A member of the mustard family, woad has been used since ancient times to produce a beautiful blue dye. It is an easy to grow hardy biennial, but is classified as an invasive weed in some of the Western, dryer parts of the United States (check your local guidelines before planting). The blue dye is present in the first year leaves – only let grow into the second year if you wish to collect seeds.
How to grow:
Site Selection: Zone 4-8, rich loamy alkaline soil. Full sun is preferred. Rotate planting areas yearly and fertilize with nitrogen.
Start seeds: Start indoors several weeks before last frost and plant out after all threat of frost has passed, or direct seed into garden at about the time of the last frost about ¼” deep, 4” apart. Thin to 1’ between plants. Click here to buy organic woad seeds.
Harvest: Harvest the leaves from midsummer to before the first frost. Plants will re-grow leaves to allow a second or even third harvest. Only first year leaves produce blue pigment.
Processing: Rinse the leaves and use immediately in a vat for dye extraction.
As any Midwesterner worth their salt knows, rhubarb is the true sign of spring. Specifically a pie, crisp, or other culinary delight. My family has been blessed by the rhubarb gods – our plants are prolific, massive, and darn near impossible to kill. They may or may not have even emigrated to Utah (shhhh).
In the reading I’ve been doing recently about natural and plant based dyeing, rhubarb has come up more than once. I’ve read the roots offer orange colors while the leaves can be used as a mordant (seriously, gotta do that nomenclature post), and maybe some green/yellow color? I already knew what to do with the stems.
So. Since we had some company visiting I had to be a little sneaky with my dye obsession. I decided to make a rhubarb crisp (scroll down for my favorite recipe!)… and just happened to toss some leaves into the dye pot. Roots would wait for another day!
I ended up with 13 oz of rhubarb leaves completely effortlessly since they are massive. Remember that the leaves are poisonous if eaten due to their high oxalic acid content (nephrotoxic to people, dogs, etc), so usually these guys end up in the compost bin. Today my leaves got roughly chopped and tossed in the dedicated aluminum dye pot (don’t cook and dye in the same pots kids). I low simmered them for 1/2 hour down in the dye lab while I made crisp* in the kitchen (recipe at the end of the post).
It was a busy day and I didn’t get back to my leaves until the next morning. By that time they were a gloppy, gooey, fragrant mess and the water had taken on a golden glow. Because I am never patient enough, I hadn’t yet prepared a whole bunch of fiber. What I had scoured were 2 ounces of Romney/Blackface blend I’d purchased a pound of from eBay… purely for experimenting with in the dye pot and on the wheel. I’d spun 1 ounce into a 2 ply and the other oz was roving. In went the damp wool, simmered low for 30 minutes, then cooled about 4 hours and out.
I also used a 1/2 tsp of baking soda in about 1.5C of dye water to modify a wisp of roving.
I have to say, the results were… underwhelming. Kind of a murky, dull yellow. And the fiber felt harsh and was well on its way to felting – maybe due to the rhubarb leaves, but more likely due to my beginner’s technique. Too much swishing.**
I may try rhubarb leaves again – more as a mordant/pre-dye before working with other dyes. I bet it would look stellar overdyed with indigo! In the meantime I think I’ll stick to alum.
*My Rhubarb Crisp Recipe:
Crust and Topping:
1 1/4 C oatmeal
1 C brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 C flour (I use whole wheat)
2/3 C soft butter
Mix these 5 ingredients together until crumbly. Press 1/2 mixture into
Mix in bowl and add to pan:
4-5 C rhubarb chopped into 1" pieces
1 1/4 C sugar
1/3 C water
2 Tbsp cornstarch
1 tsp vanilla
Press remaining 1/2 of topping over the filling.
Bake at 350 F for 1 hours or until golden and bubbling in the middle.
Best with ice cream!
**As an aside – several dye books I’ve read say to rotate your goods every 10 minutes in the dye bath. What??? How?? All I would have left would be dryer balls! Speaking of that, I know my next 2 steps: 1. Make dryer balls. 2. Buy some superwash wool!
