Some photos of the dye garden

Dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria) in full flower


Madder (Rubia tinctorum)


Woad (Isatis tinctoria) on the left at the back, lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) in the centre with yellow flowers and the purple flower heads of saw-wort (Serratula tinctoria) just visible on the right at the back


A first-year woad plant (Isatis tinctoria)


Wild madder (Rubia peregrina) rambling through the garden and beginning to form seeds


Saw-wort (Serratula tinctoria) with its purple thistle-like flower heads


Yellow cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus) with its pretty yellow flowers

Yellow cosmos flowers give lovely yellow and rust dyes and I usually collect the flower heads as they begin to fade and then use them in a solar dye pot. For a rich burnt orange colour, add soda ash to the jar.


Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)

I set up a solar dye pot with goldenrod and after 24 hours a pretty lemon yellow is developing. I used the dead flower heads only because I just can’t bear to cut the flowering heads.

More photos of the garden

A month has passed since I last posted photos of the garden, so here are a few more.

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The blue globes of echinops are so welcome as the summer progresses

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Meadowsweet is a lovely plant which smells delicious; I will also use it in the dye pot later.

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I wish I knew the name of this rose, which was here when we moved in and looks so lovely against the ivy.

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The hot shades of helenium are always a summer joy

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Saw-wort nearly ready to harvest for the dye pot

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Feverfew and Lychnis coronaria – so pretty together

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The scent of lavender fills the air and the bees love it

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Dyer’s broom just before harvesting

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The only dyer’s chamomile flowers I managed to save from the slugs & snails

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Goldenrod is always welcome in my garden – and in the dye pot

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Hypericum flowers profusely and spreads happily. I sometimes use the prunings in the dye pot and they give pretty yellows – as if I don’t have enough sources of yellow!

The dye garden is developing


As my new dye garden is so small I have had to limit the number of dye plants I grow. So I have decided to grow only native dye plants, or plants like woad and madder that were introduced into Britain at an early date.

Last year the woad crop was very disappointing. No self-seeded woad plants grew and the seeds I sowed produced only a few plants. However, this year has made up for it and I have many woad plants growing well. Weld, too, has grown better this year.


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Weld in flower


The dyer’s madder is in a separate bed, as it can be very invasive, but the bedstraws are developing well in the dye garden. I have hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo, also known as Galium album), lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) and northern bedstraw (Galium boreale). I have also managed to find a supplier of plants of wild madder (Rubia peregrina) so I hope the plants I bought will thrive. (The supplier was and they will send plants overseas although that can be very expensive.)


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Lady’s bedstraw with woad in the background


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Hedge bedstraw


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Wild madder in a pot with woad and saw-wort in the background


The dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria) is just coming into flower and the saw-wort (Serratula tinctoria) is also starting to flower.


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Dyer’s broom


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Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

The yarrow is growing really well this year.

The garden in late spring


We have had some lovely sunny days recently and so I took the opportunity to take some photos of my little garden. I do miss my old garden but I have tried to make the most of the small space we have here. I have concentrated on dye plants and plants to attract bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects. I have tried to grow mainly native plants, except for some summer plants, such as fuchsias and dahlias, for pots and the plants that were already here, such as wisteria, and of course roses, which I could not be without for their perfume.


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Woad in flower in the tiny dye garden in front of my summer house


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Wisteria in flower


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General garden view with angelica in the foreground




A detail of the angelica plant which the bees love


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The roses are just beginning to come into bloom




Centaurea montana which the bees love




The grass is full of daisies which are popular with insects and with my granddaughter for making daisy-chain necklaces




The native red campion (Silene dioica) which is often full of bees


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This photo shows on the left the native Geranium pratense and on the right Pilosella aurantiaca or Orange Hawkweed, also called Fox and Cubs





More from the Garden

This has not been a good year for me health-wise and it has not been a good year in the garden, either. The weather has been wetter than I have ever known it to be here in the south of England in the Summer – weeks of rain with little sun or warmth. Problems with my hip have meant that gardening is not possible for me, so I have to rely on family and friends for help but there is little they can do against the onslought of slugs, snails, rain and wind.

Not a single self-sown seed from my woad and weld plants has germinated and only one plant resulted from the two successive sowings I made of woad seeds. The weld seeds I sowed germinated fairly well but the seedlings have failed to grow because of the wet and look as if they will never reach a size suitable for transplanting to the dye garden.

Leena Riihela (see link opposite to her website) very kindly sent me some seeds of two varieties of Japanese indigo (Persicaria (formerly Polygonum) tinctoria) and these germinated well, so I was expecting to be able to have a reasonable crop of both round-leaved and pointed-leaved plants. As you can see from the photo below, slugs and snails have attacked my poor plants. Try as I may to locate the culprits, they remain hidden until dusk, when they emerge again for a feast.

On a more positive note, for the first time, I have this year managed to grow Hedge Bedstraw, both from plants and from seed (again from Leena), although it will be several years before I can harvest any roots. The photo below shows the plants in flower.

