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.

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