Sea Green and Sapphire

A blog about a love of colour, addiction to fabrics and joy of crafting…


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Harvest Time

dahlias and chamomile pickedAh, harvest – that time of the year when the hard work earlier on is finally beginning to pay off. That time of the year when the greenhouse is full of cucumbers and tomatoes, and after a month of eating courgette with every meal you frantically search around the internet for any new exciting courgette recipes that you haven’t already tried (note to self: five courgette plants in a household of only two people is definitely way too many!). That time of the year, when you are just about ready to start picking all those gooseberries that you have so anticipated being able to eat, just to notice that they have suddenly been eaten by some mysterious nocturnal beastie – just like that – over night – with not a single one left.

drying flowers for dyeing

I dry many of my dye plants for later use. My netting tower is completely stuffed at the moment.

Despite some of the challenges in my dye garden that I wrote about in my last post, there is plenty of material there to be getting on with. If I am planning on using flowers for dyeing, I rarely use them fresh as I don’t often have enough at any given point for a decent batch, so I dry them and use them once I have accumulated enough. So flower harvesting has been the number one hobby this month.

After a cold first half of the year, the weather has finally realised it has some catching up to do so we have been having an unusually long heatwave here in the UK. As lovely as it would be to spend the warm evenings lounging around in a deck chair, enjoying a glass of wine, the reality hasn’t been quite like that (I suppose it never is).

The hotter it has been the more work there has been in the evenings, trying keep all my new plants watered and alive. So I have been spending my summer evenings rushing around with a garden hose, then with legs already seriously wobbly, picking up all the flowers that are past their best and trying to find a flat surface for them in the outbuilding that is not already covered with flowers.

Actually, despite the element of franticness in trying to get everything done before collapsing completely, I really do like that bit. On a sunny evening there is definitely a moment of serenity there, with the sun going down, the air cooling and my plastic crate being filled up with wonderful colours. That’s my favourite part of it all.

A month or two ago I was slightly worried that I might not have the stamina to do any dyeing this summer at all, but luckily my energy levels have picked up a little bit (perhaps it is all that sun and vitamin D) and now, after all the essential house and garden jobs (and all that plant watering) are done, there is just enough energy left over to do a bit of dyeing.

picking flowers for dyeing

picking flowers for dyeing

I love solar dyeing, just chuck stuff into a jar and leave them until you are ready to continue with the process. In this case I have pre-boiled the plant material though, as I find that decomposing plant bits can stick to unspun wool easily if you leave it for too long (as I often do).

I love solar dyeing, just chuck stuff into a jar and leave them until you are ready to continue with the process. In this case I have pre-boiled the plant material and discarded the plant bits before placing the dye liquid in the jar, as I find that decomposing plant bits can stick to unspun wool easily if you leave it for too long (as I often do).

It is going slowly, and it feels quite strenuous at the moment, so the materials are often left in dye pots for days before I have the energy for the next stage, but that doesn’t matter. That’s the thing I like about natural dyeing, it’s pretty flexible in that you can stop the process in many places and wait for a few days (or even weeks as the case may be) before you continue.

Given that it is going so slowly, I haven’t quite got to the stage where I am ready to show any actual results, but meanwhile I thought I’d give you another quick tour of the harvesting activities that have been going on.

Tagetes erecta

Tagetes erecta – as a plant not one of my favourites, looking as it does slightly stiff and pompous, but I am hoping to get some cheerful colours from it

Dahlias

I don’t know yet how good dahlias are as dye plants, but they are certainly looking very jolly at the moment

dahlias

I grow my dahlias in pots, as it makes it easier to protect them in the winter

my black hollyhocks

Of the different-coloured hollyhocks, the black one seems to be the one that makes the most interesting dye colours. This is my first ever batch, so I am so looking forward to giving it a go!

black hollyhock

Black hollyhock, Alcea rosea nigra

Japanese indigo needs a long warm season to make seeds, so I am growing one of my plants in a pot so that in the spring and autumn it can be kept in the greenhouse.

Japanese indigo needs a long warm season to make seeds, so I am growing one of my plants in a pot so that in the spring and autumn it can be kept in the greenhouse.

The greenhouse treatment seems to be working as this one is beginning to flower already

The greenhouse treatment seems to be working as this one is beginning to flower already

You can tell a Japanese indigo is ready for harvesting when you can start seeing little blue spots in the leaves, especially where they have been bruised or damaged.

You can tell a Japanese indigo is ready for harvesting when you can start seeing little blue spots in the leaves, especially where they have been bruised or damaged. I have harvested some of the leaves of this one already, but that’s a subject of another post…

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). I am not picking the flowers of these, they are far too pretty, but I'll use the whole plant in the end of the season

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). I am not picking the flowers of these, they are far too pretty, but I’ll use the whole plant in the end of the season

Eucalyptus gunnii is supposedly hardy in the UK, but I am growing it in a pot just in case so that I can take it to the greenhouse in the autumn

Eucalyptus gunnii is supposedly hardy in the UK, but I am growing it in a pot just in case so that I can take it to the greenhouse in the autumn

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New Plans for My Dye Garden

Planning the new season in my dye garden

With my trusted dyeing books and a few packets of seeds, I’m ready for the new season in the garden!

It has been a cold and grey spring here so far. We had two wonderfully sunny days last week, the crocuses and bees were out at last, but unfortunately it didn’t last.  This week the winter is back we had 10cm of snow on the ground this morning. But it’s prime seed sowing season nevertheless, and it has been keeping me busy in the last few weeks.

