Years ago, I used to volunteer at a natural dye garden in the Rockaways in Queens. I would bike down there from Brooklyn, work in the garden for a few hours, take a dip in the ocean, and bike back home. I often dreamed of having my own house and yard with a natural dye garden. Here in Detroit, my dreams have become a reality as I’m in year 2 of growing color and have no plans of scaling down.

Last year, I only grew Japanese indigo, marigolds, and madder. The roots of madder are what you get the red color from and can take up to 3 seasons before you can harvest. Moving to Detroit from Brooklyn was a harsh transition, especially during the lonely Covid period, so planting the madder felt like I was committing to my new life. I literally put down roots!

This year, I expanded the dye garden even more, growing weld, cosmos, Hopi sunflowers, dyer’s coreopsis, marigolds, Japanese indigo, black eyed susan, calendula, dyer’s chamomile, double black hollyhock, madder, murasaki, and black knight scabiosa all from seed. I started the seeds indoors under grow lamps and then transplanted them in the garden after the last frost. I bought most of my seeds from Grand Prismatic Seed except for the Japanese indigo seeds, which I sourced from the indigo masters Rowland & Chinami Ricketts in Indiana. Their website has a lot of helpful guidance on growing indigo.

Compared to the previous year, this year’s harvest was abundantly joyful, and I have a freezer stocked with flowers I will continue to use until next season’s bounty. What will I be doing with my precious dye blooms? With the indigo, I will dry and process the leaves to make an indigo vat (a future blog post!). Flower heads are particularly beautiful in bundle dyeing where you place the flowers on cloth, roll it up tightly, and then steam it to create random splashes of color. Mostly, I will dye yarn for weaving and silk and cotton fabric for quilting. With the remaining dye liquid, I will make lake pigments for homemade inks & paints to be used for marbling.

Winter is the perfect time to reflect on the previous year’s garden and be honest with yourself about what worked and what didn’t. I grew weld from seed, but none of them survived transplanting. Next year, I will be planting the seeds directly in the bed. Dyer’s chamomile did not provide a robust yield this year, and with the buds being so small, I may not plant them again. If I do, I will move them to a different part of the garden to see if they do better in a new location. I love the delicate beauty of dyer’s coreopsis, but their tiny blooms are kind of a pain to harvest. The Hopi sunflowers grew tall and mighty, but the neighborhood squirrels performed death-defying moves to get the seeds before I could.

Which plants did I love to grow the most? Japanese indigo has always been a hardy staple for me. It even grew well on the fire escape off my Brooklyn apartment (don’t tell my previous landlord). I’m in love with the bright orange cosmos and will be expanding a bed for them next year. There are so many plants that will give you a yellow color, but I believe the enormous and dense marigold heads give you the most bang for your buck. The fact that they deter pests for your vegetable garden is an added bonus. Black knight scabiosa was particularly gorgeous to grow, and they look amazing in a bouquet as well. It’s my goal next year to expand the dye garden with flowers that can also work as cut flowers. I love bringing the garden into my home!