OH MY GAWDZ, my Indigo suffruticosa is getting flowers!!!!! It’s been under a professional level grow light since Sept 30th, has doubled its size and is looking properly woody shrubs and now there are flower spikes in the leaf axils!!!! I was going to harvest at the end of October, but I want to see now if the flowers go to seed. Hoofies crossed!

growing indigo in a northern clime, part one

Specifically, this type of indigo is Indigofera suffruticosa, a more tropical type than what most grow. Please bear this in mind for my “review” of growing it. Results may vary with other varieties like Indigofera tinctoria. (I have grown Persicaria tinctoria before, but that’s another post, and a variety/species to try again next year.) I was asked by Deb McClintock to share this as advice and experience in a climate than is very different from Texas (where my seeds came from her plants) and other warm/hot/temperate states, provinces and countries, compiling several previous posts and the final results.

I of course started my seeds indoors, May 16th, and placed under a grow light, a necessity in Alberta’s climate. Even the seeds released some blue after soaking overnight! We have a shorter growing season, colder nights (down to 5C –even in the summer—due to our altitude), temperatures rarely going above 30C (86F) and while we get lots of sunshine, my yard is not optimum for catching it! They were sown in a regular potting mix, augmented with a bit of sheep poo fertilizer. I watered them by soaking once a week as they didn’t seem to need much –in fact i’ve never had them wilt even when i forgot to water! Kept under lights until the end of May and then planted in a small pot, they didn’t grow much at all, though they did survive 3 hailstorms! I chose to pot them also because i have a very tiny yard, and the best way to get enough sun on these babies was to put them in something moveable, which was done up to 3 times daily.

By Aug 13th, there wasn’t much growth or improvement, so i transplanted then to a larger pot placing them inside the radius of a large peony cage as well, again with a good layer of sheep poo, a composted manure that usually helps enough that i swear i can see things grow 3inches to a foot a day depending on the plant …..not so much this time…… and wrapped the cage in plastic to trap heat, and which also protects them from hail, a too common occurrence in Alberta summers. I had noticed that any time the night temperature dropped to or below 15C, the leaves would fold down, like a mimosa pudica (the ol’ kids favourite “sensitive” plant). Incidentally, a larger pot does not guarantee growth–i just figured if they DID suddenly go crazy, i wouldn’t have to shock them by transplanting after the fact. Each week, i gave them a weak feeding of Alaska Fish Fertilizer, as i don’t know how deep the roots go, or if they are even down to the layer of sheep poo amendment.

Wrapping them did seem to help. The photo below was taken Sept 9th. I covered the top as well with plastic, creating a small greenhouse. We did have ONE night of frost warning Sept 8th, but i don’t think it actually went below 2C, so the plastic helped, though i also snuggled it up to the tomatoes and threw a heavy flannellette sheet over the whole area. The plants at that point were at a  barely 10″ height.

In the week before i brought them in, Sept 22nd to 29th, our temps started showing autumn, ranging from 14C to 23C during the day and 4C to 8C during the night–this was also the period, it showed an impressive change, filling out and getting woodier stems! At this point, they are still only 12″ high, a far cry from Deb’s 6-8′ beauties!   I figure it might have improved greatly as a last ditch rally: “NO NO NO, i don’t wanna die because winter is coming! Imma making leaves, lookit me, maybe i’ll flower! Don’t let me die!” πŸ™‚



Incidentally, though we had something in the yard that chomped all my honeyberry leaves down to nubbins, and then attacked my rose, nothing seemed interested in these babies. Perhaps luck, perhaps no pests here of the type that would be interested. No yellowing due to soil or water factors, no sun burning, so viruses of any type. Hoofies crossed that no spider mite will occur now that the pot is indoors.

I didn’t want to tempt the Fates though, so brought it in on the 29th–and FREAKED the morning of the 30th as it had folded down so much i thought it was dying!!!!!!!!! I set it up the evening of Sept 30th under “professional” grow lights, near a heat source, and it recovered, so i’m hoping it was just from being near a partially opened window for that night. (By “professional”, i mean Grow Lights, the kind used in the industry–greenhouses, plant nurseries, cannabis set-ups–not the cheap dicky ones sold by Wallymart or the like. If i’m going to invest in something that takes time and some technology, i invest in as top of the line i can afford, or don’t bother.)

