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Dye Garden Update

I've been shipping out lots of dye seeds this month (which you can purchase here) and ordering my own as well, so this felt like a good time to review last year's dye garden and write a bit about what I'm planning for this year.

My dye garden last year. The echinacea in front is not a dye plant but does bring lots of pollinators to the garden in addition to being great herbal medicine.

Summer 2021 was my third year growing season in this garden. My first year in this space we moved into the house in April and got married in June, so I didn’t have a lot of time to get the garden going. I managed to grow a very stunted crop of dyer's coreopsis and about 10 Japanese indigo plants, only about two of which really thrived. My second year I was determined to get the garden really going but I had a very tight budget. I knew I couldn’t afford to do raised beds, and since we are renters I wasn’t sure I wanted to put in a bunch of infrastructure in case we decided to move. I decided to plant directly in the ground, but I knew that our soil was very compacted and had a lot of tree roots in it.

Japanese indigo that i planted directly into the sheet mulched areas around our huge maple tree. The roots from the tree and poor soil meant that the plants never got very large.

After a lot of research into no-dig gardening and lasagna beds, I bought as much bagged compost and chicken manure as I could afford and spread that out, and then sheet mulched almost every available space with cardboard and layered straw on top. This also inspired me to start a compost pile as well. Once I realized how much it would cost me to cover the yard in good compost I knew I needed a more sustainable supply. I had saved my indigo seeds from the previous year and ended up starting almost two hundred seedlings which filled most of the available space along with some black knight scabiosa, black eyed susans, and sulfur cosmos. I learned a lot of things that second year, namely that certain areas in the yard had too much shade to grow much, and that nutrient poor soil, full of roots from a very large maple tree, makes for stunted plants. Certain areas did much better than others, and since I had planted a little bit of everything all over, I had a better idea of what liked to be where by the end of the season.

Switching to Raised beds

Last spring was the beginning of the third growing season and I finally had a much clearer idea of what worked, and what I wanted to do going forward. I kept two of the in-ground beds (the ones furthest from the maple tree that had the least competition from roots, and the most sunlight in the summer), and then I decided to add a mix of raised beds and straw bales to the other areas where I knew the soil was poorer and more compacted. I still didn’t have much of a budget for the raised beds so I scoured the craigslist free section for fence planks (usually after big storms people would post about piles of them) and then cut those down using my circular saw to the dimensions I needed. I was able to build three raised beds this way without having to purchase anything except deck screws.

The cat enjoying a nap in one of my new raised beds made from reclaimed fence planks.

Japanese indigo seedlings planted in one of the new raised beds. This bed was filled mostly with straw and then topped with compost and more straw.
This raised bed grew Japanese indigo and marigolds last season and this year I turned it into a space for edible perennials.

The next challenge was filling the beds. Good soil is not cheap, and I definitely did not have the money to buy enough soil to fill all three beds. Instead I took inspiration from another project I was working on for the garden, the straw bales (more on that further down). I first layered sticks into the bottom of the raised beds (which I had in surplus thanks to the maple tree) taking inspiration from hugelkultur. Then I added blood and bone meal for nitrogen and phosphorus, I layered straw on top of that and then more blood and bone meal, wetting each layer thoroughly and continuing until I had almost filled the bed. Then I added a layer of compost ( a mix of homemade and store bought) and topped it all off with straw. I was able to fill all three of these beds this way for the cost of two straw bales and two bags of blood and bone meal, which I also used for the straw bale gardens. The material in the beds decomposed slowly over the summer, and they did sink down over time. However, the plants thrived in them, and I just topped them off with homemade compost and straw in the fall, after I harvested everything, to fill them back up again.

Growing in Straw Bales

I decided to try growing directly in straw bales after reading Joel Karsten’s book Straw Bale Gardens. The method seemed simple and I had only been able to get enough fence planks to build three raised beds, so I still had some very root compacted areas that needed a solution. The straw bales seemed like a good fit. They only cost $12 at my local feed store, and the blood and bone meal needed to jumpstart the straw bales would cost far less than any other solution. I used Karsten’s method, and conditioned the bales over the course of 12 days. The bales started to decompose nicely, and I planted tons of indigo seedlings into the sides of both bales, and planted kale in the top of one and marigolds and zinnias in the top of the other.

The straw bales right after being conditioned. I planted Japanese indigo seedlings into the sides.

The straw bales a month later. The top has been planted with zinnias and marigolds and the Japanese indigo is growing nicely on the sides.

