I arrived home from South East Asia to find that spring had sprung in Santa Cruz while we were away--all the fruit trees are blooming, the daffodils, narcissus, and ranunculus are cheerily lighting up the yard, and the bees are taking every chance to gather boatloads of pollen between rain showers. It is time to seed the beginnings of the summer garden in the greenhouse--and so, as promised, here are some growing tips for those of you who will be adding madder to your dye gardens for the first time this year!
I will preface this post on Madder by saying that for most of us on the West coast, now (March/April) is a great time to get started seeding most of your summer dye garden indoors (if you haven't already)--marigolds, zinnias, rudbeckia, coreopsis, epilobium, pokeberry, bidens, madder, fennel, indigo species, and many others can all be started now and planted out once the soil warms in your area (for me, this means early May--if you live in the Central Valley or southern California, it will be earlier, a bit later in cooler climates). Anyhow, detailed seed-starting information is a topic for another post.
I am devoting this post to growing Madder (Rubia tinctorum) specifically because it is a long-term dye crop that benefits from some additional planning to ensure optimum harvest and easy maintenance in the years to follow. A little extra care at the start paired with a basic understanding of madder growing and cultivation schedules will go a long way in helping you harvest reds for the dye pot for years and years to come.
Rubia tinctorum (along with some close relatives) is our oldest-known source of light-fast true red, and has been used and revered across nations. It is generally easy to grow, and whether you are planting madder from seed or root cuttings, you will soon be crowning yourself as one of the countless and colorful dye gardeners that have cultivated this magical plant through the centuries! If you are already familiar with growing madder, perhaps what is offered below will be of use in making your yearly harvests reliable and frustration-free.
- Healthy, happy plants
- Ease of management & harvest
- High alizarin production (which translates into strong reds in the dye pot)
- Optimum root size for harvest
- Reliable, abundant annual harvest
In this day and age of instant gratification, many might consider madder a long-term investment. Seeds planted this spring will not produce harvestable roots for the dye pot until the fall of next year (at the earliest). However, once production is rolling you can plan to harvest roots every year onward, for as long as you fancy (and as long as you continue to care for your plants). For this reason, it is well worth taking some time in the beginning to prepare your planting area with longevity in mind.
First and foremost, I will tell you now: do yourself a favor and plant madder in its own raised bed*, or a series of pots/planters as described below. Seasoned dye gardeners will be quick to confess that happy madder plants spread quickly and haphazardly--underground roots and rhizomes creep unseen through the soil as it warms in the spring, while stems above ground trail randomly, rooting where they touch the earth. If you plant madder casually among your other dye plants, its rambling habit will soon make it difficult to harvest sufficient quantities of roots for dyeing without digging up other plants in your garden... it is much easier to give it a special bed all its own, where roots and shoots can be contained, harvested methodically, and a two- to four-year harvest & cultivation plan can be easily managed.
*Here I am referring to a raised bed built with wooden sides, preferably 1' high or taller, which can be easily managed and will contain rambling roots. If you are working on a small farm/production scale, you will want to plant in a field that can be managed appropriately over several years. Those interested in tips for larger scale production can contact me directly, as this post is aimed to aid the home gardener.
Amending your Soil: Alizarin & Soil pH
Traditionally in the Middle East, madder has been grown in areas where natural limestone bedrock increases soil alkalinity, which is thought to stimulate higher alizarin production within the roots of the plant (alizarin is the primary compound responsible for madder's beautiful, light-fast reds, and is present primarily in the roots' fleshy outer cortex). While not all of us live near natural limestone deposits, these conditions can be mimicked in the garden by amending the soil lightly with agricultural lime (also known as hydrated lime) or ground limestone. Before doing this, be sure to test the pH of your soil using a simple home soil test kit (available at most garden supply stores)--if your soil is already alkaline (common in areas with low rainfall or limestone quarries), then no amending is needed.
The picture below compares 2-year old roots that have been grown in pH neutral soil (on the left) and soil amended with hydrated lime (on the right). You may or may not be able to see with the naked eye (depending on your computer monitor), but the results of this experiment indicated that the above folk wisdom is true.
PS. Like many garden plants, madder prefers to grow in rich, well draining soil. A healthy dose of compost and a balanced fertilizer dug into your madder bed before planting will also be highly appreciated.
If you are planting madder from seed, these can be started indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost, and planted out once your soils have warmed. Be sure to place your seed flats in a very sunny window, greenhouse, or a spot with sufficient grow lights to avoid leggy plants! If you do not have adequate indoor growing conditions, don't worry--you can wait to direct-sow seeds in their final resting place after the danger of frost has passed.
Plant seeds 1/4"-1/2" deep in moist potting soil, or directly out in the garden if spring is well on its way. Kept evenly watered, seeds should germinate in 1-2 weeks. Young madder plants can be transplanted into their raised bed (or into larger pots) once they have a few sets of true leaves.
Looking to buy madder seeds? I have them for sale here.
The Management Plan
Ideally what you will want to establish from the get-go is a three or four-year management cycle. Don't worry! This is actually quite simple! Read on.
