Planting Madder: Strategies for a Continued Harvest

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

Gardening Goals:

  • 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

 

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Madder creeping quietly into the woad patch...

Getting Started:

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.

 

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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.

 

Seeding

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.

 

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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

Year One:

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*).

Year Two:

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.

IMG_2779Using 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).

Year Three

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!

Year Four:

Train as usual, Harvest and replant the final section of the bed in the fall.

Year Five:

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 🙂

 

image(4)*Tips for Planting in Pots:

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.

 

Happy Gardening!

 

It took a lot of time and energy to create this post--Please let me know if I am on the right track! I would really appreciate it if you would please take a minute and leave a comment, even a few words would be great. I would love to know if this was clear and helpful, what questions do you still have about the topic, what are you struggling with, or if you have any great resources relating to this topic that you’d be willing to share with other readers. Also, if this post was helpful and inspiring to you, I would love it if you shared it with your friends!

I read every comment and will set aside time to answer any questions below. Please know that once you submit a comment, it will take a a day or so for it to show up on the post, as I have a spam filter that requires I approve all comments before they are published--thank you for your patience!

 

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Hello, and thanks for visiting! Please do not use my photos or any other site content without prior written permission. All photos and site content are under copyright protection and are solely my property, unless otherwise noted.

30 Responses

  1. Carla farrell
    | Reply

    Oh my, I know you are feeling better and are up and running! This is amazing, especially to a non dyer!

    Love and hugs to you, dear granddaughter.
    Gma

  2. Vitaly
    | Reply

    Thank you. This is perfect.. just what I was looking for. Definitely on the right track 🙂

    • ecotone.threads@gmail.com
      | Reply

      Wonderful! Good luck 😉
      -Kori

  3. nancy t
    | Reply

    What a clear, concise and complete post! Thank you for taking the time and effort to share your experience. I planted madder seeds in early April in a raised bed built for the purpose. True leaves emerged last week so I will be transplanting them within the bed to their final spacing this week. Your post is reassuring that the bits I have found in my research on how to grow it is correct and that it applies to California (I am in coastal southern Mendocino county). Testing my soil pH is something I think I will need to do, though. I filled the raised bed with a variety of composts, peat and vermiculite and the seeds seem to love it – they emerged quickly. But the peat can acidify the soil so perhaps I need to see if I can procure a soil pH test kit quickly before I transplant.
    The Japanese indigo did not have as high a success rate – same bed and same daily spritzing with water. Perhaps it truly benefits most by indoor starting in my climate. I am hoping to get 15-20 plants of the 75-100 seeds I started with.
    Thank again. I look forward to seeing what you post about next and to looking through your website.
    Cheers!

    • ecotone.threads@gmail.com
      | Reply

      Hi Nancy,
      It sounds like you are off to a wonderful start this year! And yes, making sure you have a slightly alkaline soil in that madder bed will make a big difference down the line… plus it is so interesting to know a little about the soil chemistry where we are gardening and how it may influence different crops 🙂

      I know that down here in Santa Cruz the Japanese Indigo really prefers being started indoors, especially if you are planting before mid-June. In my experience the warm soil makes a huge difference in germination rates, and also long-term plant vitality. Hopefully it is warming up for you up there in Mendocino, and the seedlings that you do have will sail into a nice summer season. Thank you for taking the time to leave feedback, I hope to hear how your dye garden develops!

      Warmly,
      Kori

  4. nancy t
    | Reply

    Hi Kori,
    A friend up the coast chimed in yesterday. She started seed in mid-March in a warm laundry room with a skylight. She has 70 4″ pots of 8-10 plants each! 90% germination rate. I’m sold. Next year, indoors it is. I may try more seed this year directly sown come mid-June. Thanks again for the tips!

    One more question: how frequently and how much water do you provide the madder outside rainy season? I’ll be setting up drip irrigation.

    Cheers!
    Nancy

    • ecotone.threads@gmail.com
      | Reply

      Hi Nancy,
      In this first year especially, I would treat your madder seedlings like most other vegetables in your garden, watering any time the top inch or two of soil dry out to ensure they get off to a lush start. Once established, madder actually doesn’t need a lot of water, especially if your soil is high in organic matter! You can also mulch your plants this coming winter once they die back, and leave the mulch on through the following season to hold in moisture. In my climate, this system allows me to water established plants with drip once every other week or so. This of course will depend on your growing microclimate–it gets fairly warm up here, but if I was closer to the coast I bet I could get away with even less frequent watering!

