Friday, November 14, 2008

Dye Gardens for the True North Strong and Free

We had our first and second snow in the last week. The garden is put to bed for the winter -- whether it was ready or not. We rototilled a new area ready for planting in the Spring and tilled in ashes for potassium and to buffer the natural acidity of our soil.

Now is the best time to start planning for next year's dye garden. Yellows, Blues and Reds are all necessary for a full palette of sustainable, renewable dye colours. From these we can overdye to achieve the secondary colours -- green, orange and violet.

Here's the catch. In our mountainous, Canadian climate we have no guarantee of any frost free period. We can have frost any day of the year -- even when the daytime temperatures top 45C (100F+). Our farm isn't considered arable, did you guess that? We can grow pasture, and grasses in the rocky soil, but we aren't very successful with vegetables that grow above the ground.

So my challenge these last five years has been to learn how to manage in this harsh climate and still grow a garden that's useful.

Dyer's Chamomile or Dyer's Marguarite

Dye plants that survive frost and produce yellows include Yarrow, Mullien, Golden Rod, Dyer's Chrysanthemum (Shingiku), Black Eyed Susan, and dyer's margarite (dyer's chamomile).

A natural dye bouquet

All but Dyer's Chrysanthemum are hardy perennials and so will produce for many year's with one planting. Many of these also make lovely bouquets. Dyer's margarite has a larger flower than regular margarite and will continue to produce flowers for the full season. Frost reddens the foilage making more attractive. Shingiku is used as a mildy spicy salad or stir fry green as well as being a prolific dye plant. It easily sets seed even after frost.

First year woad rosettes ready for the first harvest

For blues, there's only one choice: woad. It will produce blue even after a frost and remains evergreen under the snow. Pre 1900 it was used as a fodder crop during the winter, in Europe, after the dye season, when other plants were dormant. It has a spicy, mustard flavour in the summer but is similiar to Kale in winter. The dye extraction process is more complicated than with other dye plants but the resulting dye extract is similiar to other natural indigos in behavior and colour.

With pH alterations of the dye vat, the woad extract will produce reds, silvers, purples and greens. Its leaves will also produce yellows, pinks, and peach. A truly remarkable biennial that is hardy in our zone 3 climate. In B.C., woad is not considered a noxious weed, but in 10 western states it is. Check with your local authority to see if it is permissible before planting.

For reds, madder is the choice, protected under a thick mulch of straw and manure in a raised bed. Although our summer frosts prevent it from setting seed, the roots continue to grow in the soil and the pencil thick roots can be harvested every 3 to 5 years.

In our area, wild madder is a native plant -- from the bedstraw family. Its velcro like leaves and flowers resemble culitvated madder, but it is hardy enough to set seed in our frosty summers. I have been removing the plants from other areas of the garden and settling the seed in our madder bed. Given enough tender loving care, it is likely that it will produce enough roots to rival cultivated madder. I'll have to test this hypothesis in the next few years.

A bed of madder that's 3 ft. wide by 10 ft. long will give ample roots for a dyeing a few lbs. of yarn. To guarantee an ongoing source of madder, start the plants in a nursery bed and transplant after they get growing. 3 madder beds, harvested and replanted in succession, will give an ongoing supply of well formed roots. I haven't had the roots become invasive, but in a warmer clime they may. They can be container grown in a milder climate.

Madder needs a permanent location, as do the many perennial producers of yellow dyes. Woad is a biennial but only produces substatial blue dye the first year -- so it can be rooted out in the fall except for a few controlled plants that are allowed to set seed. Don't let it get away on you as the word "weed" originated from "woad". Woad should be rotated within your dye garden on a 4 year rotation. It shares the same needs and pests as the brassica family of plants.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

New "natural" yarns and your local shepherd

I was at a function last night – a soroptomist fund raiser. They had a fashion show by different local businesses (not us). I was astounded at all the push for the “new” natural fiber – bamboo. It was truly amazing to hear all the marketing phrases being parroted by the stores trying to sell this fiber as the eco-salvation of the fashion industry.

Phrases like – eco-fiber, wicks moisture, renewable, natural etc., ad nauseum. Wool was definitely a bad word or any animal fiber for that matter.

Bamboo fiber, is a poly-ester, like rayon, corn, milk, soy, tencel, and seacell. It is made by putting the organic material (organic as in organic chemistry – dealing with molecules of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen) into a chemical soup to dissolve it and then reconstituting it as a thread of fiber. Rayon is highly polluting, as it was originally patented. Tencel, corn, soy, bamboo, milk and seacell use a different patented process that reuses the chemical soup and then filters and neutralizes the final byproducts so that they are more environmentally friendly. But these fibers are not truly natural and do not occur naturally in the environment the way wool, cotton, linen, hemp, mohair, alpaca, angora, and silk do.

And the man made fibers behave just like polyester – they absorb oils, act like a dirt magnet and are never as insulating as the natural fibers are. I don’t know what they do in a burn test. In the case of bamboo – the fiber has become so popular that there is a danger of deforestation in China, as the bamboo forests are being harvested faster than they can regrow. Further, these fibers require the infrastructure of large factories and multi national chemical companies to create them – not small farms, with small carbon footprints and intimate relationships with their animals.

At the same time these fibers are being marketed as the vegan choice – without animal exploitation, or animal cruelty. Implying that all shepherds and animal caregivers exploit and are cruel to their animals which they make their livelihood from. I don’t know a single fiber shepherd that doesn’t invest their life wholly in the welfare of their animals.

So before jumping on the bandwagon for the "new" natural fibers, understand that they are not natural -- occuring naturally in the environment -- and they may not be as eco-friendly as the marketing gurus claim. Further, most are dyed with chemical dyes and so have other inherent environmental negatives. As with all purchase decisions that have ethical considerations, the actual reality is much more complicated than the marketers would have you believe.