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

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4 Comments

  1. Vielen Dank für den hilfreichen Artikel! Ich stand mit meinen Samentütchen schon in den Startlöchern, aber jetzt warte ich lieber noch ein bisschen… Bin schon gespannt!

    • Liebe Kathrin,
      schön, wenn es hilft! Es ist für unser Klima hier echt noch Zeit, wenn man nicht wirklich eine gute Ausstattung zum Pflänzchen-Unterbringen hat.

      Aber wenn es soweit ist, frohes Gärtnern!

  2. Im dritten Jahr baue ich nun Färberpflanzen in meinem Kölner Schrebergarten an. Hier ist es so mild, dass ich eigentlich alles direkt aussäen kann (Färberwaid, Tagetes, Cosmea, Färberdistel – mein Lieblingsgelb – und Stockrosen). Wer Fragen hat, gerne melden! Ausprobieren möchte ich nach der Entdeckung deines Blocks auf jeden Fall die Sonnenblume. Für Knöterich ist es bei uns wahrscheinlich zu windig und der Boden (noch) nicht gut genug.

    • Elke Fiebig

      Das klingt super, die Färberdistel habe ich dieses Jahr auch zum ersten Mal dabei! Und freue mich schon aufs Färben damit. Die Hopi Black Dye Sonnenblume ist auf jeden Fall einen Versuch wert, das ist eine tolle Pflanze. Und falls du eine etwas windgeschütztere Ecke hast (ich hab mir letztes Jahr mit einem 20cm hohen Holzrahmen ums Indigobeet geholfen, einer einzelnen Etage von einem Hochbeetrahmen), probier doch den Färberknöterich mal aus. Der ist zwar manchmal etwas empfindlich, aber echt eine super Färberpflanze für Indigo-Experimente!

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