Archive for the ‘Dye Plants’ Category

First Wax Beans - 2012

First Wax Beans – 2012

This is the first picking of beans for this year. There are now plenty of yellow (wax) and green beans that are almost ready to eat, so it’s time to find some good recipes so we don’t get tired of beans every day…

It’s been very hot and dry until last night when it finally rained and cooled off some. Even though it’s been hot, I think the garden is off to a slower start than last year.

Here are some late-July shots to show how everything looks today:


Tomatoes are forming, but are still green so far:

Green Tomatoes

Green Tomatoes









New leaves on Cotton

The cotton didn’t go outside as early as last year, and hasn’t even formed squares yet. There is some new growth, so I’m still hopeful that some bolls will have time to develop.



Madder – second year










The second year Madder withstood the dry conditions extremely well and is very glossy and prickly.








And the new Black Walnut seedling has been planted at a good distance from the garden. It’s looking very well!

Black Walnut seedling


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First Cotton Seedlings

This is the second year (third for flax growing) of my project to produce cloth from my garden.

As I live in Ontario, Canada (not exactly in the heart of cotton country), I plant cotton seeds indoors well before the local growing season begins. Last year my cotton plants stayed in pots outside all summer and came indoors again in the autumn so the bolls could continue to ripen.

Four days ago I planted some of the seed saved from last year and today some have already germinated! I’m sure they were slower last year, but this time they are sitting on a heat mat which really speeds up germination (for seeds that like warm soil).

I have four varieties planted: Pima, Upland, Green and Brown.

If enough seeds germinate, I’ll try planting some out in the garden and depending on their progress, cover them with a hoop shelter in the fall if they need a little extra time to mature. Cotton has up to a 160 day growing cycle, which is a challenge, but the plants are attractive with lovely hibiscus-like blossoms. The fibre is fun to spin and, unlike flax, does not require a great deal of preparation.

Cotton spun on a spindle and plied on a wheel

Last summer I also grew my first Japanese Indigo plants and collected seed from a few plants that were brought indoors in the autumn at the blooming stage. It was hard to tell if the seed was maturing, or if the plants were just dying back, so I’ve put a few seeds between wet paper towels in a plastic tub to test their viability. They are starting to put out little shoots which is very promising.

If all goes well, I’ll be able to extract some indigo and dye a little of the cotton – adding blue to the natural colour pallet of white, green and brown.

The yarn shown was spun on my little takli spindle (shown) and then plied on my spinning wheel. It is not my home-grown cotton yet – I’m still practising with the cotton that came with the spindle from Joan Ruane. Many Thanks Joan!

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Japanese Indigo Blossoms

I underestimated the amount of dyestuff that’s needed for natural dyeing, but fortunately, the amount of fibre that my garden produced this year is also small.

This means that next year I will devote more garden space to both fibre plants (flax and cotton) and to dye plants. I’ve already lined up some additional woad seeds from Sarah Dalziel at Woad.ca, and hope that the blooms on my Japanese Indigo plants will produce seeds before our first frost.

My own woad was useful for dyeing, but will not produce seeds until its second year.

On the fibre front, there are at least ten cotton bolls ready to burst on the potted cotton plants in the porch. Here are the first two.

Cotton Bolls Opening

I’ll devote some time this winter to further experiments with retting and processing last year’s flax fibre and to spinning and dyeing the cotton – of course, all seeds will be saved for next year!

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Woad Plant

The Woad and Japanese Indigo plants in the garden have grown reliably, as have the Indigo plants in pots in the porch. I took a first harvest of all three types of leaves and tried my first-ever indigo vat(s).

There were about 102 grams of Woad leaves, so I processed them following the directions in Jenny Dean’s book “Wild Colour”.

Combined, the Indigo and Japanese Indigo leaves only weighed 35 grams, so I tossed them together in a second pot.

The directions for Woad called for boiling water poured over the leaves, which resulted in a nice brew that looked like rooibos tea. Soda ash is then added and the mixture is whisked to incorporate air. The oxygen is then removed by adding thiourea dioxide. Small skeins of cotton and wool were dipped and then exposed to air, at which point they developed a shade of blue.