Another plant I am growing for the first time this year is Sawwort (Serratula tinctoria). This is a native perennial yellow dye plant, thistle-like in appearance, but it was not until this year that I managed to find a source of plants. The rather poor photo below shows one of them beginning to flower. Unless the plants grow more vigorously, I will probably wait until next year before harvesting any for dyeing.

The weld plants in the photo below represent my entire crop for this year. I have only four plants, two bought as seedlings and two grown from plants overwintered from last year.

However, it is not all a tale of woe. My dyer’s chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria), dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria) and madder (Rubia tinctorum) are all flourishing, as the photos below show. The dyer’s chamomile was grown from seed sown last year and the madder plants were brought two years ago from my old garden. The dyer’s broom was one of the first shrubs I bought for this new garden and it is a plant I love – decorative, an excellent dye source and perennial too!

Images from the garden

Our new garden is beginning to take shape and to look and feel more like “ours”. The beds I dug out of the grass earlier in the year are now full of colour and visited regularly by butterflies, bees and other beneficial insects.

The first two photos show general views of the back garden. The following photos show some of the plants in my dye garden: madder, weld, dyer’s broom, lady’s bedstraw. woad in seed with dyer’s broom on the right and dyer’s chamomile with my small purging buckthorn bush in the background.


















More images from the garden

The garden is gradually developing and becoming more colourful and we have also been delighted to see the Judas tree and the wisteria in flower. Another unexpected pleasure has been the discovery of a beautiful paeony flowering profusely behind the compost bin at the bottom of the garden. In any other location I would certainly not have picked the blooms but in this instance I felt justified in bringing them indoors, where we can see and fully appreciate their beauty and perfume for the few days that they will be in flower.

The pictures below show some images from the garden. The first picture shows my tiny dye garden with woad, weld, lady's bedstraw, dyer's chamomile and a very small purging buckthorn (Rhamnus catharticus) bush in the foreground. Also visible on the left is my dyer's broom bush. As the space is too small to grow many dye plants, I have limited myself to mainly native plants and those I know to be reliable in the dyepot.






Developments in the garden

Although I still haven't found much time for dyeing since our move to Sussex, I have been making some changes in our rather small garden here.

We have been gradually digging out sections of lawn to make more flower beds and planting mainly perennials, including several roses interspersed with lavenders. My husband is concerned that if the beds are too large, this may make cutting the grass difficult, so I have made smallish beds, with a view to making them larger once he has got used to mowing round corners and in narrow areas. I am aiming to concentrate on useful plants, such as dye plants and herbs, and plants which will attract butterflies, bees and other beneficial insects. And I have also decided to get rid of any existing plants here that we simply don't like, as there just isn't room for anything other than plants that please us. So the yucca has gone and the next  plants to go will be a hedge of six small "Castlewellan Gold" conifers next to the Morello cherry tree in the front garden. We hope this will make space for one and possibly two small apple trees. And the war against the ground elder infesting one bed continues. At present this bed is full of daffodils but as soon as they have died down, everything will come out so that we can make another attempt to get rid of this invasive plant. If only it were the variegated ground elder we had in our last garden, which was actually rather nice, especially when in flower.

I have of course started a small dye garden, with second-year woad from my old dye garden growing well and woad and dyer's chamomile seedlings coming on in pots until they are ready to plant out. The dye garden also has a few weld plants, some lady's bedstraw, a rather pathetic-looking rhubarb plant, some perforate St. John's Wort and a very small purging buckthorn bush. The dyer's broom I bought last autumn by mail-order has its own spot in the grass in front of the dye garden and is looking promising. The madder plants I brought with me are at present in a corner of a raised bed destined to become a rose border, so they will have to be given a new home somewhere, possibly in yet another section dug out of the grass.

Here are some photos to give an idea of how the garden is developing.


Dye garden bed in front of my summer house, with woad and dyer's broom


Raised culinary herb bed with a raised bed for medicinal and other herbs just visible in the background


View of the back garden with new flower beds


View from the patio

Morello cherry tree in blossom in the front garden

Our new garden

One of the first things I have done in this new garden has been to look around to see whether there are any plants here suitable for the dyepot and I’ve already found several potentially useful plants.









The first plant I noticed was this rather pretty eucalyptus tree in our front garden. It’s much smaller than the one in our previous garden but it’s a lovely shape. I’m planning to try – yet again – to get a really deep red from eucalyptus and perhaps this time I may be lucky.








This attractive small shrub is a species of barberry, Berberis thunbergii “Harlequin”. Barberry bark is a traditional source of yellow dye and while the best dye comes from Berberis vulgaris, the more decorative varieties can also be used as a source of dye colour.









