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Everything You Need to Know About Growing Your Own Dye Garden

Leaves, berries, bark, and moss are non-toxic, natural, and can be used to create a rainbow of colors.

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Photography by: Getty

We're about to let you in on a crafting secret: You don't need to rely on chemicals to add color to your projects. With your very own dye garden, you can cultivate plants and flowers that you can turn into dyes. Natural dyes are better for the environment and safer for your family. A side benefit of having your own dye garden is the beauty that you'll have in your yard from your assortment of plants.

 

"While there are a multitude of plants that will give you many colors and tones, the most important colors to focus on initially would be plants that can give you red, yellow, or blue," says Amanda Bettin, CTA, associate director of horticulture at Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Columbus, Ohio. "Focusing on the primary colors in larger quantities will allow you to have all colors available to you for making dyes." And you can use the primary color dyes in a variety of combinations to create different colors. Bettin also tells us that it's not only the flowers that can be made into dyes. Other parts of the plant—like stems, roots, and berries—also make great dyes. 

 

Try harvesting your plants at various stages of their development. "When using plants as dyes, even the stage of bloom they are in (tight bud versus fully open flowers) can make for different shades or tones of color," Bettin explains. "So every time a person goes through the process a slightly different color result could be produced, which makes the process all the more exciting to experiment with!" And you can preserve flowers for later use by drying or freezing them, so all is not lost if you are unable to make your dyes soon after harvesting your plants. 

 

RELATED: Master All of the Techniques In Shibori Dyeing

 

Planning Your Dye Garden

You will want to plan your dye garden like you would plan any other type of specialty garden. Remember that you can still design your garden with its appearance in mind. The layout may also depend on the types of plants and their required growing conditions. What kinds of plants should you focus on? "Focusing on annuals and perennials is a lower cost and quicker way to start, and allows you to experiment with different colors," Bettin says. "Perennials, shrubs, and trees used must be hardy to your region to overwinter, so be sure to look up what USDA Plant Hardiness Zone you live in, and choose plants that will thrive in your area." You'll also have to think about the differing soil, light, and space conditions needed for the plants. 

 

Bettin recommends incorporating your dye garden plants within your landscape design. Instead of sectioning off the plants from the rest of your yard, you can spread them all over the space for ultimate growing conditions and for maximizing the appearance of your yard. "Plant the right plant in the right place, and it will thrive; no need for all of these plantings to be grouped together in one garden space. Just keep notes of what you are planting and for what purpose," she says.

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Photography by: Getty

Choosing Types of Plants

One of the best ways to choose which plants to include your dye garden is to consider your location and what can grow successfully, as well as the colors that you want to cultivate in your garden. According to Bettin, there are literally hundreds of plants to choose from: Find plants that have multi-purposes maximizes the usefulness of your garden. You can choose to grow common vegetables, like beets, spinach, and red cabbage, to make homemade natural dyes. We are going to list a few of the ones that can help you to get started on growing your own dye garden.

 

Birch

The bark from a birch tree can make red dye. The scientific name for the birch family is Betula sp. and these trees need to be grown in open areas with access to lots of sunlight.

 

Tickseed

Flowers from the tickseed (Coreopsis sp.) make a lovely orange dye. They resemble daisies and also attract butterflies to your garden. 

 

Yarrow and Marsh Marigold

Yarrow (Achillea sp.) and marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) flowers provide tones of yellow. 

 

Lily-of-the-Valley

The leaves from lilies-of-the-valley (Convalaria majalis) can be used to make green dye. Just be aware that this one of the plants that is very poisonous to animals

 

Yellow Flag Iris

From the roots of the yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus) you can get the color blue to use as a natural dye. But you'll have to check your state to make sure that it is permitted for you to grow it. You are legally prohibited from growing yellow flag irises in Florida, for example. 

 

Elder

Elder (Sambucus nigra) berries can be used to make violet-colored dye. 

 

Dandelion and St. John's Wort

You can use the roots of the dandelion and the blooms and fresh stems of St. John's Wort (Hypericum sp) make brown dye. 

 

Blackberry

The blackberry (Rubus fruticosus) is fantastic in a pie, but blackberries also make a great natural black dye. (Save a few of them for dessert, too.)