The bales did great all spring, but by summer I was having a seriously hard time keeping them watered. Summers here are brutal, and average temps are anywhere from 90 to 100+ with no rain from May until October. Indigo loves water, and often grows as a waterside plant, so trying to keep it alive in the straw bale proved to be a challenge even with diligent watering. The indigo in the raised beds, however, did fine. They would wilt in the heat of the day, but perk back up by the evening, while the indigo in the straw bales would dry out to a crisp, and was much harder to revive. I managed to keep one straw bale going all summer, and harvested indigo from it, but it was a struggle. I gave up on keeping the indigo alive in the other bale, and just focused on the kale. The zinnias and the marigold’s did pretty well because they are both very heat and drought tolerant, but I did notice some iron-deficiency in them, and had to supplement them with additional iron since they weren’t able to pull minerals out of the soil like they normally would when planted in the ground.

The zinnias and marigolds survived the summer ok but it was a struggle to keep the bales saturated enough for the indigo..

Overall I loved the idea and the simplicity of the straw bales, but I don’t think they are very well suited for my climate. If you live in an area with cold winters and wet summers like Karsten, then I think they would be an amazing addition to a garden. The best part about them was that at the end of the season I had two half decomposed straw bales. I could have planted fall crops in them, but I decided to build more raised beds where they had been, and use the bales to fill the new beds.

New raised beds where the straw bales once were. I used the decomposed bales to fill up the beds (along with lots of dirty duck bedding and compost)

Our new ducklings among the black knight scabiosa.

Gardening with Ducks

Other additions to the third year dye garden was our flock of ducks! I plan to write a separate post all about our first year keeping ducks so I won’t go into too much detail about them here, except in reference to the garden. I got the ducks mainly because I have always wanted ducks, but also because I knew that they would produce a lot of very nutrient-rich water and bedding which could be used in the garden.

My compost pile made from reclaimed pallets. Having ducks has made my compost extra rich!
In addition to delicous eggs we also get so many worms for the garden thanks to our duck flock.

I love duck eggs and we got a breed that lays a lot of eggs, but the eggs were really just a bonus. I was always in it for the duck poop! I was not disappointed either, dirty duck water and bedding makes truly excellent compost. The number of worms that have appeared in the garden since we got the ducks is staggering, and the plants love a good watering of nitrogen rich duck water whenever I empty their pool. I’m not going to lie, having ducks is a lot of work, and it might not seem worth it to some people, but it has definitely improved the soil considerably. They also love to eat slugs, cutworms, caterpillars and anything else that I feel bad squashing, but don’t want eating my plants. They are also endlessly entertaining, and we have fresh eggs every day, so I find the trade offs worth it.

Perennials and Biennials

This third year was also the first year that I was able to enjoy any perennials. I had planted black eyed susans and black knight scabiosa the previous year, but they remained small and didn’t do much beyond a few flowers. Over the winter I moved them to one of the in-ground beds and by spring they had tons of vigorous new growth. The black knight scabiosa did especially well, they got to over 4 feet tall and flowered all summer.

Me picking black knight scabiosa flowers to dry for dyeing

In my warm climate black knight scabiosa grows as a perennial. My two year old plants got so tall.

The other success I had was finally growing weld. I had tried to grow it the previous year but didn’t have any luck. I tried direct-seeding, and seeding in trays, and had almost zero germination with either method. Determined to make it work the next year I did a lot of reading and purchased my seeds from a different supplier.

Weld babies in the garden. Weld prefers to be direct-seeded on bare soil.

I direct-seeded all of the seeds into an in-ground bed during the winter, and by spring I had a vigorous crop of weld. Weld is often classified as a biennial, but perhaps because I planted them so early, they were flowering by May. I harvested the first crop in late spring, and a second burst of seedlings came up behind them and grew all through the summer. They are still overwintering nicely, and I expect this second round to flower something this spring. For more about dyeing with weld see my blog post here.

Madder plants growing in an old dye pot that got a hole in it.

Root Crops

I planted madder and murasaki ( also known as purple gromwell) seeds my second year. Since both produce dye in their roots, it takes 3 years for them to establish enough for a harvest. I started my madder plants in pots, but I had read that murasaki doesn’t grow well in containers so I planted it in the ground. The madder I planted in my second year, I moved to bigger pots in my third year, and started a new round of seeds in the smaller pots. I ended up with a ton of madder seedlings, and almost all of them out grew their pots within one season. The roots that grew out of the bottom of the pots into the ground were much thicker than those in the pots, so this fall I decided to move all my first and second year madder plants into some of the new raised beds. I also experimented with eco-printing with some of the second year roots and was very pleased with the results. I can’t wait to finally harvest my third year roots at the end of this coming growing season.

Madder sprouting up from the root crown after being transplanted into a new raised bed.

The murasaki did ok in the ground that first year, but I ended up building the duck run where the plants were so I moved them to the other side of the yard. They did fine with the move but I realized it was going to be hard for me to harvest the roots with so much competition from the maple tree roots, and they were in the way of where I wanted to put the new raised beds. This fall I decided to move them to a medium sized planter box that I made last year from some extra wood shelves I had. It's a fairly deep box and they seem to be doing well in that space so far. It gets a lot of sun in winter, and only partial sun in summer, which is perfect for this woodland plant that can tolerate some shade. I’m hoping to harvest some roots at the end of this growing season, but I may have to wait until year 4, since I moved them around so many times and they haven’t had as long to establish.