I would describe my recent obsession as starting with an epiphany, but that wouldn’t be quite correct. It more snuck up behind me, tapping my shoulder and peeking around doors and corners (especially as I learned to spin from some fabulous hand-dyed roving) until one day I smacked my forehead and wondered why I had never thought such an obvious thought before.
If you click about on this website you’ll see that I love gardening, cooking/baking/preserving, and playing with fiber – all colors of fiber. I actually can’t believe it took me 36 years to realize I need to start using plant dyes to create colorful new wools! It is hard to explain exactly how excited I am to embark on this journey – one which apparently rewards dabblers and experimenters (hey, that’s me!).
Once my “oh, duh!” moment arrived, I couldn’t wait to get started. What was easy, could be done safely in vessels I use for cooking, and used materials I had on hand? Google helped me find the website of It’s a Stitch Up and the next moment found me scrounging in the onion bin. Stay tuned for the results from my very first foray into natural dyes!
A few inspirational books I’ve been looking through:
Mostly I’ve learned from these books that there are certain guidelines and rules of thumb for natural dyes… but that really you can play and experiment and go pretty wild. Love it!
I’ve decided to add a new little section to the end of my posts – a listening/watching/reading segment to share some of the things I have found entertaining.
Watching: The husband and I just finished the final episode in Season 2 of The Expanse. If you wonder where all the good sci fi went, get yourself on over to this show and prepare to have your socks blown off. It airs on Sy Fy (I know, I know), but we streamed from Amazon… This show is so good I don’t knit or spin while I’m watching. And if THAT isn’t high praise, I don’t know what is!! (Also I now have a minor obsession with the source material book series by James S.A. Corey (follow on Twitter for a good time!), but that is a different post).
P.S. “doors and corners” from the second sentence in this post is an “Expanse” reference. See what I did there? Never stop nerding. 😉
Spring is rolling along here in New England – I’ve calculated that we’re about 5 weeks from our last frost date, so the veggie gardening is getting busy. We built 3 raised beds this year and a cold frame to give the veg an extra head start. Everything is crammed in the sunniest corner of our backyard, but I like to think that the lack of space just makes us more efficient.
The peas and spinach are already up and rocking and the broccoli that I started from seed was begging to join them, but I had a bit of a problem. I’ve always learned to place a cloche (protective covering) over broccoli starts to protect them from cold nights, scorching sun, and wind. I grew up using milk jug tops… a really wonderful (and eco-friendly!) idea. However, we’ve been drinking milk from paper cartons so I did not have a ready supply of milk jugs. What was a gardener to do?
Gardening supply companies sell little plastic cloches and I called a few coffee shops to see if I could have some jugs, but then I did a little more research and shifted my game plan entirely.
I decided to build a mini-greenhouse… basically a cloche over the whole row of broccoli! It would shield the plants from sun, wind and frost AND I had all the materials on hand.
Step 1: Green branches of equal length were bent and inserted into the garden soil to form a row of hoops over the intended planting row. Flexible PCV pipes or wire hoops could be used instead – I just didn’t happen to have these.
Step 2: A length of heavy duty plastic was cut into a rectangular shape that would fit over the hoops with about 4 inches extra on each long side and enough plastic to reach the ground on the short sides. We had plastic left over from covering the wood for the winter, otherwise it is available at hardware stores. Water permeable row cover material would be great… again, I didn’t have that on hand.
Step 3: I cut 2 slits through the plastic on either side of each branch about 7 inches from the ground and used twine to tie the plastic to the branch. Zip ties or twist ties would also work here. I only did one side for now since I needed to plant!
Step 4: Plant and water! Step 5: Tie the other side of the row cover to the branches and cut some holes along the top of the cover. This will allow excess heat to escape the row so that you don’t cook your baby plants. Step 6: Cover the extra plastic on each side with a little soil. I set the ties fairly far up the branches so that I can roll up each side if we get a really hot day. This cover should be useful for a few weeks while the broccoli gets well established and then I’ll be able to pick it straight up and likely reuse it on whatever needs it next. Peppers? Eggplant? Stay tuned!