Here’s the grow light set-up, nothing fancy: a saucer on a stool, a heat vent in the floor behind–though i put a small cardboard diverter on that so it doesn’t blow directly on the pot—-NOT LETTING CONDITIONS FOR SPIDER MITE HAPPEN!!!!!!!!. and the grow light hanging from ceiling about 2.5 feet above. The light can be adjusted up as/if the plant gets taller. (HOPE HOPE HOPE.) I intend to baby it for at least a month, thinking that longer than that is not going to do much for growth or volume for use.


Had to put a dark bag on the outside though to save our eyes, as this is in the living room! The light goes on at 6am and off at 7am, hoping the timing is okay for hours. (It’s not like there’s a manual for this sort of thing, for any plant!

Part two will be written in probably a month as i see what happens in its new crib :), and then hopefully, enough leaves gathered for at least a teenyschmeenyweensy indigo extraction experiment.

EDIT OCT 3/20—-Talk about freaking my beak! Within 5 minutes of turning these lights off at night, the leaves fold down COMPLETELY. I would assume this is a defense mechanism of sorts to conserve both heat and water expiration, so light *and* temperature affects this. Fortunately, they come back to full mast in the morning, on their own, as soon as light starts to creep in from the patio window, or the light is turned back on.

Indigo in August

Oh my, this particular species (Indigofera Suffruticosa) does NOT like Calgary’s cooler nights! I noticed every time the temperature dips below 15C, it folds its leaves down, almost looking like the old “sensitive plant” mimosa pudica! We haven’t had many “heat waves” this summer either, a phenomenon in Alberta that is called hot when the temp goes to 28-30C (82.4-86F) for 2 days in a row πŸ™‚

OOO, it’s grown a magnificent 3″ since i transplanted the beginning of August. Much sarcastic joy.

But at the rate it’s grown since it was sown in the middle of May, i don’t hold out much hope for a crop beyond a few handfuls. I’ve tried moving it to a pot with richer soil than it had been started in, and have greenhoused it with a plastic bag suspended over a peony cage, with nothing to lose at this point. We’ll see how it does by the end of August. That’s when temps start dropping even more at night, sometimes down to 6C (42.8F). Not knowing either how “mature” a plant needs to be before harvesting also leaves me thinking there will be little indigotin in whatever i do manage to strip off. Deb’s is past the stage of growing, and is now processing hers and using it…..

I doubt i’ll get flowers, and if i do, i doubt even more that they’ll mature enough for me to collect seed for next year. I’ll chance planting next spring the seeds i have leftover from Deb in Texas this year, but since indigo is notorious for needing fresh seed for each year, who knows what the germination rate, if any, will be. I may try a different indigo type next year, as my first grow attempt in 2014, was Polygonum/Persicaria tinctorium which grew to a very leafy 3 foot height before it was destroyed by hail, another Alberta garden fact.

I have also realized that the way our townhouse is situated that it’s unlikely i will ever have a stupendous garden here, even as tiny and easily manageable labour wise as it is. Late May and June’s sunlight was magnificent, but of course as the angle of the earth turns through the seasons, much less full sunlight hits the backyard…… I REALLY miss the daylong full on Southern exposure the Old House had!!!!!!!!!!!!!

madder returns, and baby blue hopes

So………………..this is the culmination of 3 and a half years of growing madder. There were 4 winters in that time span, and the first three i had the good fortune of a large garden, where the huge pot could be heeled in (buried and well covered in other words) for our harsh winters. Not so with the recent move and downsizing though: i kept the pot against our sunny house wall by the heat escape vents, wrapped and covered it well, but no growth at all when spring started. Time to “harvest” roots, regardless, as madder is good to dig up in at least it’s third year (5 is optimum apparently).

I dumped the pot, and pawed through it, working as fast as possible because there was a new ant home in the bottom (i HATE ants: they creep me out, have done since i saw Salvador Dali’s “Un Chien Andalou” when i was 16…..) and was very disappointed. Not only did the roots never get below the depth of half the pot, but they were SMALL, stringy and unfortunately, had started to rot. POOP.

