By Ashley Walker
Copyright (text and images) Nature’s Rainbow unless otherwise credited 30th December 2022
This was a collaborative project involving a team of people, a small dye garden test plot, an exhibition stand and a number of talks. For this blog post I will be concentrating on the dye garden, its creation and the progress of the plants from May to July 2022.
We will be attending Groundswell 2023!
Groundswell is a major 2 day Regenerative Agriculture event held each year near the village of Weston in North Hertfordshire. We were lucky enough to attend the 2022 event on the 22nd and 23rd of June. Very convenient for us as it’s only a few miles up the road and can be reached by bicycle. We were approached by Katherine Preston of Wayzgoose who had attended one of our Growing a Dye Garden workshops and felt that here was an opportunity to show what we could do and try to persuade farmers to consider growing dye plants as a crop in the UK. Regenerative agriculture aims to reverse the damage done to soil ecosystems and soil fertility though years of traditional, industrial farming. Regenerative agriculture typically involves using long crop rotation systems (5 years or more) so we knew that farmers would be on the lookout for beneficial crops, especially those which aren’t reliant on added fertiliser.
The Dye Garden Plot
Groundswell is hosted by the Cherry family who have farmed at Weston for over 30 years. Our task was to use our dye gardening experience to create a demonstration plot to showcase dye plants to farmers. We had only three weeks to get the plants in the ground. As time was short we loaded up Katherine’s car with whatever plants we had spare plus a few tools and headed out the first weekend we could. We were kindly shown round the site by Alex Cherry who manages the event and decided on a prominent spot by the entrance to one of fields with exhibitor stalls. This was a small 3m x 3m patch by a hedge in a field planted with a herbal “lay” containing mostly grass, chicory and clover.
The Groundswell site is on the chalk hills of Hertfordshire. Chalk soil is fairly thin, sticky when wet and rock hard when dry. It’s also full of flint stones and rocks. By early May 2022 after a dry spring the land was already very hard and impossible to dig using a spade. The first thing we did was mark out the plot and we all started to scrape off the top 2cm of turf. We then soaked the ground with water from an agricultural bowser. Using a very sharp thin-tined garden fork I managed to dig the first hole. Once you have one hole it’s much easier to enlarge it to cover the whole plot. Another grower on site with a heavy duty rotavator offered to help and he did have a go at it for half an hour or so but the hard ground resisted all attempts to get down more than a few centimetres so I went back to digging with the garden fork. Two thirds of the plot was then manured and the final third left bare for seed sowing. Eventually it was in a state fit to start planting but the preparation time was our first shock education about the sheer effort needed to turn this land into a garden by hand.
The plot was split into nine one square metre divisions and planted up with various plants and seed as below. Where we planted seedlings we followed up with a mulch of more manure mainly to try and stop the soil from drying out too quickly. Then after another heavy watering, the plot was left unprotected. We knew there would be a danger from various pests and were particularly worried about rabbits. The farmer thought Muntjac deer would be more of a problem and offered to put some fencing around the plot when he had time. What none of us predicted was that the main pest would turn out to be slugs!
Three days after planting we returned to the site to discover the slug damage. Cosmos sulphureous and Chinese Woad were the hardest hit but nothing was beyond help. The culprit, a smallish grey slug, was everywhere to be seen, we picked off around 100 in the first ten minutes. A quick look around the plot showed thousands of slugs in the grass so we knew we would have to do something serious to stop the plot from being overrun. Initially this was organically approved slug pellets but later I brought some wood ash from home and made a barrier around the whole plot. This worked very well and I did not need to use any more slug pellets.
With regular watering (about every three days) everything appeared to be settling in well and some of the seeds started to germinate (Woad and Dyers Coreopsis). However there was no sign of the Japanese indigo or Weld. It looked as though the Japanese indigo had germinated but had been eaten immediately, There was zero sign of any Weld germination at this stage or subsequently. I was not surprised by this failure as this was the wrong time of year for sowing Weld seed direct. Its best sown in late Summer and early Autumn and ideally just before rain. As the Groundswell event was looming I decided to bring some more plants to site and plant them in the failed seed beds to have some to show. Alex arranged some fencing for the plot by then so the danger of grazing animals was solved … or at least mostly. On one site visit I discovered that the Dyers Greenweed (Genista tinctoria) had been damaged. The stems had been cut through and were lying in the ground around the plant. This looked like damage from teeth so I can only assume a muntjac deer had jumped the 4ft high fence. There was no other damage however and the bits of Genista had not been eaten so I think it’s reasonable to assume the animal had jumped in thinking there might be something tasty but after a quick nibble decided it wasn’t worth it!
