Arts & Leisure Gardening

How to cultivate natural dyes from your garden

Growing flowers, vegetables and berries for eating is fun and nourishing, but what about growing them to make colorful dyes?

Natural pigments in these can be harnessed to dye fiber or fabric. Indigenous people throughout history and across the globe have made pigments out of plants and minerals, adding incredible color to textiles, pottery, baskets, rugs and buildings.

FLOWER HEADS FROM calendulas, a popular choice for cut flower gardens, can be simmered in a pot of water to create dyes in a range of yellow hues. 
Photo by Bonnie Kirn Donahue

The process of dying fabric is simple although it may take some trial and error to get the color right. The basic formula is to add your dye material to a pot of water and simmer. The ratio of dye material to water varies, but you can start with 3:1 (water to flower/fruit/vegetable) and see how you like the color.

After your liquid reaches the desired color (15-20 minutes), remove the pot from the heat, and add your fabric to soak. You can practice on scraps of old white t-shirts, or jump right in and try dying t-shirts, tea towels or other fabrics.

Soaking time will depend upon the type of fabric, the concentration of your dye and the intensity of your desired color. It could take as little as 30 minutes to as long as a day of soaking. When you like the color you see, remove it from the dye, rinse with cold water to remove excess dye and hang to dry.

There are many commonly available vegetables and fruits that can be grown in your garden to make dyes. Red beets produce a butterscotch to pink color, while blueberries, blackberries and red cabbage make gray-blues and purples. Red and brown onion skins make lovely orange, yellow and brown tones.

Orange marigold and calendula flowers can be used to make a range of yellow hues. Over the counter spices such as turmeric also make fantastic yellow dyes. Use a ratio of about 1 tablespoon of turmeric per 4 cups of water.

There is still time to plant many of these vegetables and flowers this spring. Beets, onions, cabbage, marigolds and calendula can be easily grown within a summer.

Planting seedling starts from your local greenhouse for cabbage and marigolds will give them the best chance to grow. Beets and calendula grow well by seed, and onion sets can be found at a greenhouse, farmers market or hardware store.

You can experiment with this at home. Test what happens with fruits, vegetables and flowers in your garden to see what colors you come up with for dyes. You also can try to make dyes using vegetable or flower leaves or roots to see what colors they produce.

Check online or at your local library for more in-depth instructions on using natural dyes and to learn more about the fascinating global history of natural dye making.

Bonnie Kirn Donahue is a UVM Extension Master Gardener and landscape designer from central Vermont.

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