I ended up with 65 grams of “fresh” root, which as i understand means they would dry down to about one sixth of that, not quite 11 GRAMS…… I can see a red tint to them, but am not hopeful for good depth. I will use as soon as i can because they don’t *have* to be dry to use, though it’s suggested that letting them “age” develops more of the alazarin. (Although as i hit “publish” on this post, i note they have been drying now for 32 days, admittedly a far cry from drying for a year πŸ™‚ ) I won’t be trying to grow it again as our new garden space is too tiny to heel anything in, and seriously, the “return” on all the effort was not worth the effort… If i ever win the lottery, and have my big space in the country and a proper greenhouse, well, then we’ll revisit that.

Most of the Indigo suffruticosa seeds i planted did pop up. I lost a couple to drying out, because of the winds we’ve had lately, and due to the fact that Calgary is very dry at the best of times. I’m not assuming these will get as big as they grow in Texas at Deb’s though (SHE”S HARVESTING ALREADY!), because we have a shorter growing season, much cooler nights (due to our altitude) and so far this season not a lot of heat….. They did manage to get through 3 hail storms unscathed, probably because they are so tiny! I’m going to cloche them for awhile, trying to keep some heat in, and hopefully they will get big enough that i can get something. I still have a very tiny harvest from my first indigo Persicaria tinctoria attempts at the old house–a handful stored dry since 2015! (Edit: Even cloching these babies didn’t do much though they did double in size in a week. Still pretty teeny! And i don’t know if a bug/virus got them, or it’s the cold weather, but they are all spotted.)

I’ve decided in future, i won’t be sharing much about the actual process of natural dyeing, just the results. I get a fair number of hits on my “how to/how i did it” posts, but since 99.9% of readers don’t acknowledge even with a simple “thank you”, it seems rather pointless. (I’m sure it also bores the hell out of my readers that don’t care about that part of the process.) I seriously think schools have done a poor job teaching anyone HOW to research correctly, but i ain’t getting into that. All i can say is “just because it’s on the internet, or “popular”, doesn’t make it true”.

Alberta dye garden woes

While you are all posting pictures of fields of buttercups, gardens of woad, and the leaves and flowers you picked on a walk, i am worrying about the madder i uncovered last week. This is what i woke up to this morning in Calgary!

It was a horrendous night: flickering lights, eddies of swirling 90K driven snow devils around the house, no visibility, and the DogFaced Girl sounding like a Dire Wolf (reacting to fire truck sirens, because of course, though snow happens EVERY year in Alberta, 90% of drivers forget how to drive in it….). So, we battened down the hatches, piled onto the couch with the last beer to share, some snacks and continued our binge watching of GoT. Typical Alberta winter survival mode πŸ™‚

This madder has survived two of our usual harsh winters, by being heeled into the garden in its pot, but i’m concerned any new growth may be damaged this time. Previous years, there was no snow after the uncovering!

Since madder is a “crop” that doesn’t get harvested until it’s third year, i’m hoping too that the roots have survived, as this is the summer i’m supposed to start using it. I have three scraggly little plants inside, cuttings in the fall from the mother plant that took root, but having to wait another three years for them? POOP.

And of course, several days previous to this, i had noticed tiny leaves popping up from the dyer’s chamomile in the back40………

HOOFIES CROSSED that all survive!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

dandilion delight

We had a long long hot hot summer last year, and it looks like it’s going to be another one, so what better way to mark it than by celebrating the dandilion?

Our back 40 is rather lush (in the spring, but dried out by August’s end!), and the dandilions are plentiful, bee feeders and happydays harbingers, but a bone of contention with the neighbours.

I figured though that beheading them (the dandilions, not the neighbours), would keep the snarking at bay for awhile, and threw some in a dyepot.

The first look was Meh. Yeah, it’s yellow, but barely worth the effort. (Though using dandilions is one of the EASIEST ways to get colour. But no, the roots will NOT give you any GD magenta, ever, ever. EVER.) Then i threw in a pinch of soda ash–BOOM. YELLOW. DANDILION YELLOW. Wowzers, it’s neon, electric, it’s definitely a Spring colour. (Paler yellow wool yarn at top is without the soda ash.)

