Oklahoma is derived from the Choctaw Indian words "okla" meaning people and "humma" meaning red. Oklahoma is my home. Tinctoria is Latin, meaning to dye or color things; this is my work.

09 April 2010

Seed to Skein 2010 Dye Garden Project, Oklahoma

Dye Seed Packets, 2010.

Dye Seed Packets, 2010

Part I: Growing Dye Plants from Seed

This year I am documenting my SEED to SKEIN 2010 Dye Garden Project. My goals include getting to know some new dye plants like Polygonum tinctorium and revisiting dye plants which I have grown in the other gardens like Rubia tinctoria and Isatis tinctoria. As I become more involved with natural colors I want to be able to clearly identify which dye plants are most suited to Oklahoma. It is important to understand how a plant grows and have a sense of the various characteristics of each species. 

Oklahoma has extreme weather conditions; we can go from flood to drought to tornado to ice storms within very short time periods. Summer temperatures often soar into the 100’s for weeks at a time and it does not cool off at night like it does in many other hot climates. These climatic hardships are stressful for plants, animals and people. So, why do we live here? That story unfolds the many years of trials and tribulations. Meanwhile plant lovers continue to battle the weeds, dig in the dirt, enrich the soil, mulch for nutrients and water retention, grow and harvest some amazing bounties.

Despite these climatic hardships Oklahoma can be a great place to garden and to live. Oklahoma offers a long growing season, generally from March through October and even year round for the ultra dedicated. Four plant hardiness zones, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b with temperatures ranging from -10 to +10 degrees Fahrenheit, are represented in Oklahoma, making the variety of plants quite diverse. Plant hardiness zones are areas of average annual minimum temperatures. Plants and seeds are usually sold with an indication of their Plant Hardiness Zone. Contact your local extension office to find out which specific zone you live in or go to the US Forest Service web site to read their Plant Hardiness Zone Map:


US Forest Service Hardiness Zone Map,
public domain, 2010.

There are many dye plants that can be grown from seed. Gardeners are great friends to have because we love to share plants and many of us save our seed from year to year. Following is a list of the plants I am growing for my SEED to SKEIN 2010 Dye Garden Project (latin name, common name, dye colors, establishment, plant hardiness zone):

Alcea rosea, Hollyhock cultivars, yellow and pink, biennial, zone 5.
Coreopsis lanceolata, Coreopsis, yellow and tan, perennial, zone 5.
Cosmos bipinnatus, Cosmos, yellow, annual, all zones.
Dahlia, Dahlia hybrids, yellow and orange, tender perennial, all zones.
Helianthus, Hopi Black Dye Sunflower strain, grays, annual, all zones.
Isatis tinctoria, Woad, blue, biennial, zone 3.
Polygonum tinctorium, Japanese Indigo, blue, annual, all zones.
Reseda luteola, Weld or Mignonette, yellow, biennial, zone 3.
Rubia tinctoria, Madder, red and orange, perennial, zone 4. 
Tagetes patula, French Marigold, yellow, annual, all zones.
Tanacetum vulgare, Tansy, yellow, perennial, zone 4.
Zinnia, Zinnia cultivars, yellow and tan, annual, all zones.

Coreopsis seeds, 2010.

Cosmos seeds, 2010.

Helianthus, Hopi Dye Sunflower seeds, 2010.

Isatis tinctoria, Woad seeds, 2010.

Polygonum tinctorium,
 Japanese Indigo seeds, 2010.

Reseda, Weld seeds, 2010.

Rubia tinctoria, Madder seeds, 2010.

Starting seeds indoors has always seemed rather troublesome to me. Once germinated, the fragile seedlings never seem to get enough light and the moisture is difficult to control. When the seeds are too wet there is a risk of “dampening off” which causes the new seeds to rot. A seed starting frame is the next best thing to a greenhouse and it is an ideal way to start healthy seedlings in the early Spring.

The seed starting frame is covered with glass and can sit outside on the ground in a sunny location, preferably facing south. The bottom is lined with sturdy hardware cloth, then covered with a layer of landscape fabric, preventing the sand from washing away. A layer of sand is placed over the cloth followed by a heating cable and finally covered with more sand. The seedling pots sit in the frame on damp sand. The seed starting frame provide good drainage and a warm, protected environment. The heating cable assists the germination rates and helps the new seedlings along past the last frost danger. When the days are warm and calm I lift off the glass windows which provide shelter from harsh climate changes like hard rain and even hail. In the late afternoon I cover the seedlings again for the night when the temperatures may still be too cool for the new seedlings. This is also a great way to start tomatoes, basil, eggplant and many other flowers and foods.

Seed Starting Frame with
 heating cable, 2010.

There are many books about gardening: what to plant, where to plant, how to start, soil types, irrigation, buying plants or seeds, composting, harvesting, diseases, pests, etc. Although many garden dye plants can be found in general gardening books, like marigolds and zinnias, there are few resources specifically designed for growing dye plants in the home garden. Rita Buchanan has two books that are imperative for any dye garden enthusiast, experienced or beginner: A Dyer’s Garden and A Weaver’s Garden (see Bibliography for detailed information). The last chapter in A Weaver’s Garden, ‘Creating a Garden’, and the beginning of A Dyer’s Garden provides helpful, in depth information about designing and starting a dye garden and the various attributes to consider before you start digging. Indigo from Seed to Dye by Dorothy Miller is a great reference specifically about growing Polygonum tinctorium, Japanese Indigo.

Although there are many reputable seed companies, dye seeds are hit or miss in garden catalogs. Latin names are vital for identifying the proper species of the plant that you are seeking. Weld is a good example of the importance of identification; Reseda luteola is the well known yellow dye plant but Reseda odorata is an ornamental that contains no dye.

Here are a few seed companies where I have purchased specific dye plant species: 

Earth-Arts (saved garden seed)

Richters (Canadian)

Chiltern Seeds (British)

Pinetree Garden Seeds (Dyeing Herbs section)

Native Seeds/SEARCH (Native American dye plant and fiber seed) http://www.nativeseeds.org/

Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Peaceful Valley (heating cable)

Finally, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to grow plants in appropriate locations that suit the cultural requirements of each particular species. Individual plants have evolved with specific conditions of soil and climate. As gardeners we try to provide these same conditions as closely as possible. This does not always mean that we follow exact directions on the seed packet. For example, many plants require full sun in zone 5, but in zone 7 they may need partial shade because the growing season temperatures are warmer and the sun may be harsher. Observe these qualities, characteristics and micro climates in your own garden to find the best placement for each species. Establishment of a species, whether it is annual, biennial or perennial and which parts of the plants will be harvested for dyeing will also determine where to plant each species. Some plants re-seed themselves abundantly, happily spreading volunteers all over the garden. This can be desirable or disastrous depending on the garden and the gardener. 

Happy Planting!


  1. lovely seed shots, good advice
    and a splendid set of links

  2. I'm looking forward to following your blog-or playing catch-up, rather. I'm in Oklahoma, and while I dont have a garden yet-nowhere to grow one-I certainly intend to have one. And this is good info-I'm interested in herbs and dye plants both.


  3. This post is fantastic and very thorough. I have had trouble sourcing seeds for a dye garden and I am very excited to see your blog! We are in Zone 2b - 3. This is a great idea for a project!