If I haven’t updated the blog as recently as we might have liked, blame the weather. It is unseasonably warm and lovely, filling my head with dreams of this summer’s garden.
Since we recently moved into our home, this season is the first to start painting on the canvas of our property. While a little lawn is nice (impromptu croquet anyone?) on the whole I would rather have flowers, vegetables, fruiting shrubs, etc. Accordingly, I’ve been surrounding myself with gardening books, catalogs and websites to decide what should replace the ragged verge (Voles. Whole separate problem).
We have a little patch of sun (square foot vegetable garden), a patch of mostly sun next to the blueberries (raspberries, possibly semi-dwarf apple trees), a sun/shade hill (native plants, prairie plants, lilies), and an area of shade (lilies-of-the-valley, ferns, bleeding hearts). In front of the house are a few warm sunny spots where the herbs will go.
I think my most exciting experiment will be trying a few Honeyberry trees. They are native to Asia but reportedly grow well here, have elongated blueberry like fruit that ripen before strawberries, and grow well in partial shade! They grow 6-8′ or 3-4′ tall depending on the variety and you need more than one plant to have mature fruit… I’m think a hedge of 4 right now.
The craft show last weekend went swimmingly – met some great folks, sold a few items, and got the year started out right! Thanks to JenDederichPhotography for the great pics!
Yet another winter storm warning tonight and tomorrow and we’re all starting to feel the winter gloom. However, spring is just around the corner and it is garden planning time. To keep motivation high, it seems like a good time to share some photos from last year’s deck garden. I have to say, my Earthbox experience was a WONDERFUL one. Don’t let their gimmicky sell turn you off… for a limited garden space (like our 8×10 2nd floor balcony) they really work. Lettuces, broccoli, pearl onions, herbs, spinach… we started out small in late April. May brought peas and salad. By June we were in full swing, complete with 8-ball zucchini. In July we had a jungle and were eating fresh from the garden practically every day.
But in August we moved. The plants were adopted by some lucky friends… the transportation was quite amusing.Spring is almost here… and may all your gardening dreams come true!
…in a granola and back-to-earther sort of way. Our home has officially become a vermicomposting site! I meant to get this whole thing going right after the holidays, but better late than never. I’d been reading (in various crunchy publications of course) about the joys and benefits of composting with red worms. They are easy to feed, eat the kitchen scraps that the frozen outside compost doesn’t want anything to do with, and make super rich casting compost to use in the garden and potted plants.
Below follows a little story (perhaps tutorial… be tutored at your own risk) of my new worm farm.
Step 1: Preparing the home. An old plastic tub works great (and I even managed to find the lid!). Drill lots of holes to allow your worm tenants some fresh air. Don’t worry… as long as they like their home they won’t leave. Some folks say to drill holes in the bottom too to allow for drainage. I didn’t do this yet, but if it gets too wet that’s the next step.
Step 2: Prepare the bedding. I used shredded newspaper and leaves, but you could also use coir, shredded paper, etc. I then added a few cups of potting soil and compost. Not strictly necessary but good to get the worms going.
Step 3: Wet everything down. Go for a “wrung out sponge” feel.
Step 4: Get the worms! How cute is this parcel?! I ordered from Red Worms for a Green Earth because they are geographically close to me, which is better for the worms and the planet. There are lots of sources. Step 5: Bury worms a little way into the bedding add a small amount of food waste (veggie, coffee grounds, tea bags, fruit) to get them started- eventually expect them to plow through 1/2 lb of waste per 1 lb of worms… Cover the worms with moistened newspaper or cardboard. If you have inquisitive dogs, cats, or children, put a lid on!
That’s it! Sit back and feed your worms. Remember that meat, dairy, and very oily foods are not appreciated. I will keep everyone updated on how these little guys do!