Starting Another Year in My Dye Garden

Although the weather is still chilly, it’s time to start thinking about the next year in my dye garden. I like to have as many perennial dye plants as possible, so I have two mature bushes of dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria) and plenty of madder plants (Rubia tinctorum). I also have lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum), wild madder (Rubia peregrina), dyer’s woodruff (Asperula tinctoria) and two small buckthorn bushes (Rhamnus catharticus). I am nurturing a small evergreen oak, which I grew from an acorn given to me by a friend, and a small Venetian sumac tree (Cotinus coggygria), although it will be a while before these provide serious dyeing materials. The more common Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), which grows almost like a weed in our garden, is also a useful tree, especially as a source of tannin. And I mustn’t forget our huge eucalyptus, or the walnut tree, still in its pot, that was given to me three years ago. Unfortunately walnut trees don’t seem to thrive in our garden and I’ve tried several times to plant one, but without success. This is a great pity as walnut is among the most useful of dye sources, so I’m cossetting this one and will continue to re-pot it for as long as I can. Of course, some dye plants have to be grown each year from seed and I usually grow woad and weld every year. If I’m lucky, I don’t have to sow seeds and can rely on self-seeded plants springing up all over the garden, ready to be transplanted to the dye garden.

This year, however, I’ve looked in vain for weld seedlings, so I shall have to sow some weld seeds. As far as woad is concerned, I have plenty of seedlings coming up but I shall also sow some seed, as my friend & fellow dyer, Chris Dobson, has kindly given me some seeds from her woad plants, which seemed so much more vigorous than mine last year. So this week I shall start sowing some seeds. I may also sow some seeds for flowers, such as calendula, which I love and from which I regularly make calendula ointment to treat cuts and rashes, and zinnias, which come in such lovely colours. And I think it will also be time to start off my tomatoes although I don’t usually sow the beans and courgettes until mid-April.

img_1987This an overwintered woad plant from last year which will produce a flowering stalk and provide seed for next spring.




 This is a perennial dyer’s broom bush, with a few seed pods to be seen and this year’s new growth starting to develop. Used fresh, the prunings give lovely bright greeny yellows.



This is my small evergreen oak tree. I’m not sure exactly which  species of Quercus it is but it may be Quercus ilex, the Holm Oak .

6 replies
  1. Bettina
    Bettina says:

    spring is an exciting time in the garden! this year I seem to have some losses though – my genista tinctoria looks dead:(( and so far no show for my madder plants either! on the other hand, the lithospermum is already growing as is the impatiens tinctoria, even though those shoots are still very small. if all else fails, I’ll just have to grow a new genista, in the meantime I make do with gorze flowers, though their yellow is more lemon yellow, it lacks the greenish tinge of the genista (at least with me it did:)) I hope all your plants grow well for you!
    good luck from ireland


  2. Leena Riihelä
    Leena Riihelä says:

    Hi Jenny,
    Genista tinctoria seeds have germinated here in masses, so I’ll have many plants:) and I hope I am able to try dyeing with their leaves already this summer. I think here in Finland they start their growth from the ground each year but they should be perennial otherwise.
    The spring is finally coming along also here, there is still a little snow but sun is shining.

  3. kathy weisz
    kathy weisz says:

    your garaden with dye plants sounds wonderful! I wanted to stop by and thank you so much for the referrel to earth hues they were so helpful to me, and my hunt for the mordant on cotton was solved-thank you so much again Kathy

  4. Helen Melvin
    Helen Melvin says:

    Hi Jenny I have lost two out of the three Genista plants I had although they have self seeded nearby. May be the hard winter was too much. Like you I have a walnut tree in a pot although it will be a while before I can use anything from it but I am taking the long view and reckon I will dyeing till I am a 100 (I hope).I had not thought of growing an oak.I would like Rhammus Catharticus though-where did you get it from? It has been lovely popping round to see all the online Helen

  5. Siri
    Siri says:

    I’m so jealous of those who can grow woad. It is considered to be a noxious weed in the state of Montana where I live and so it technically would be illegal for me to purposely plant it, even if pulled and used during the first , never allowing it to go to seed.
    There are no wild growing patches anywhere nearby either (Montana is a BIG state), but I have found a Native Plant Society three and a half hour’s drive away that does an annual pulling of a patch growing on public forest land, hoping to eventually eradicate it. I’ve contacted them and asked if I could take part in it and if I could harvest some of the leaves to take home with me or, if they’d prefer, I could bring a campstove along and start the dyeing process right there on site. Someone emailed me back, thinking that it would all be OK but, unfortunately the days that they have scheduled to pick this summer conflict with my work schedule. Ah, well. Maybe next year I’ll be able to join them.
    Instead, I’m settling for Coreopsis tinctoria and Cosmos sulphureus in the garden this year and might have to start a new patch of bedstraw or maybe try using some of the native Northern bedstraw this year. A couple of indigo seeds have germinated as well. I’ll try growing them in the greenhouse, more out of curiousity than anything else. The season is far too short here to expect much of them.
    Am looking forward to watching your dye garden progress through the season!

  6. heidi
    heidi says:

    Hi me and my friend have just got an allotment and were looking for dye plants or seeds to start but where not sure where to get hold of them please, i found one site, it did seem rather expensive and were on both on a low budget advice would be good. The site looks great, thank you

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