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  • Writer's pictureAmber Rose Ostaszewski

Balcony Dye Garden Plan

I recently taught my Dye Garden Crash Course and one of the questions I received was whether I knew of any ready-to-go garden diagram plans, which gave me a moment to rack my brain. Ultimately, I couldn’t really think of anywhere I had seen such plans, although I could see where seed companies could really benefit from such a thing, many already do that for vegetable gardens, or shade gardens! Why not dye plants?


Now I recognize that a lot has to do with differences in growing zones, and sunlight needs on your property that may differ, as well as shape and set-up of your space. I’ve certainly come up with a myriad of different garden plans for my own space over the years. And here’s the general plans that worked up for the Guild’s garden this year--we go at it with just marker and paper. But it got me thinking, why not throw together some plans for others to use?


So I sat down and thought about what would be the most help, especially to someone who is first starting out gardening. Instead of coming up with plans for a plot for a yard, which I think gives you more freedom, I challenged myself to think about someone who may be trying out gardening on an apartment balcony. Granted, this apartment balcony needs to have full sun.


Based on what I could find online, the average balcony is 4’x10’, which is very little space. But I’m up for the challenge. Here’s what I came up with…



I wanted to make sure that there was a full rainbow of color to work with, so I picked the following plants that do well in containers:

  • Madder Root (Red)

  • Sulphur Cosmos (Orange)

  • Marigold (Yellow)

  • Japanese Indigo (Blue)

  • Black Knight Scabiosa (Purple-ish)

But where’s green? Trick question! You can get green out of marigold using mordant/modifiers (more of a sage green) OR you can over-dye with marigold to get more of a “true” green.


Next I looked at what type of containers would work best for the space and the needs of the plants. I landed on these:

  1. Two elevated raised beds sized 2’ x 4’ like these

  2. One potato grow bag like this

(If you’re on a budget, you could just get 5 grow bags, one for each plant!) ***See note at the very bottom for more ideas


For my hardiness zone, Zone 6:

In late winter/early spring I’d purchase the following:

1 packet japanese indigo seed, from Grand Prismatic Seed

1 packet black knight scabiosa, from Grand Prismatic Seed

1 packet sulphur cosmos, from Grand Prismatic Seed

2 live madder roots, from Strictly Medicinal Seeds

*You will not use all of the seeds in the seed packets–consider sharing with a friend!


In Late February/early March I’d start the indigo and black knight scabiosa seeds inside.


By the last frost date in spring I’d direct sow cosmos into one half of one of the elevated beds.


By mid-May I’d have already thinned the cosmo seedlings in the one elevated bed, and then would transplant the black knight scabiosa seedlings to the other half. Depending how warm the overnight temps are, I’d also transplant the indigo seedlings to the other elevated bed, and then in the remaining space, plant some marigold starter plants that I would have picked up from a greenhouse (support your local growers!)


As for the madder roots, once those live plants come in, I would plant those in the potato grow bag with a nice sandy mix of soil, and add something for it to trellis up (a tomato cage would work just fine). Planting madder root is a long-game, you should wait at least 2 years of growth before harvesting it, and 3-5 years is even better. Therefore, one of the benefits of growing in a grow bag like this, is that if you ever move, you can take it with you. Another benefit is that once it is ready to harvest, getting those precious roots out of a grow bag will be much easier than trying to dig them out of another sort of container.


Come late-June/July all of the plants, with the exclusion of madder root for reasons mentioned above, should be in flower and ready to harvest, and the lovely thing about all of these plants is that they continue to grow and flower till the end of the season (around mid-October here in Cincinnati, OH). In fact, deadheading, the practice of pinching/snipping off spent blooms will encourage the plant to put out more and more flowers. As for indigo, you can harvest the leaves as you need OR you can get 2-3 full harvests for the season by cutting down to 1” above the soil and letting them regrow fully. To maximize your indigo harvest, a trick you can try with Japanese indigo, is that if you cut the stems and strip the leaves to use in a project, if you immediately put those stems in a bucket of water (those 5 gallon buckets at hardware stores work perfectly) with some nitrogen-based liquid fertilizer, in a week or so, the stems will grow entirely new leaves and you can double your yield.


A note on harvest yields: this set-up would be perfect for a dyer who is looking to experiment with this or that, but I wouldn’t set expectations that you could do yardage upon yardage with this garden. Certainly utilize preserving methods like drying harvests to accumulate a larger amount of dye material for larger projects.


***If you have a railing or places to put hanging baskets, it might even be preferred to get grow bags or other lower-height containers than the elevated beds because you could then use railing planters like these in addition to your set up for more herb-like plants. Because this garden would be PERFECT for contact-dyeing methods like dye-bundles, hapazome, and other ecoprinting techniques, I’d recommend adding plants like garden sage and purple basil to those sorts of more precarious containers.

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