By the time of the show the plot was looking good and with the addition of some large pots of Japanese indigo looked quite respectable. By this time we had made connections with Ian Howard and his wife Bernadette. Ian was eager to pass on his knowledge to other farmers so agreed to join us for the whole event (three days including set up). There were also representatives from the UK Fibershed movement who have a regular stand at Groundswell so we were very well positioned to spread our message.
The feedback from farmers
This was the first time I have attended such a big event with representatives from many countries and professions besides farming and although we made a good effort to get our message across I felt that I learned considerably more than I was able to pass on. I spoke to a lot of people many of whom were farmers looking for answers. Answers to the problem of how to farm their land in ways that would increase the fertility and health of their soil rather than decrease it. For the majority of them, we were offering them untested and unproven ideas. Most Farmers in the UK have been under huge pressure to cut production costs and increase human efficiency as far as it’s possible to go. This has driven farmers to streamline their operations to the bone. Vast land areas dedicated to monoculture crops, the replacement of human labour with increasingly larger and ever more powerful agricultural machinery and a “just in time” delivery goal. Farmer after farmer told me that all they wanted to do was to grow, harvest and sell. The idea that the crop would need to be processed was a major drawback. They were all quite enthusiastic about the possibilities of growing a new crop but they also all saw the financial problems.
Prior to the introduction of synthetic dyes there was a whole industry dedicated to processing dye plants into a form that could easily be used by the dye houses. These processing industries no longer exist in the UK. Should there be an increased demand for naturally dyed textiles here, the cost of investment in processing facilities would be a major economic barrier. Those few dye houses in the UK considering or experimenting with natural dyes source their dye from countries with low labour costs. Without home based processing, UK farmers are not going to find a market for dye plant crops and they don’t have time or energy to do their own processing and marketing.
Of course it’s all a matter of scale. One farmer told me he liked the idea of growing dye plants but on his 600 acre farm setting the odd field aside for dye plants would never work as you would need special machinery and the financial rewards would never be enough to justify the investment. Only if he could devote the entire farm to growing a dye plant crop he could sell to one buyer (rather than thousands of craft dyers) would he consider it. So it was looking like the farmers are caught in a “Catch 22” or chicken and egg situation.
The feedback from other attendees
Groundswell also attracts many people who have an interest but are not necessarily working farmers. So we spoke to academics, agro scientists, diverse farm suppliers, campaign groups, small scale horticulturalists, nursery owners and politicians, This group was more enthusiastic about dye plants. Representatives from Fibershed have already had considerable experience in encouraging small scale dye plant growing and talked to us about the possibility of growing Weld planted as a companion to barley. The suggestion being that the Weld could be sown at the same time as the barley. During the first year the small Weld plants would continue to grow under the barley and not be shaded out by it. The Barley would then be harvested in the Autumn leaving the Weld to grow on to the following year when it would be harvested.
Others interested in growing wild flowers as a way of encouraging wildlife were also interested in the possibilities of growing wild flowers which could then be sold as a “pick your own” dye plant crop. One person with a tree nursery and already growing Black Oak (Quercus velutina) did not realise that it was an excellent dye source.
How it could work
What is not possible for the large farmer could be done by the small farmer (around 2 to 20 acres). Most small farmers have already been put out of business but there are always a few who are independently wealthy and able to run a small farm as long as they don’t need to earn a substantial living. If they were prepared to work hard and process and market their dye plant crops themselves it is possible to make money. Ian Howard proved it with “Woad Inc” and he says that if he hadn’t diversified his business and had instead stuck to the basics he would have been very successful financially.
Of course there is another alternative and that is the Fibreshed concept where many small producers in a local area get together to provide all the links in between producing the fibre and dyes to finished product. At the moment there are still too many gaps which can only be filled by people doing multiple steps in the process. This can be enjoyable, but, while we live in a capitalist system a whole industry cannot be recreated until people are able to specialise. Ian Howard told us about another successful natural dye company he has been helping. This is Natural Indigo Finland which is growing Woad for indigo. They also use other cheap sources of natural dye such as onion skins from a local onion producer and willow which is grown in the area. There ought to be opportunities here in the UK where left over material from agricultural produce could be used at minimal expense.
The likely future
Finally while I’m in speculation mode I want to mention the solution most favoured by big industry. This is the production of “natural” dyes in large bioreactors where microorganisms are fed on nutrients pumped into giant fermenting chambers. Bacteria can double their mass in just a few hours and the whole process can be controlled with efficiency and precision. If GM technology is used the organisms can be modified to produce any particular dye stuff required. Much research and experimentation along these lines has already been done particularly in Finland.