  5. caryn
    | Reply

    Love your very helpful explanation, thanks from portugal another addicted eco dyer with a growing permaculture garden

  6. Leah Rosenthal
    | Reply

    Hi,
    I started my madder from gifted seeds in a huge pot. I kept them inside during our Vermont winter and planted out last spring into a low raised bed. It over wintered with a cover of Mulch, and this spring it came forth with a vengeance. It appears to have a ton of seeds growing on it, and I wish to harvest the seeds. I just don’t know how to tell when they are ready. Would you please help me?
    Thanks,
    Leah

    • ecotone.threads@gmail.com
      | Reply

      Hi Leah,
      My sincere apologies for this late reply! Life has kept me away from the computer the past month. As for how to tell when your madder seeds are ready to harvest, I posted a blog article on this very subject last fall–Please take a look in the “Resources” section of the website to find it. If you still have questions, I am happy to offer additional advice. Best wishes!

      Warmly,
      Kori

  7. Ashley Walker
    | Reply

    Hi Kori
    I am writing a similar article on growing Madder and wanted to see what others had written so came across your wonderful blog and excellent post on the very subject. So just wanted to say I really appreciate the level of detail that you have put into it and you clearly know your stuff. My partner Susan and I have been growing Madder here in Hertfordshire in the UK for what must be 10 years or more and found that the colour we get is as good as most commercial suppliers of madder root. It is true that we grow the plant on a chalk soil so it is naturally alkaline so I guess we should get good results. I wish you good luck for your plant dye business and will look forward seeing what you do next.
    Regards
    Ashley Walker

    • ecotone.threads@gmail.com
      | Reply

      Hi Ashley,
      Wonderful to hear from you, and thank you for taking the time to connect! I am so grateful that the internet offers the opportunity for us all to share and compare information and experiences with like-minded souls around the world. Wishing you the best, and looking forward to seeing what you have to say on the subject 🙂

      Warmly,
      Kori

      • Ashley Walker
        | Reply

        Hello again Kori
        I have finally posted what turns out to be the first of two articles on growing madder please see http://www.naturesrainbow.co.uk/2017/01/growing-madder/ The second one is a review of Robert Chenciners book “Madder Red” which will look at the lessons from history on growing madder and what the home grower can learn from this fabulous text. It will be posted in the Spring to coincide with a general article on Dye plant gardening which will appear in the UK Guild of Spinners Weavers and Dyers Journal. In the Madder post I have put in a link to your excellent post above. Hope that is OK.
        Best regards and best wishes
        Ashley

        • ecotone.threads@gmail.com
          | Reply

          This is wonderful work, thank you Ashley!

  8. Catherine
    | Reply

    Very interesting and well explained. I’m planning on planting madder next spring in my garden for dyeing my fabrics and I just found answers to all my questions. Thank you!

  9. Tina Mossmer
    | Reply

    Thank you for a very informative and detailed post. I am looking forward to reading the rest of your blog! I am planning to start growing madder and Japanese indigo from seed this summer in my garden in South Africa. I wasn’t sure about the madder but your post has convinced me to go ahead and order the seed!

  10. Amy
    | Reply

    Lovely, informative post. Does madder grow in cold climates? How does it winter over?

    • ecotone.threads@gmail.com
      | Reply

      Hi Amy,
      Thank you for your patience, and my apologies for the late reply–I have taken the past few months off from the website as my husband and I have been in the process of moving into a new home! Madder is considered to be hardy to -5 deg F/-20 deg. C. In climates where temperatures regularly stand below this, madder should be grown in pots to be brought inside during the winter months, or covered in some sort of caterpillar tunnel/hoop house to protect it from extreme cold.

      Warmly,
      Kori

  11. Katherine
    | Reply

    I’m interested in growing madder and found your information to be very helpful. I live in the high desert and am wondering if i should grow the madder in full sun (west side of house) or can I grow it in partial shade. The full sun side gets very hot, but I’m not sure if the other side (East side) will provide enough sun… Thank you for your help. Sincerely, Katherine Tucker

    • ecotone.threads@gmail.com
      | Reply

      Hi Katherine,
      Thank you for your patience, and my apologies for the late reply–I have taken the past few months off as my husband and I have been in the process of moving into a new home. You may have already found this elsewhere, but in my experience, madder grows very well in part shade. It should be noted though that it is traditionally grown in arid parts of the Middle East where conditions can be quite scorching! However, if you are unsure about the temperatures on the west side of your house, I wouldn’t hesitate to give it a try on the East side, especially if it will get some decent morning sun.