To avoid the inevitable spring rush, I was super-organised in the autumn and ordered my seeds already then. And yet, as I have been going through those seeds now, I realised that some of my seeds should have been sown already in the autumn, and quite a few need a period of cold before they germinate. I can’t believe it – I’m behind already and I have only just started!!

Last year was my first year of growing dye plants, and this year I have an even bigger list of plants I want to try to grow. I have a new border dedicated to dye plants, which is pretty exciting. As well as useful, I want this border to be ornamental too so I have chosen plants that look pretty as well as are suitable for dyeing. I am also going to scatter a few of these multi-functional plants  in my existing ornamental flower borders (just to have even more room for them!).

So here is the plan for dye plants that I am going to grow this year. Just for my own benefit so that I remember what I should be doing, I’ve grouped the plants according to sowing time and method.

Seeds that need an early sowing:

  • Japanese Indigo (Polygonum tinctorium). After my success with woad last year, I’m very excited to try the Japanese indigo this year.This needs a long season especially if you want the plants to set seed. It is not hardy so I have started these in-house, soon I will move them to heated propagators in my unheated greenhouse and hope to keep them going that way until late May when I will plant them out.
  • Dyer’s Broom (Genista tinctoria), this will need an exposure to cold before germinating. After sowing, I kept the seeds in the house for 2 weeks, then put them outside for the chill treatment. And I already have a few plants in pots that I managed to grow last year, but never had the time to plant somewhere permanent.
  • Purple loosestrife (Lythrum Salicaria). This is a pretty native plant with purple flowers that is ornamental as well as suitable for dyeing. It needs damp soil, which luckily we have. We have a pond in the garden as well as very sticky clay, so by the pond it is often completely soggy. Seeds should be sown in winter in a coldframe.
  • Goldenrod (I’m trying Solidago canadensis ‘Golden Baby’). Seeds should be sown in late winter/early spring.
  • Black-eye Susan (Rudbeckia fuldiga ‘Goldsturm‘). Sowing in early spring in a cold frame.

Spring sowing (seeds to be sown in spring in a coldframe or in an unheated greenhouse):

  • Hemp Agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum). This is a very tall perennial that butterflies adore. It can also be used for dyeing. Seeds can be sown in a cold frame or unheated greenhouse in the spring.
  • Medowsweet (Filipendula Ulmaria). Another multifuctional plant that needs damp conditions ideally by a pond.
  • Tickseed (Coreopsis tinctoria). A perfect multi-functional plant that I grew last year. It looks pretty and gives a nice range of yellow, oranges and brick red as I wrote here.
  • Purple basil (I am trying variety ‘Purple Ruffles’). Not a hardy plant so needs to started indoors. My soil is not ideal for basil, but I am going to try it anyway, and perhaps keep some in pots.
  • Red Perilla. This is an oriental cooking vegetable that is decorative too. The seeds only germinate after their dormancy is broken. Apparently keeping the seeds in a fridge for 1-3 months before sowing might do the trick. So I am putting them into the fridge now and sow a bit later on in the spring.

Direct Sowing (March to May):

  • Bronze fennel. A truly multi-functional plant, very ornamental, used in cooking and also dyeing. The seedling of fennel do not transplant well so it’s best sown directly in late spring.
  • Woad (Isatis tinctoria). Last year I was more successful with my woad when sown directly (the seeds I tried to propagate in the greenhouse just didn’t germinate). It’s a hungry plant so needs extra fertiliser once it gets going.
  • Weld (Reseda luteola). Another one that I just could not get to germinate in the greenhouse last year, so this year I am going to try sowing it directly in a dry gravelly ground next to the south facing wall of our garage – lets see if I am more successful this way.

Plants that I already started last year:

  • Dyer’s Chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria). This is a perennial plant so it should flower again this year.
  • Black Hollyhock (Althaea rosea var. Nigra). As I have been reading about the dyeing experiments by Pia from Colour Cottage with this plant, I am so happy I already started some plants last year. It’s a biennial so mine should flower this year.
  • Rhubarb. I planted quite a few rhubarb plants in my kitchen garden last year. As well as the stems that provide nice puddings, the leaves (which are poisonous) can be used as a mordant. The roots you can use as dye. But you are supposed to let them grow 2-3 years before starting to harvest them so I may need leave mine alone this year.
  • Buckthorn (Rhamnus species). This is a hedging plant, and I am going to fill some gaps in our hedge with some plants that I bought last year and have been growing on in pots.

Shrubs

  • Elder (Sambucus nigra). I’m going to plant both the green and black varieties in my garden this year. The flowers and berries can be used in cooking and the leaves and the flowers can be used in dyeing.
  • Blackthorn, “Sloe” (Prunus spinosa). There’s a wild sloe bush in the forest near our house the berries of which we’ve used to make wonderful sloe gin but I’d like a sloe bush in my own garden too.

And in case I won’t have enough on the list already, I really would like to try these too:

  • Dahlia
  • Staghorn sumac (useful as a mordant too)
  • and some hardy variety of eucalyptus

Now that I am looking at this, I’m realising it’s quite a list. I am always way too over-enthusiastic and ambitious with my garden plans and by April I know I am in trouble. Despite good intentions this happens every year, so I’m sure this year won’t be an exception. But being sensible  is not fun, is it?