This small sprawling shrub, rather overshadowed by the Choisya bush next to it, is a Smoke Tree, Cotinus coggygria, also known as Venetian Sumac. When fully grown, these shrubs can be very beautiful and also have an interesting history. Venetian Sumac was a valued source of yellow dye in Europe in the Middle Ages and was known as Young Fustic. When fustic from the Americas was introduced into 16th century Europe, it was known as Old Fustic because its dye properties were recognised as similar to those of Young Fustic. Venetian Sumac is also rich in tannin and can be used in combination with iron to create black.









This is a small Morello Cherry tree, which has been almost stripped of cherries by the birds. (Fortunately we managed to harvest a few cherries, which we have frozen to make into jam later in the year.) The leaves and bark of cherry trees can make useful dye material, so I’ll be able to experiment with the prunings in due course.

I have decided to make two small herb beds just below the terrace area in the back garden, one on each side of the steps down onto the grass. As my definition of a herb is “a useful plant”, I intend to grow dye plants in these beds, as well as culinary and medicinal herbs.

I also plan to grow some dye plants in the raised bed next to the area where I have my indigo dye pot. At the moment this bed contains the madder and woad plants I brought with me from our old garden and some summer bedding plants for colour. Next year I’ll probably grow some more woad here, plus some more decorative dye plants, such as dyer’s chamomile.

Some Useful Garden Trees

As the time for our move to Sussex draws closer and we shall have to leave this house and my dye garden, I thought I would write a little about some of the trees in this garden that have been useful sources of dye colour.



WALNUT (Juglans spp.) 






This is a very small walnut tree, I know, but I have cherished it, as I’ve already tried unsuccessfully several times to persuade a walnut tree to establish itself in our garden. This one was given to me as a seedling and, although I have already managed to harvest leaves for dyeing as they fall in Autumn, it will be many years before I can harvest walnuts.

The walnut is rich in tannin and all parts of the tree can be used in dyeing, including the leaves, bark, heartwood and the outer green cases of the nuts. Walnut doesn’t need a mordant – in fact walnut leaves have a higher fastness rating when used on unmordanted wool than if used on alum-mordanted wool. (Ref: Fast or Fugitive by Gill Dalby). Although dried walnut leaves tend to give colours in the yellow to tan range, sometimes fresh leaves harvested in early summer can give deep browns. Different depths of brown can be achieved from all parts of the walnut tree and colour modifiers can be used to vary the shades. Darker shades of brown can often be achieved by using a rhubarb leaf mordant or base and by using an iron modifier. For maximum colour potential, walnut hulls should be soaked in water for at least several weeks before being simmered to make a dyebath and I often leave them soaking for a year or two. As tannin is astringent they don’t seem to develop an unpleasant odour, as long as they are completely covered by the water, but it’s a good idea to check the liquid level every few months, in case some evaporates. It can sometimes be difficult to get really rich browns from walnut hulls and I have found that adding some oak gall solution to the dyebath often results in deeper shades. To apply the dye, I simmer the fibres in the dyebath, then leave them to cool and repeat the process several times until a reasonable depth of brown is achieved.


BIRCH (Betula spp.)






Birches make lovely garden trees, with their leaves trembling gently in the breeze and their attractive bark, and I shall really miss this beautiful tree when we move. Birches are among the most ancient of trees and birch leaves and bark have been used for centuries as dye sources. The leaves give clear yellows and the bark gives shades of tan, brown and sometimes pink. Birch leaves are best used with an alum mordant. The bark can be used without a mordant but an alum mordant will intensify the colours. Birch bark has several layers and the inner layers will often give pretty shades of pink. Like most barks, birch bark benefits from lengthy processing and I usually soak it in water for several weeks before simmering it gently for about an hour to extract the maximum amount of colour. The fibres can be added at any stage, if you intend to leave the bark in the dyebath. However, as small pieces of bark can sometimes be difficult to remove from fibres, I tend to strain off the extracted dye liquid and then I add the fibres, bring the solution to simmering point and then keep the temperature just below a simmer for as long as seems necessary. This is because I have sometimes found that, if a bark dyebath is allowed to boil too much, the tannin in the bark can dull the colours. I then leave the fibres to soak in the dyebath overnight before rinsing them.


STAGHORN SUMAC (Rhus typhina)






 The staghorn sumac tree is particularly rich in tannin and the leaves can be used as a tannin mordant for silk and vegetable fibres. The leaves also give a soft yellow dye and the inner bark of the tree can give attractive shades of rust. Apart from its usefulness to dyers, staghorn sumac is an attractive garden shrub, particularly in the Autumn when the  leaves turn beautiful red and orange colours. Its branches are covered in fine brown downy hairs and, when the leaves have fallen, in silhouette they look like antlers, which is why the tree is called staghorn sumac. Some species of sumac have poisonous berries (usually white) but the berries of staghorn sumac are red and harmless and, when ripe, they form candle-like clusters at the tips of the branches. Although the colours from sumac are not remarkable, they can provide useful contrasts to stronger colours.

I shall certainly miss my garden and all the plants and trees that have provided me with such a variety of dye sources over the last 33 years.