It’s like a dream: A garden filled with plants that make beautiful, light-filled dyes, all growing eagerly outside your front door.
It’s easy to make this dream a reality. Many dye plants grow easily and quickly, making them perfect for the beginning gardener.
Starting a dye garden is quick, simple, and provides weeks of discovery and fun. Here are the basics of how to start your very own natural-dye garden, right in your very own backyard.
How to Grow a Natural Dye Garden Tip No. 1: Start Small
Yes, you want to grow enough dye plants to dye everything in your house not nailed down. For this year, though, focus on discovering which plants grow well for you and where. This will enable you to watch growth slowly and carefully, and you will still get enough of a yield to #dyeallthethings—with some plants, many times over. Keep your plants weeded, watered, and free of pests and if all else goes well, you can plan to do more of what went right this year.
How to Grow a Natural Dye Garden Tip No. 2: Know Where You’ll Grow
First, know your frost date. Some dye plants can be started before this date, some need to wait until after. The vast majority of plants that can be used for dyeing enjoy lots of sunshine. Reserve the sunniest parts of your garden for these light lovers. As for amending your soil, I wouldn’t make elaborate plans. Many dye plants are wildflowers by nature or prefer sandy, poor soil. I have found that mixing 1:2 potting soil with the soil on your site works well.
Several dye plants grow happily in containers. This is an especially fun way to start a dye garden with children. Pick pretty pots, make lovely labels, plant the little seeds, and watch the plants grow together. Then, dye things together! Container gardening with dye plants makes for a season’s worth of fun, learning, and quality time together.
How to Grow a Natural Dye Garden Tip No. 3: Pick your Plants
This is the fun part.
Here is a quick list of easy-to-grow dye plants and a few of the color possibilities of each:
Yellow, Gold, Orange, Green: Coreopsis wildflower, marigold, zinnia, sunflowers, black-eyed susan
Green, Gray: Mint, Sage, Rosemary, Blackberry (leaves)
Pink, Lavender, Light Blue: Bachelor Buttons, Hibiscus, Hollyhock, Rose, Eucalyptus, Peony, Violets, Iris
Gray, Black: Geranium (leaves)
Several of the plants on this list are annuals, meaning you plant them once and they grow and rebloom each year. Easy-peasy.
Several of the plants on this list are grow wild in many parts of the world, too—meaning that they are pretty hardy in the face of pests and drought and may even prefer poor, sandy soil (I’m looking at you, marigolds).
It’s fun to try a few of the traditional dye plants, too. I have had good luck with the seeds from Botanical Colors and The Woolery. I am especially excited to try indigo and woad—woad being what my ancestors in Scotland probably used for their blue dyes and paints.
Pick 3-4 plants to start with. You don’t want to take on too much, too soon. There is no faster way to frustration.
How to Grow a Natural Dye Garden Tip No. 4: Help Them Grow
This is the other fun part.
Learn what you can about each of the plants you want to try to grow, then do what you can to create their favorite growing environment. Space your seeds and plant to a depth described on your seed packet, or according to what you learn from your seed provider or reputable sources online.
Give them a sprinkle to water them in, then let the sunshine do its job. Keep the soil moist until you see baby shoots and leaves. From there, keep the weeds and bugs at bay, and you have a baby dye garden on our hands.
How to Grow a Natural Dye Garden Tip No. 5: Harvest and Re-Seed
After you give your dye plants several weeks to grow and mature, you can begin to harvest for your #dyeallthethings purposes.
At first, try to limit yourself to 20 percent of what the plant has to offer. You don’t want to injure the plant, and you want the plant to keep doing its thing—which is growing and growing, and creating more dyestuff for you. You also want to leave some blooms for butterflies and bees.
At the end of the growing season, harvest 80-85 percent of the dye plant, leaving the rest to go to seed. You can gather these seeds and use them for next year’s dye garden. Any of the dye plant that you can’t use for this year is perfect for the compost pile.
If you can’t use everything your dye garden produces, it’s easy to dry the plants for later use, just as you would with herbs—tie them and hang them upside down in a shaded place with good airflow (do NOT dry them in a dehydrator that you also use for your food). In most cases, you can also freeze the plants for later use.
What dye plants will you try to grow this year? Which dye plants have to had good luck with in the past? Do you have any questions about growing any dye plants in particular? Let me know in the comments!
Ready to learn to dye with plants? What started as a quick email for participants in House Sparrow plant-dye workshops bloomed into this 16-page, illustrated guide on how to turn the plants in your kitchen and garden in one-of-a-kind textiles to fill your home with nature's color.