      Warmly,
      Kori

  12. Colleen
    | Reply

    Hello, Thank you for the thoughtful instructions. I have been growing madder for a few years and just dug up several clumps. I’ve rinsed them and trimmed the crowns and plan on replanting them. Do you chop up the fresh root and then let it dry? A dyer friend said she had a heck of a time trying to chop up the dried madder root and always looks for it sold as small chunks.

    Thanks for any tips. colleen

    • ecotone.threads@gmail.com
      | Reply

      Hi Collen,
      Thank you for your patience, and my apologies for the late reply–I have taken the past few months off from the website as my husband and I have been in the process of moving into a new home. This may come too late for your needs, but perhaps helpful for future harvests–Madder is typically chopped or pulverized fresh and then dried–as your friend noticed, it becomes pretty much indestructible otherwise! I have an old food processor I picked up at a thrift store that I use exclusively for dye material processing (also comes in handy when powdering homemade indigo pigment!). In this case, it is especially helpful to harvest the roots regularly (every two-three years) so they maintain a good processing size. Once they get bigger than the size of a pencil, they become more difficult to chop and blend up. I am also in the process of determining whether the pigment found in the pith of larger roots is in fact a secondary pigment and not true alizarin… in which case it would really make sense to focus management and harvests on smaller root diameters, where mostly cortex is present. That may be the subject of a future article, time will tell 🙂 Best wishes!

      Warmly,
      Kori

      • Colleen
        | Reply

        Hi Kori,

        Thank you for your thoughts. I went ahead and sacrificed a blade on my food processor to the madder project. The roots, 2 and 3 years old ranged from chopstick size to pinky finger thickness. I ended up with about 3 plus gallons of dried shredded product. I haven’t yet dyed with it but gave some to friends to try.
        I am interested in your experiment in trying to determine the strength of the dye at the different age/size.

        Regards,

        Colleen

  13. arlee
    | Reply

    Does anyone have any tips for growing madder in colder climes? I just got seeds from Salt Spring Island, and am wondering if there’s anything in particular i need to do here in Calgary’s Zone 3A/4 growing season.

    • ecotone.threads@gmail.com
      | Reply

      Hi Arleen,
      Thank you for your patience, and my apologies for the late reply–I have taken the past few months off from the website as my husband and I have been in the process of moving into a new home, and am just catching up on comments.

      I am not familiar with the particulars of Canadian climate zones, but Madder is considered to be a very hardy plant here in the US–That being said, if winter temperatures in your area regularly reach below -20 deg. C then you may want to try growing your plants in pots that can be brought inside a garage, greenhouse, or hoop house during the winter months! This method also allows for much easier harvests, though it can be limiting depending on the quantity of roots you need each year for your projects. Best wishes, would love to hear how it goes this year!

      Warmly,
      Kori

  14. Annie
    | Reply

    Thank you! Really interesting I’m just digging my first Madder bed and your post has been really helpful. Annie

  15. viv davy
    | Reply

    great thanks.

  16. Kimiko Small
    | Reply

    I want to thank you very much for creating and sharing this post. I’m looking to grow my own madder for dyeing experiments, and most of the growing info was for the UK or elsewhere, not here in California. I’m in the hot Central Valley, so I really appreciate your comments on when to start growing this plant, and about the watering needs. I’m now itching to start early next spring.

    I do have a question. About what pH numbers should one aim for in amending the soil? I’ve got lots of hydrated lime, which I just bought for my next indigo vat, but I don’t want to overdo it in the soil.

    Thank you.

    • ecotone.threads@gmail.com
      | Reply

      Hi Kimiko, Thank you for your comment! I wouldn’t aim any higher than 7.5 pH for a madder bed–too alkaline and you affect many plants’ ability to take up nutrients. The important thing is to tip the soil away from acid to encourage alizarin production. I water my madder with leftover indigo vat water, and give it a dusting of lime each spring, but do not shoot for any severe changes to my soil chemistry.

      I hope this helps!

      Kori

  17. Sadb
    | Reply

    Thanks for the detailed post! This reader is new to growing dye plants and the first crop goes in the ground this upcoming spring. I really appreciate the instructions for both flatter raised beds and larger pot-style planters.

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