A dyer’s garden, apartmentalized

I live in a tiny apartment, 720 square feet of chaos, filled with a husband, two kids, dog and a ton of hobbies.

When I considered adding one more hobby to the mix, my husband looked at me funny and said, “If I can manage to find a space for it, sure.”  So with that, I planned my first container dye garden.

Textiles-wet Gulf Wars 2014

Pots on the fire, mordants in place to dye the week’s samples.

I got the dyeing bug from Willoc and Al-Jania during a week-long medieval re-enactment event over spring break called Gulf Wars, in Mississippi. At the event I spent some time helping these two teachers stir dye pots, fetch water, mordant samples and even got to dip a couple ounces of my own corriedale wool into the turmeric dye pot.

I left the event with a yearning to continue and a need to make this hobby mesh well with the  other fiber arts skills I already do.

My main goal is to produce a dyer’s garden

my first dye garden, seeds purchased at a nursery.

seed packets, each ranged in price from $2 to 50¢

I want to create a dyer’s journal, with mordanted samples from local foliage (foraging), as well as harvested flowers and leaves I’ve planted.

It sounds rather therapeutic, let’s see if I have a green thumb enough to pull it off!

I learned that yellow is easy to produce, and greens, browns, tans and orange can be achieved in various ways but red and blue were very hard to find in a wild state while foraging or collecting flower buds.


Marigold, care of Wikimedia commons

I bought seeds for two types of marigold, dyer’s coreopsis, hollyhock, and sunflowers. I also picked up a small potted hibiscus.

I then went online and bought woad, japanese indigo and amaranth seeds.

Marigold- the leaves and flowers are harvested to produce, depending on the mordant, yellow, olive green and brown. I planted two types, crackerjack and sparky. They both produce yellow blooms, but sparky looks to be a mix of yellow and red. I’ll see if that makes a difference in the dye pot.


Plains coreopsis, care of Wikimedia commons

Plains Coreopsis- also known as Dyer’s coreopsis, coreopsis tinctoria, is an annual with yellow flowers that have a maroon center.

I’ve read and seen samples of dyer’s coreopsis, the stems and flowers give an amazing range of colors. Depending on the mordant and at what time in the season the plants are harvested, it can create orange, brown, yellow or goldenrod.

It’s a pretty neat little plant and one that I want to meticulously document the harvest and dyeing process to try and reproduce the same color in subsequent dye baths.


Standard sunflower, care of Wikimedia. The kind I planted will have various shades of red, purple and yellow.

Sunflower- I picked Autumn Beauty. This plant will stand at around 8” or 9” tall and produce purple, red and yellow blossoms.

The regular yellow blossoms produce a light green and tan. I wonder what the darker blooms will do.

I remember reading that the Hopi Indians knew of and used a species of sunflower to create black and purple dye baths to tint the reeds before designing and weaving their baskets.


Hollyhock, courtesy of Wikimedia commons

Hollyhock– So far, I’d been getting seeds that would produce yellow, orange, rust, brown and gold. As I mentioned earlier, these colors are prolific.

Hollyhock is where I hope to get my lavendar and purple hues from the darker flowers. The seed packet was a mixed set, so the seedlings could flower in red, pink or white.

The darker the color, the more purple the hue, the lighter plants produce mostly yellow and green. Not sure if the white buds produce anything, maybe yellow, as a default but I’ll have to harvest them and see.

hibiscus, courtesy of Wikimedia commons

hibiscus, courtesy of Wikimedia commons

Hibiscus- last but not least, is my little potted plant. I bought this on a splurge moment, one because I love hibiscus, it’s one of my favorite flowers; and two, because I found out it is a dye plant and the darker red flowers produce anything from black, purple, lavender, peach, tan and yellow.

I’ll buy madder at some point, but it is an invasive crawling plant and when grown from seed is not harvestable for the first three to five years. I’ve heard of people planting three to four beds of madder, to harvest in rotation, since you dig up the plant and use the roots to extract the red dye.

I know a lot of the dyes produced by the plant’s blossoms or leaves will change based on how I mordant my fibers. I’m happy with my first dye garden choices and so excited about the possibilities, I can’t wait to start harvesting!


So, day before yesterday I finally got off my bum and went thrift store shopping to find good pots or baskets to begin the garden. Goodwill had a great selection and varied depths so I have a couple meant for mixed beds and a few fancier ones meant to re-pot the hibiscus and house the indigo once it arrives.  I also stopped by HEB and bought four 1 cubic foot bags of potting soil for $10.

Not bad on the budget so far.  (That was also one of the rules Steven gave me , “Please don’t make my wallet cry.”)


midnight planting at its best (while the kids are asleep)

I worked at night after the kids went to bed, so didn’t take many photos of the process, but did manage to fill the baskets and sow seeds without any major complications.

It had rained, and I knew it would mist and drizzle overnight, so I filled my baskets, watered them a bit and let the sky be my sprinkler system.

The hibiscus is up on the stand, on the ground from left to right is marigolds, dyers coreopsis, and two pots of hollyhock. The front two plastic bottles are sunflowers and the pot on the right of the milk jug is the variegated marigolds. The basket on the far right is empty, but will be where I plant my indigo seeds.


Mickey helping me plant the herbal basket.

Even with all that planted, I had only used one bag of soil… so, I went out yesterday and bought some herbs to plant.

The first wave of seedling transplants are two of sweet basil, one lemon thyme and one oregano plant.

I went shopping right before picking the girls up from the bus stop, so Mickey helped me plant the herb basket.

I plan on planting more sunflower seeds over the next few weeks, it will help stagger their presence in the garden.

But for now it is time to wait. I’ll plant the woad and indigo when it gets here, and am currently looking up how to grow carrots… a part of me wants to use those plastic one litre bottles so the kids can watch each carrot grow.

Oh, and Mickey had so much fun that she also wants a hanging strawberry plant and a tomato plant.  We shall see…

Ciao for now, and happy planting!


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