dann ist der Zeitpunkt gekommen zum Gelb färben mit Goldrute. Wenn ich meinen Garten heute, am 1. September 2020, mit Bildern aus den Vorjahren vergleiche, begann ihre Blütezeit wohl dieses Jahr schon früher als in den Vorjahren. Aber es ist trotzdem noch Zeit zu Färben!

Goldenrod is one of the Dye plantsin my garden that just grow without any of my doing. This perennial reproduces through seeds, but also through rhizomes (i.e. underground) and has come to us from our neighboring garden. I harvest it abundantly, and wherever it threatens to take over beds, I dig it up.

Canadian goldenrod is the most common variant here now, Solidago canadensis. Sie gilt als sogenannter Neophyt, wurde also nach 1492 in Europa eingeführt. Der Name lässt es anklingen, sie ist in Nordamerika heimisch. “Neophyt”, eingeschleppte invasive Art, beides klingt erstmal nicht so gut. Aber die Kanadische Goldrute ist nicht in böser Absicht eingewandert, sondern als wurde von Menschen gezielt als Zierpflanze nach Europa gebracht und später auch als Bienenweide gepflanzt. In Deutschland wird sie tatsächlich nur in begrenzten Gebieten als ökologisch problematisch eingeordnet. Auch wenn sie sich schnell etabliert hat und auch weiter verbreitet, in den meisten Gebieten hat sie laut dem Bundesamt für Naturschutz “relativ wenig Auswirkungen auf schutzwürdige Elemente der Tier- und Pflanzenwelt”. Also Entwarnung. (Anders sieht es in Teilen Österreichs aus. Und in der Schweiz steht sie auf der Schwarzen Liste der Neophyten.) Und nicht nur das, die Goldrute ist durchaus wertvoll, in vieler Hinsicht. Sie blüht spät und wird von Insekten umschwirrt, gilt als Heilpflanze – und sie färbt!

Dyeing with goldenrod

I love to dry and store goldenrod to use in winter, as it is so abundant here. But I have heard from several dyers they don't get as clear yellow tones from dried goldenrod.

Edit: Vielleicht haben durchwachsene Farbergebnisse mit trockener Goldrute auch etwas mit der Wasserqualität zu tun. Mein Berliner Leitungswasser ist einerseits sehr hart, und hat dabei einen neutralen bis minimal alkalischen pH-Wert. Ist dein Wasser sehr weich/sauer, und du hast keinen Erfolg mit dieser Färbepflanze, probiere doch mal Kreide (Calciumcarbonat) zuzusetzen. Hier hat Catherine Ellis über den Zusammenhang von the effect of pH on yellow dyes, I highly suggest to take a look.

Einfach und direkt tolle, leuchtende Gelbtöne färbst du am besten mit frischer Goldrute. Im Vergleich mit anderen gelben Pflanzenfarbstoffen, wie der Färberkamille und dem Färberwau, nehme ich bei der Goldrute eher mehr Pflanzenmaterial für intensive Farbergebnisse. Aber weil sie ja oft eben gleich ziemlich geballt auftritt, ist das kein Problem, solange der Färbetopf groß genug ist!
You can use flowers, flowers and leaves, for dyeing. The former dyes somewhat cleaner tones. When heating the plant matter and when dyeing, I make sure that it doesn't get too hot. If the dye is boiling for a longer period of time, the colour sometimes tends to have a brownish tinge instead of a rich yellow.

As always when dyeing with plants: it's well worth taking your time with it. That begins with preparing fabric or woolen yarn. Pre-mordanting is particularly important on plant fibres such as cotton fabric (it is in general, but especially so with this dye plant). Goldenrod dye takes definitely better to wool and silk - which does not mean that it is not worth experimenting with cotton fabrics!

Here I used as much goldenrod as I could fit in my pot. I didn't weigh any plants or fabric samples - but all fabrics were mordanted beforehand. And again and again I find it exciting to see how different mordants affect the color! I poured water on the flowers and slowly warmed them up and simmered for about two hours. For dyeing I poured everything through a cloth, squeezed out the flowers, and then put fabrics and woolen thread in it. And after the first round, I dyed other fabrics to exhaust the dye bath.

Drying goldenrod for the winter

To store goldenrod, I cut the flowering shoots so that I mainly harvest flowers and a few leaves. If there are already small side shoots, I cut above them so they flower again soon. It is best to harvest the flowers before they have fully opened, otherwise they ripen into fluffy seeds that spread everywhere like tiny parachutes.
To dry them, I hang goldenrod bouquets upside down, or lay them on paper or a lattice. In a dry and shady place, in my case in our garden shed. Once dry, I put them in large paper bags or cloth bags. To save space, you can strip the dry leaves and flowers off the almost woody stems before packing them.

To dye with the stored goldenrod, I first soak the dried plant in cold water overnight before carefully heating them to extract the dye.

Dye plants in the summer garden

Collage von zwei Bildern: links ein orangeleuchtender Strauß von Schwefelkosmee, rechts ein Koerbchen voller Blüten von Ringelblume, Mädchenauge und Schwefelkosmee

What better way to start this new blog on a new website with a garden tour? This spring, when workshops were cancelled due to the pandemic, I was happy to ship many dye seeds to plant dye enthusiasts. Instead of meeting in workshops, I found myself starting dye seeds at home and share the process on stories at Instagram. The whole process is saved in the highlights. And this is what became of the tiny plants!

Blue: Indigo bearing plants

Dyer's knotweed or Japanese indigo, Polygonum tinctorum,and woad, Isatis tinctoriatwo very different plants, both contain precious indigo. The woad plants, first damaged by hail in June, now nibbled on, is still smaller than last year at this time. I already was able to have a first little harvest from Japanese indigo, mainly to encourage the plants to grow back more and bushier.
I'm curious to watch their development this year, because after two very warm summers it has been quite cool and windy a lot of the time this year, not ideal conditions for this plant. Woad, too, contains most indigo when it's exposed to lots of sunshine.

Flowers for dyeing

So my indigo harvest so far was very modest. I hope it will be sunnier again soon and more will follow! In the meantime, however, harvesting of the flowering dye plants has begun - dyer's marigold, Tagetes erecta (two different varieties this year), bright orange cosmos, Cosmos sulphureus, and delicate tickseed, Coreopsis tinctoria.

...and pot marigold, Calendula officinalis, these flowers can also be used for dyeing. But I prefer to make oil extracts from them.

The two yellow dye plants have struggled a bit so far: Weld, Reseda luteola, and dyer's chamomile, Anthemis tinctoria. I did get to harvest a bit of both, but don't expect much more. Many a weld plant did simply dissapear over night, and I'm not sure who snacks on them. Only a handful of plants survived, but I'm determined to try again next year.

The chamomile plants from last year in particular have already bloomed profusely, and then some just died within a few days, heavily infested with aphids. I usually rely on beneficial insects like the ladybug larvae and time to fix issues like that, but this time they weren't fast enough it seems. Crossing my fingers the plants that made it through will recover!

Red dyes in the garden

And lastly, madder, Rubia tinctorum. There might finally be a harvest here at the end of summer, though I got so attached to the plant that I'm not sure I'll actually do it! This is the only one of the plants that I grow for dyeing that stores the coveted dye in the roots. Harvesting is recommended only from the third year. By then the roots are nice and thick.
If you have them in your garden, you could also carefully dig out some roots from under the plant for small tests, but I never did.
The older madder plants are starting to set flowers right now – from many flowers usually get a handful of seeds, and suspect someone nibbles on them when they're young!