Head Gardener’s Notes: June

The garden is blooming.

Perennial coreopsis, St John’s wort and sunflowers growing tall.

Perennial coreopsis, St John’s wort and sunflowers growing tall.

This is the time of year gardeners get very busy, but as the dye garden is becoming established the main jobs are weeding, watering and harvesting.

Ditchling Museum dye garden is not very big and is designed more as a dye plant library, finding homes for as many examples of dye plants as possible.

In previous years I have hosted tours of the garden, showing interested people a number of the plants and explaining their use in producing natural dyes, among other interesting facts.



Do you recognise this common hedge plant?

I love privet, and I am always surprised that so few join me in this love.

The scented creamy white flowers are loved by bees, the leaves are important food for a number of moths, especially the privet hawk moth, England’s largest moth.

The berries, poisonous to humans, are a good source of food for birds and are especially loved by thrushes.

Being evergreen and with a dense growth habit it also provides good cover for small birds and mammals.

From the gardeners point of view it is usually grown as a hedge and is wonderful for this use. It doesn’t grow too fast, you can trim it to almost any shape which is great if you are in to topiary. It is normally evergreen (unless a winter is very cold, but it will spring back in the spring).

The colour of the leaves is a beautiful bright green which deepens as they mature through the year. Some varieties are lime and others are variegated. I prefer the common green colour as it makes a great backdrop to other plants.

Many gardeners trim it hard before flowering, cutting off the developing buds and missing out on the flowers, or trim after flowering, trimming off the developing berries. I trim it very gently before flowering, gently after flowering, and give it a hard trim once the berries are over.

The leaves produce a yellow/green, but it’s berries can produce various colours including grey, blue, and even red shades depending on the mordants and treatments used.

In the museum garden it has solved the problem of what to do with a very narrow bed, up against a wire fence, with all sorts of invasive plants behind, such as brambles. Because it is so dense it helps to keep these invasive plants where they should be.



You may have seen meadowsweet growing in ditches and hedgerows around Sussex. It is a european native and can be found flowering in June through to early September, producing panicles of tiny, sweet smelling, creamy white flowers which look almost like fronds of fluff.

The flowers provide food for bees etc. The leaves provide food for the caterpillars of various species of moth.

Growing meadowsweet in the museum garden was a revelation. I had never seen it in a garden before, or studied it close up. As it started to grow I was struck by the wonderful contrast of the red stems and the bright green leaves with their wonderful pleated texture. Once the flowers came I was delighted by the fragrance.

I don’t understand why gardens aren’t full of it, especially as it likes damp, semi shade areas, so might liven up a dull corner.

As a dye plant it can be used to create some interesting colours depending on the techniques used.

In the past it has been used as a flavouring in food. It also contains a chemical similar to aspirin and has been used to create pain killing infusions. It also smells good when dried so has been used to strew on floors.

Lavender - Munstead

Lavender – Munstead

Lavender is seen here edging the long bed opposite the education centre. Lavender is not known as a dye plant so why is it in the dye garden?

Usually any plant not used in natural dyeing is banished from the garden, but I wanted to find a plant to create a neat and stunning edge. I consulted with Jenny Dean and I was allowed lavender, because it is used as a fabric freshener, and so complements the natural dyeing theme.

I chose the Munstead variety for its neat growth habit and the beautiful purple flowers. At the moment it is covered in bees.

To keep it neat it is important to prune it quite hard in the early Autumn, leaving a little fresh growth below each cut.

Also in the photo above you can see the weld looking beautiful as it starts to turn to seed.

The bright yellow flowers are a few more perennial coreopsis. We are enjoying the contrast of the yellow with the purple, so much so, that next year we plan to replant all the perennial coreopsis behind the lavender.

Dyers Chamomile

Dyers Chamomile

I am so happy with the dyers chamomile this year. The fine cut foliage and the sunny faces of the flowers on top, are a joy, especially as many of the plants have come from cuttings I took in early spring. I just took the leaves off the lower portion of the cutting stem and pushed it into the soil beside the original plant. To my delight, most of the cuttings have taken.

Nasturtium - Mahogany Gleam

Nasturtium – Mahogany Gleam

I only found out that nasturtiums were dye plants last year, so this is the first year growing them in the garden. It is the flowers that are used in dyeing, and this variety has beautiful deep, rich, red flowers.

They are great for edging deep beds because, as they grow, they will start to trail down the sides, very attractive.

All parts of the nasturtium plant can be eaten and give various strengths of a hot peppery taste. I love the flavour, so another advantage of growing them is the ability to have a quick snack in passing.

Wild Madder

Wild Madder

I am excited because this is the first year I have noticed the wild madder flowering.

It has not grown with the abundance of the normal madder we grow, but it has grown. We had to repot it in the spring, as it’s original pot broke with the frosts. I was pleased to see it had a good root system. As with the normal madder the chemical needed for dye is produced in the roots and will produce a red/pink/orange dye.

What has surprised me, is that the beautiful, lemon star, flowers of wild madder are larger than the flowers found on it’s monster cousin.

Ladies Bedstraw

Ladies Bedstraw

Another joy is seeing the ladies bedstraw flourishing. It also produces a reddish dye from its roots but you would need a lot of roots as they are very small and thin.

I am very happy seeing it grow in this old basin. I think the flowers look like yellow soap foaming over the edge.

This is the common yarrow you will find growing in grassland all over Sussex. Here it is in good soil, and as it is not having to compete with grass, it is growing well.

I have used it to edge the beds beside the museum buildings. It is low growing and the attractive feathery leaves make a soft border. The white flat flowers, sometimes blushed with pink, are attractive to lots of insects. I have noticed hoverflies around them.

As a dye plant it produces yellows. The leaf can also be used to produce beautiful hapa zome prints.

Many birds line their nests with the leaves and this is thought to help provide some defence against parasites. A number of insects feed off the nectar.

It is also a for source for the larvae of many species of moth

Another lovely collection of dye plants are marigolds.

Again they are great for providing a neet edge to a bed and provides a long flowering period helping to keep the garden looking blooming lovely.

Marigold flowers produce rich yellow/saffron/orange shades of dye.

French Marigold

French Marigold

Jobs for the summer are watering, weeding and mowing when needed.

We are also harvesting dye plant matter where we can and when seeds form we will harvest them too.

A big project has been started, planting up another area of the museum grounds, but this won’t only have dye plants. We want it too look amazing as well as providing a picking garden of flowers for the cafe. More about that in due course.

Have a wonderful and productive July