It’s likely that eventually this will be the source of the dyes used in the bulk of the fashion industry which in any case could never go back to being reliant on field grown crops. There is simply not enough land available to supply the fashion industries ravenous appetite. However, it’s doubtful that even the most forgiving natural dyer would consider the dyes manufactured in this process as “natural” so I have no doubt that there is still a future for small scale field grown crops.
Back to the Plot
After putting all that effort into producing our little dye plant garden I wanted to make sure we could keep it going and see how it developed over the remainder of the year. What we could not foresee was the extraordinary and record breaking spell of prolonged hot dry weather coming our way. The fence was put back up and over the course of the next two months I was able to visit at approximately 2 to 3 week intervals. The plot was hardly getting any water now and rain was non-existent. When I was able to visit I watered the plot with about 10 gallons for every m2 but even this was not enough. The manure mulch certainly helped but each time I arrived I found the plot parched and gasping for water. Most of the plants including the Woad simply stopped growing. Most of them however stayed alive – even the Japanese indigo which looked sad and wilted but still green.
This was my second shock learning experience. At home on the allotment dye gardens the plants get regular watering and the rich loamy soils stay damp and fertile. Plants grow rapidly in hot weather and I can expect to get up to six harvests of Woad leaves in a growing season. Here out in the exposed field it looked like I’d be lucky to get a single harvest. Interestingly this coincided with Ian Howards’ experience of growing Woad in Norfolk which in a good year might produce two harvests but some years only one. By late July it was clear there would be no Woad leaves worth harvesting. The weather was just too hot and dry. The leaves had turned red with stress and were now being attacked by Flea Beetle. Had we tried to grow a whole field of Woad in this location I am certain that without extensive irrigation it would have been a total failure. Perhaps in a normal summer it would have been possible to get one harvest but in this comparatively dry part of the country more would be impossible. It’s true we had planted the Woad much later than recommended but we had at least watered it a few times, way more than could be expected as a field crop.
Most of the other plants also stopped growing including the Common Madder which surprised me as its native central southern Asia is generally thought of as having hot dry summers. The only plants to do reasonably well were Dyers Coreopsis which was stunted but still managed a good show of flowers and Dyers Chamomile which did best of all, continuing to grow albeit slowly. It produce a lovely display of flowers. Other good growers were Golden Rod and Weld. The Weld was obviously experiencing a lot of stress which caused most of it to flower prematurely in its first year. These flowering spikes were small however and hardly worth harvesting but it will have produced plenty of seed.
So my overall impression is that growing dye plants at a field scale is much less productive than in a dye garden. Really it’s the difference between Horticulture where plants are given everything they need to thrive and Agriculture where plants are unceremoniously dumped in a field and pretty much left alone to get on with it. Frankly it’s a wonder we can grow enough food to eat!
No doubt back before mechanised farming, crops would be grown according to the local conditions. So cereal crops might be grown on hills, high ground and other exposed positions because they don’t need rain all the year round whereas vegetables would be grown on low lying sheltered ground where the soil was rich and stayed damp. Modern farming does not distinguish between these different habitats and the same crop is grown in all parts. This is all done in the name of human efficiency but I just wonder how much more could be grown if we were prepared to split our land use according to the local conditions.
I had hoped that next year we might be able to grow a much larger area with dye plants and try to obtain a harvest that could then be processed at a larger scale but now ‘m not so sure. A much earlier start to the year when the soil is still wet would help but I’m now under no illusions about the difficulty of growing in a field environment.
Growing dye plants in an open field environment and then talking to many farmers and other professionals was a big learning experience for us. At the beginning we had big ideas about trying to persuade farmers to seriously think about growing dye plants as a real possibility. But by the end it’s clear that there is a lot of work to be done growing and processing the plants in various different ways before it can be presented as a realistic option for ordinary farmers.
Some video clips with progress reports of the Dye Garden from May to the end of July
Unfortunately two of these are very poor quality but they should help give more of a idea of progress.
Thanks, useful references and links
Many thanks to everyone who helped with this project and very special thanks must go to Katherine Preston who initiated it and facilitated it with enthusiasm and confidence and Ian Howard and his wife Bernadette who worked their socks off talking to the public and promoting dye plant growing to the Groundswell audience.
Katherine Preston and Wayzgoose
Ian Howard and Woad Inc
Alex Cherry the Groundswell Manager
The Cherry family for all their support
Deborah Barker of South East Fibershed
Vanessa Barker of Bedstraw & Madder