The directions for Japanese Indigo called for cold water that is then heated to just below boiling temperature. This is the point where I started to go wrong. I let it boil, and then didn’t see any change in colour, so I kept adding soda ash and thiourea dioxide. Still no reaction until I dipped the wool skein which foamed up and promptly disintegrated. The cotton skein didn’t fall apart like the wool, but didn’t pick up any colour either. I think I had way too little dye-stuff to start with, and added way too much soda ash. I added the cotton skein to the Woad pot which added a pale blue shade when exposed to the air.

Left: Cotton dyed with Woad. Middle: Wool dyed with Woad. Right: Cotton added to Woad pot after most of the dye was exhausted.

Here are the results. The Woad was especially nice and easy to work with and I’ll try all three plants again, but it will be a challenge getting enough Indigo leaves as they weigh next to nothing.

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wool simmered and soaked overnight (left), wool soaked overnight (right)

To test the dye potential of the Black Walnut hulls I’ve been removing, I soaked a small skein of yarn overnight in the tub where the walnuts have been soaking in water. I liked the colour so much that I decided to make a proper dye-bath to see what would happen.

I half-filled my dye-pot with hulls, added enough water to cover them and simmered the liquid for an hour. The pot was then cooled and the hulls filtered out, leaving a very dark brown dye-bath. A pre-wetted skein of wool was added and the pot was retuned to a low heat and simmered for another hour. The heat was then turned off and the skein was left to soak in the dye-bath overnight. Here are the results – I think I like black walnut dyeing!

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The first week of September, the nuts started to fall. This appears to be the best year yet for quantity and there are plenty to share with the red squirrel who is very territorial about them.

To actually use the nutmeat, the outer covering must be removed, then the shell cracked and the edible parts removed. Sounds simple, but the outer covering is tough and the shells are incredibly hard to crack without pulverizing the nut inside.

Stage One:

Soak the nuts to soften up the outer covering so that it can be removed.

It takes about a week of soaking to soften up the fresh green hulls.

Stage Two:

Remove the hulls with a sharp knife (wearing old clothes and rubber gloves!) and then clean the shells with a pressure washer. Many of the nut shells are completely blackened by contact with the juice in the hulls, but I don’t think it affects the flavour of the nutmeat. The liquid is a powerful natural dye, and I plan to save the hulls and experiment with it as a dyestuff.

Lay the nuts in a single layer on a screen to dry.

Stage Three (future):

Crack the shells – I use a heavy hammer on a concrete floor and cover the the nuts with a tea towel to prevent the sharp shell fragments from flying.  The inner sections of the shell are also very hard, so it’s a challenge to get reasonably sized pieces. Store the nutmeat in the freezer unless it is used right away. The nutmeat can be lightly toasted before use.

A small mystery:

Amongst the Black Walnuts, we’ve found a few Butternuts. We don’t posses a mature Butternut tree, but suspect that a squirrel passing through with a butternut decided that a walnut (being bigger) was a better find and dropped one nut for the other.

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Cotton Bolls

The cotton plants are still blooming and the first bolls are growing rapidly. I’m becoming more confident of having some that will actually ripen, so I may transplant some of next year’s plants into the garden instead of keeping them all in pots as I did this year.

The pots I’ve used aren’t really big enough to permit a nice large plant to form, but they do seem to take well to the tomato-booster fertilizer spikes.

The indigo in the screen porch is still doing well, but I think I’d need several acres-worth to have enough leaves to harvest for the dye pot. The Japanese Indigo seems more promising as it’s a faster grower in the garden, while the verdict is still out on the woad.

Flax (background) and Japanese Indigo

My first experiment in retting flax appears to be a failure as the fine fibres are breaking along with the rest of the straw when I attempt to separate them. I think this is due to over-retting, so I’m soaking another sample of the flax straw and this time I’ll test the ph level in the soaking water with litmus paper daily during the retting period so I don’t overdo it.

Another source of trouble may be the maturity of the flax straw itself – I may not have pulled it soon enough, so I’m keeping an eye on this year’s crop. Some of it is still blooming, while most of it has green seed pods with some yellowing of the stalks. It will probably be ready to pull this week.

Brown Eyed Susans

Another naturally-occurring dye plant that I’ve picked for later use are the Brown-Eyed Susans which are in full bloom right now.

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