Seasons Collide Over Plant-Based Dyes

This week the Community Teaching Garden experienced a taste of two seasons! We harvested apples from tree adjacent to our garden as well as our first watermelon of the season. On the hot late-summer evening, we were happy to join together to learn a new skill: making plant-based dyes.

Apples from a nearby tree
Apples from an adjacent tree, a dye-making resource book, and sample patches from our dear teacher Carolina.

With the goal of making some plant-based dyes in mind this season, we planted indigo and coreopsis— two common plants used in dyeing. We also harvested some wild-growing goldenrod to make a third dye. A wide range of plants and techniques can be used to create dyes in your own garden, so don’t limit yourself to our examples!

For our dye project, we wanted to create vibrant colors using easy materials and a quick process. Protein-based fibers, like silk and wool, tend to be easier to dye, so we started by creating silk scarves and swatches. Plant based dyes work better if the fabric is treated with a mordant. After soaking our silk in the mordant and preparing our dyes (boiling our coreopsis and goldenrod in water for about an hour) it was time to begin!

Dyeing our silk swatches with coreopsis and goldenrod was as simple as draining the dye and soaking the material. To create our indigo dye, we headed back to the VCGN offices, where we combined indigo with ice and water in a high-powered blender and strained the plant material to create our dye.

It was hard to believe that the bright green dye would produce blue fabric, but indigo needs to oxidize before it takes it’s trademark color. After soaking for just a few minutes, students rinsed their silk to find it had transformed into a lovely robins egg blue color.

Final Product
At the end of the evening, several students display their plant-based dye projects.

While it was a brief introduction into the world of plant-based dyes, the students in the Community Teaching Garden course were very inspired and hope to have a bright future ahead of them as they continue to create natural dyes.

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A Balmy Evening in the Garden

The gardeners in the Community Teaching Garden have been hard at work this summer growing and harvesting herbs and flowers to make tinctures, glycerites, and balms. This week in class, they gathered together to make lip balm and a skin-soothing balm out of herbs and flowers cultivated this season. Like making tinctures and glycerites, creating your own balms is easy, cost-effective and fun!

Completed Balms
Lip Balm fresh from your pals in the Community Teaching Garden!

Early in the season, we identified herbs and flowers in and around our garden that have medicinal and skin-soothing properties, and created oil infusions of calendula, plantain, comfrey, yarrow, lavender, and chamomile. If you’re not sure which herbs are beneficial for topical use or skin irritation, this resource is a great place to start. After identifying the herbs and flowers we wanted to use, students dried the herbs, added the dried herbs to a base oil (olive oil, sweet almond oil, coconut oil or jojoba oil all work well!), and let them sunbathe on their sunny windowsills for 4-6 weeks to create a solar infusion.

Solar Infusions of Rose and Calendula
Rose and calendula infuse in sweet almond oil on a CTG student’s windowsill. 

Once our infused oils were ready, we gathered together the ingredients needed to create our balms. The two primary ingredients needed are infused oil and beeswax, but other ingredients like vitamin E oil or castor oil can add extra moisture and sheen to your lips or skin. You can add a few drops of your favorite essential oil to your balm just before pouring it into a tin or lip gloss tube for additional healing properties or to add a fun fragrance.

Beeswax and Lavendar
Beeswax and lavender, a sweet and fragrant pair!

We used a base proportion of one part beeswax for every three parts oil, and melted them together in a pyrex on a double boiler. For our lip balm, which we wanted to be a bit firmer, we used three parts oil to one and a half parts beeswax. Make sure to stir your balm regularly as the beeswax is melting, and to have your containers for the balm ready. To check the consistency of your balm, dip a spoon into the boiling oil and wax mixture and withdraw it. It should harden quickly and give a good sense of it’s thickness.  You can thicken your balm by adding additional beeswax or loosen it by adding additional oil. Once it has reached your desired consistency, quickly and carefully add your essential oils and place it in your tins and tubes.

Making these simple balms is a great way to enjoy and share your harvest! For more detailed instructions, check out these lip balms from Mountain Rose Herbs and this “owie cream” from the Hippy Homemaker.