So, do i add yet another yellow dyed silk to the stash and wonder why i do so much yellow and never use it? Nah. Let’s use it. I’m betting it would make wonderful dandilions πŸ™‚


A side note to my fellow natural dyers and ecoprinters: apparently some person in the US has made it her mission to prevent teachers from other countries coming to the US to share their skills and techniques with students, reporting “potentially un-work-visa’d travellers” to immigration and customs! Can you imagine any other art field professional doing this?Β  And while there *are* divided camps about the “purity” of the technique with those who decry the use of ANY “chemical” or any use of plastic, and those who use anything they can experiment with, and a fiercely competitive attitude amongst some on both sides, this is going too far! It deprives students of learning, workshops and their facilitators of making money to bring other teachers in, no matter what technique or field, and is so narrow minded and malicious, that it just blows me away. Just goes to show you, that not all earthgoddessy-natural-eco-mothers are altruistic sharing sweethearts…………





Galium results

Well, there *is* colour, but it’s weak, probably because of the amount of root i had, maybe 40 scant grams, dirt included. I used Jenny Dean’s method of soaking the roots overnight, pouring off the first water, then slow simmering with a Tums tablet (calcium carbonate) for two subsequent baths that were saved and combined. (A third simmer had no colour at all, and was discarded with the roots, in the garden as no adjunct chemicals were added.) Both fibre types were properly scoured and pre-mordanted also, according to their requirements.

Wet, silk top, cotton bottom, after 24 hour soak in dyepot:

Technically, i should have decanted into two pots, and dyed separately, as cotton (cellulose) and silk (protein) have different uptakes.


Soft, but not terribly exciting, again most likely due to the amount of root gathered.

Some modifying/post mordanting on small strips:

Pretty much insignificant changes with (L to R) above, vinegar no change/possible “bleaching effect”, soda ash marginal pink activation

and above (L to R) copper minimal change and possible miniscule yellowing, ferrous sulphate the most dramatic change (might just do this to the remaining pieces and use that way!). (This could also be due to any residual tannins. I used an incredibly SMALL amount of ferrous sulphate, as the stuff is quite strong, maybe a few grains.)

I’m also thinking that because there is so little colour on these, that they are NOT going to be terribly light OR wash fast……BIG sigh of “WhatEVER” πŸ™‚ Still goes in the dye annals though πŸ™‚ I’m sticking to actual madder from now on.


So, was it worth the effort? Yes, in a way, because i learned it is possible to grow, harvest and use a plant material that can and does grow here. And no, because i learned the amount of time to grow (3 years to wait to harvest), time to harvest (ridiculously small amount for the work it took) and use (weak, because time and harvest took too much and amount gathered was too small) was not worth the experiment. Then again, maybe ***this variety of Galium has very little dye material in it. BUT, obviously someone with patience, a larger pot/plot might want to try this so they could say they use “local”, if that’s their Thing.

I’m rather sure too, that if i had just ecoprinted with these, instead of using as a dye material, the results would have been negligible, as there’s little alizarin/purpurin in these roots, probably due more to their size, than the quantity gathered. (Again, or the variety is pathetic in the dye substance department.) I highly doubt that the roots get very big at all, even after years, as that’s not their nature. It would also take masses and masses of them to get a decent quantity, a problematic exercise, also due to the way they grow.

So, have on, some brave soul: i’ve lived and learned, and the lesson is filed! (If you are interested in how i got to this point, this will take you to all of the Galium posts previous.) (And yes, i misspelled it in the archives–gallium with 2 l’s is actually a chemical element.)

Erratum: The Galium species most prevalent here is Galium boreale, which is what i used, not Galium verum as previously stated. There are ***6oo species of Galium, and some have no alizarin at all, but do have pur purin and pseudopurpurin. I’m also certain that some have little to no use whatsoever as a dye plant. I found this article, and they do mention that some of these plants have little to no madder-like characteristics.

it might “madder” that i grow my own :)

We gardeners in harder zones have a tough time growing certain things. If you’re a gardener who wants to grow your own dye plants, it’s even tougher! If you’re a Calgary gardener who wants these, it’s even more more tougher! Our growing season is shorter, and while we get intensely sunny days, due to our altitude, we also get much cooler nights–no steamy evenings here (at least, not in the garden πŸ™‚ )

Last spring i planted madder seeds in a big black pot, containing it because madder is notorious for sneaking everywhere with the root system, and this makes it easier to harvest when the time comes (usually after 3 years), but also because my Zone 3 garden is clay based, due to being only a few 100 yards from an old (still quite active) river. I used a mix of “garden soil” i’d had delivered, some actual garden soil from the extant garden, a bit of sand and then amended it weakly with some lime.