If you are splurging and giving your madder plants their own raised wooden bed (which will yield the greatest harvest), you will plant the whole bed the first year, and plan to divide the bed into three equal sections for a staggered harvest... if you are planting into large pots or patio planters, you will want to plant at least three of them in the first spring. This is why:
Ideally, roots are harvested when they are 3-4 years old (though harvesting 2-year-old roots can still give worthwhile results in the dye pot). By planting three sections of bed, or three pots, you will:
-Harvest one section in the fall of the second year (when the roots are two years old), and replant it
-Harvest the next section in fall of year 3 (when the roots are 3 years old), and replant
-Harvest the final section in the fall of year 4 (four year-old roots), and replant.
-In the fall of year 5, you will return to digging the first section of bed, which should have now produced a healthy harvest of 3 year old roots (having been replanted in year 2). Continue this yearly rotation and you will have an annual supply of premium roots for the dye pot from here on out!
Below you will find a more detailed year-to-year explanation. If you are going to grow your plants in pots or patio containers, there are some additional tips included below.
Planting Madder in a Raised Bed
Seed madder in the spring or early summer, and transplant out to a raised bed filled with rich soil that has been lightly amended with lime (if needed), spacing plants 12" apart, filling the bed. In summer as the plants grow, periodically train trailing stems so that they are contained within the bed, and bury sections of stem nodes to encourage additional root growth. In winter, the plants will die back, and dry dead stems can be cut back to a few inches above the soil. If you live in a place with multiple hard frosts and consistently frigid winter temperatures, mulch your madder bed with a thick layer of straw to protect it from the cold (if planting in pots, consider moving them to a sheltered location for the winter*).
Your plants will send up vigorous new shoots as soon as the soil begins to warm. Continue wrangling the trailing stems back into the bed, and burying nodes throughout the early summer. Your plants may flower and set seed this year, which can be saved or left to the birds (more likely, seeds will fall and sprout the following year, which is great).
Once plants have died back in the fall of their second year, cut back the dead stems to a few inches from the base of the plant. Now you can make your first harvest! If your growing conditions have been right, you may get some good reds this first time around--I have gotten beautiful reds from two-year old plants--but if not, you should at least be able to obtain some nice corals to tide you over until next year's real red harvest.
To understand more about dyeing with fresh madder roots, see this post.
The Fall Harvest
Divide your bed into three roughly equal sections. The first section will be harvested in the fall of year two, when you will remove all the roots you can dig up from this section, saving the mother plants for replanting.
Using a shovel, cut a line down the bed that marks your first harvest section, (using the shovel blade to cut through the web of roots that lie beneath the surface of the soil). Working from this line back towards the outer edge of the bed, dig down to the bottom, shaking soil from the masses of roots and carefully pulling them up as you go. Whenever you come to a dormant plant at the surface (formed where the shoots were buried and took root), carefully dig it up and trim the roots to four inches from the growing point, setting the plant carefully aside for replanting.
Once you have thoroughly dug through this section of bed, harvested the roots, and set the mother plants aside, it is a good idea to add some balanced fertilizer and compost to replenish the soil for the coming year. If you live in an area of high rainfall and naturally acidic soil, now is also a good time to add a little more hydrated lime if needed to help bring the pH up to slightly alkaline again. Once your amendments have been dug in, you can replant the dormant plants you set aside, spacing them evenly, so that they can start to grow again in the coming spring and begin to fill this empty section of bed with new roots.
The second (middle) section of the bed will be harvested and replanted in the fall of the following year (year three), the final section in year four, and then back to the first section in year five, and so-on. In this way, once you get going, you will be able to harvest a quantity of three-year-old roots every fall, for as many years as you wish. When you feel comfortable with the cycle, you can begin to harvest throughout the year from a given section, knowing that the roots there will be at least two years old. As long as you harvest dutifully, the majority of your roots will be naturally maintained at the optimum size for maximum alizarin production (not too small, and not too large and woody).
Care for plants as usual, taking care to fill in any gaps in the fall-harvested section of the bed by burying fresh stem nodes. In fall, harvest the middle section of the bed for the dye pot, amending the soil and replanting the mother plants just like before. By now, these roots should have developed a hearty level of alizarin, and produce beautiful reds in the dye pot!
Train as usual, Harvest and replant the final section of the bed in the fall.
Now you've come full circle, and have got the hang of it. In the fall of the fifth year, the roots in the first section of the bed (which you harvested and replanted in year 2) will be three years old, and ready to harvest again! At this point you can continue on your merry way 🙂
Plant one madder plant per pot, using the three biggest pots you can find, and place in a sunny location. The bigger your pots, the more room your plants will have to grow healthy, decent-sized roots.
The basic management strategy is the same for planting in pots as in a raised bed, so read the above information before getting started. The main differences are:
1) You will not be training and burying any stems--just let them grow however they want to grow. If your pots are placed on top of soil rather than on a deck or balcony, be aware that the roots will grow through the bottom of your pots into the soil below.
2) Instead of digging up one section of bed each fall starting the second year, you will simply dump out one of your pots onto a tarp, harvest the roots, and replant the mother plant back in the pot (adding a well balanced fertilizer, and fresh potting soil). To harvest, prune the root mass back, leaving 4" of roots on the plant to help it get going again in the spring. Everything you have cut off can be rinsed and used in the dye pot, though the larger roots will hold the highest red potential.
3) You will need to take extra care that your plants are getting enough water, especially if they are growing on a sunny balcony (which they would enjoy), where the soil in pots can quickly dry out in warm weather. This will ensure healthy root growth.
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