Hopi black dye sunflower seeds almost ready to harvest.

Hopi Black Dye Sunflower

This is the last dye plant that I want to talk about. This was my second season growing it, this time from seeds that I saved from my first crop. The sunflowers got huge both years and underplanted them with Japanese indigo, which seemed to work well for both crops. Both plants are nitrogen hogs so I did use lots of blood meal and dirty duck water to make a very nutrient rich bed for them to grow in. I find the sunflowers very easy to grow. I transplant them into the bed as seedlings once they have two sets of true leaves and are a few inches tall.

Hopi black dye sunflower seedlings. I find these seeds very quick to germinate.

Hopi black dye sunflower seedlings are ready to transplant out to the garden once they have two sets of true leaves.

My biggest issue is keeping them protected from cutworms, which are moth larvae that lay buried in the ground and then climb up the stems of young seedlings and decapitate them. The best way I’ve found to protect against them is to use a toilet paper tube as a collar. Just slip the tube over the stem of the plant and submerge the bottom of the tube a ¼ in into the soil and the cutworms aren’t able to climb up the stem. Once the plants are big enough, and the stem is too thick for the cutworms to chew through, you can remove the tube or let them decompose naturally.

These monster sunflowers got to be over 8 feet tall.

Hopi black dye sunflowers underplanted with Japanese indigo. I find that trellising or staking the sunflowers when they are young is necessary so they don't topple over from the weight of the heads later on.

I also recommend staking or netting your sunflowers. This last summer I used horta nova trellising horizontally which worked well. A lot of people complain about critters getting to their sunflower seeds before they can, but I haven’t had any issues despite the large bird and squirrel population in my yard. If you do have issues you can always put breathable mesh bags over the flower heads. To learn more about growing and dyeing with Hopi Black dye sunflower check out my blog post here.

Dyer's or Plains coreopsis. I hope to grow a lot more of it this year in my new raised beds.

This coming growing season

Last year I grew a lot of edibles and herbs intermixed with my dye plants and did a lot of experimenting with techniques and new crops. I learned a lot, but it was a ton of work and I spent a lot of my energy on the garden. This year I’m pregnant, and our baby is due in March, right around when I usually start to plant out most things into the garden, and do a second round of seed starting. I’m still planning to have a dye garden, but I know that my capacity is going to be a lot more limited. This year I’m focusing only on dyes, and not planting any edibles except for perennials and herbs that are already established. So far I’ve planted two new rows of black knight scabiosa seedlings, and started a few trays of Japanese Indigo seeds.

Black knight scabiosa seedlings ready to plant out in the garden.

I’ve decided to grow less indigo this year, one because I have less space due to moving the madder plants into raised beds, and two because I grew so much last year that I didn’t have time to use it all and ended up with waaay too much seed. I’m also going to focus on growing more dyer’s coreopsis and sulfur and tango cosmos. I grew a lot of lance leaf coreopsis from seed last year and only a few of them flowered, but all of the plants overwintered nicely so I’m hoping to have a bumper crop of them this year. I’m also going to grow marigolds again, but I haven’t had the best luck starting those from seed, so I’m going to buy some transplants this year as well. I’m going to grow more Hopi black dye sunflower, and test growing it in a raised bed as well as my in-ground bed. I’m also going to trial some Ossabaw indigo seeds and dyer's chamomile seeds that I got from a friend, as well as safflower, all of which I haven’t grown before.

Sulfur cosmos is one of my favorite dye plants to eco-print and dye with. I'm hoping to grow a lot more this year.

My last big project is to finish installing my drip irrigation system. I started it over the summer when I found out I was pregnant. Unfortunately I got so sick I had to stop halfway through. I’m hoping to get it all in place before I give birth so that I don’t have to hand water all summer like I have in previous years. And that’s about it. I’m hoping to streamline my process a bit more this year now that I finally have so much infrastructure in place, and really focus on enjoying and using the garden as much as I can, as well as saving lots of material to use over the winter.

If you made it this far in this very long post, thank you! I hope some of it was helpful or interesting. If you’re growing a dye garden this year I’d love to hear from you about your experiences or tips, or if you have any questions I’m always happy to help troubleshoot.

Some silk samples dyed with sulfur cosmos, coreopsis, and Japanese indigo from last year's dye garden.

Some good resources for dye gardening

Susan Dye

A great blog where I learned a lot about growing weld and Japanese indigo

A Garden to Dye for

A pretty comprehensive book on growing a dye garden

Grand Prismatic Seed

An amazing seed supplier where I buy most of my dye seeds from

Graham Keegan

Where I got my Japanese indigo seeds from originally

Two Looms

Where I purchased my weld seeds from last year

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