It grew to about 3.5 feet last year, and survived the first 3 frosts, before i heeled it into the garden in October. That means, i dug a hole deep enough for the pot, sank it to its rim, then mulched with newspaper, garden debris and it’s own stalks. (I also removed the trellis obelisk, as metal conducts cold and i didn’t want the roots “injected” with -20 to -40 temperatures!)

I pulled it out of its hole onΒ  the 27th of April, and was about to PULL all the old growth off, when i realized i didn’t know if it would grow new branches, or start from the old ones. Good thing i stopped and really looked, because the old growth base is precisely where the new growth starts! If you click on the photo below, you can see the new growth.

While it may not look terribly exciting to some, it IS. IT’S VERY VERY VERY EXCITING, because that means at the end of next year, i can be using my own home grown madder for dyeing with! Madder roots are best used in year 3, or 4 if you can wait that long πŸ™‚ The big deal also is the fact that we had one of our harshest winters in a long time, and it still survived being buried under 3 feet of ****ing cold and snow for 5 and a half months. It was also a LONG winter, with snow still happening until mid April…………..

It didn’t flower last year, though that again is not that much of a disappointment, but i’m hoping because it has a much earlier “start” this year IN it’s growing conditions (ie no indoor starting, coddling and having to harden off), that it will—–because it also occurred to me this morning, that if it does flower, seeds from it would already be on their start to being a Zone 3 hardy dye plant!

I’ll continue to use “commercial” madder until then, but i can’t wait to see the results of true “slow dyeing” πŸ™‚

Which reminds me…….last year i harvested the third year roots of gallium, a more “local” dye plant that gives red from the root also. (Gallium grows almost everywhere in the world so i call it “local” because *i* *can* harvest it locally if i had the patience. I grew mine from locally sourced seeds though, as the wild areas are too dense with roots to find any easy to dig out. And Conservation Officers would nail me, if i got caught. And i’m not about to dig in a wild area like that, to that extent, because ya just DON’T!) I did wrap it in silk at the time, ready to throw in a pot and use as an ecoprint material, but never got to it, and just added it back to the pile collected. Today i will try using it!

heeling in

In a big way…

I have first year madder growing in a large pot, and it’s done rather well this first season. This is the hottest and sunniest spot for pots: our patio gets foot blistering hot and has full and /or reflected sun for at least 8-10 hours a day through the summer. (I watered thoroughly almost every day.) A bit frost tinged, as we had our first frost on Sept 16, it’s still growing and green, so it’s still alive.

HOWEVER, Calgary’s cold cold winters, heavy frosts and possible large dumps of snow mean that i either bring it in to overwinter–and where the hell do i put a pot that size where it can get decent light and warm-ish temps (ALL windows in the house are already, and always, glutted with plants)—–or mulch and insulate it like crazy, as pots freeze first, fast and heavily.


There *is* a plant planting procedure called “heeling in”. I’m just doing it with a pot, rather than bare roots. I can’t plant the root ball in the ground by itself, as madder roots spread (optimally!), and i want to be able to harvest them easily (see my Gallium post for reasons why that CAN be a good thing or not, even if the roots are a decent size), and also because our ground freezes HARD for quite a depth. That’s a BIG hole though, because the pot is 13″ deep and 14″ across.

A kind person in a FB group suggested this, and that’s what i’ma gonna do. I need to collect some insulating material still, for around the pot, and to mulch over it, but i’m keeping my hoofies crossed that this does the trick.

I won’t know until April probably if this works………………praying to the Dye Plant Gawdzesses, that this will blessedly show new growth then.

For the record, i bought these madder seeds from a Canadian company, Salt Spring Island Seeds. While i appreciate being able to get them, i don’t appreciate companies that have NO information on actually growing and caring for them–WTF??????–an email to them resulted in basically “we don’t know” (anything about them)…………… Of course, this company also sells Elecampane seeds, touting them as a source for blue dye from the roots…….PUH leez…..