Education summer gardens

Summer in the Swiss Garden

Gardens are great for helping kids of all ages learn about nature and ecology, as well as plant biology, reproduction and geography. You might be surprised to find that gardens and plants can play a part in lots of other subjects too. Great for older and younger students. 

One of the ways to study history is to think about what people looked like, what they wore and how they lived, and exploring natural dyes from the garden is a great way to do this.

We have lots of evidence from tombs, paintings and scrolls about dyeing processes throughout history. It is possible to find out what cloth the Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Greeks or Vikings wore, and use the produce from the garden, or the kitchen, to create the same colours. For older students it is interesting to consider why dyers were considered to be low in the social hierarchy, how many dyes and mordants (the product used to help keep the dye in the fabric after treatment) were poisonous, or which dyes were particularly precious.

Ancient Egypt

The Ancient Egyptians dyed various fabrics like wool and silk, with a complex system of overdyes and additional colours. Luckily for us they also left papyri detailing their dyeing methods. They used indigo, from several different plants, for blue, for red, Madder, like the Romans, and a wide variety of plants for yellows including turmeric, henna, crocus, as well as safflower. Safflower (Carthamnus tinctorius) is an easy annual crop, sow the seeds in April outdoors, with protection, or from mid May without protection. The Ancient Egyptians grew this as a commercial crop, and the flower heads were used to dye the cloth that mummies were wrapped in.

Roman Age

Older students could research the most expensive dye in Roman times, Tyrian purple, made from mollusc shells, and so precious that only emperors and senior senators were allowed to wear it.  The paler colours of reds and pinks were made with Madder (Rubia tinctorum) which you can easily add to a school garden. Sow seeds in spring or autumn, and dig up the roots for use in dyeing, but expect to wait at least 5 years for the roots to grow to a usable size for dyeing!

Ancient Greeks

The Ancient Greeks, like the Romans and the Egyptians, used dyes from all over Europe and sometimes further afield, but one of their best-recorded and most popular dyes came from the humble crocus. The frescoes from Akotiri show girls gathering crocuses, probably in order to extract the stamens for use in dyeing. Crocuses, whether used for dyeing or for making saffron, are a very labour-intensive crop, and anything made from them is expensive. The fine yellow cloth made with crocus dye was synonymous in Greek culture with wealth and power, and the epithet “kroko” which is used to describe many heroines and heroes reflects this connection. You can grow crocuses at home in pots or in the garden, plant in the autumn and see how many it would take to make a dye bath. 


The Vikings used lots of different vegetable and animal-based products to dye their clothes, including lichen. Lichens grow really slowly, so much so that the Italian dyeing industry in the early 15th century rendered extinct several species of lichen due to over-collection. Harris tweed, made on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, still uses lichens collected on the island for dyeing the wool used in the cloth.

Try it in the classroom or at home

Growing vegetables for dyeing

Easy grow vegetables that you can eat and use the remnants for dyeing include spinach, red cabbage, elderberries and both brown and yellow onion skins. You can grow all of these in a school garden, or at home in a garden. If you have a balcony, then all except the elderberries are easy to grow in pots.

Spinach and red cabbage can all be planted as seeds or as young plants. Cabbage can be planted from February to April as a seed, or a young plant from April to June. Spinach can be sown any time, depending on the variety, outdoors from mid-March to May. Then for the winter varieties, sow from August to October. If there is a risk of frost, throw some horticultural fleece over them. Another idea might be to invest in some cloches or mini poly-tunnels.

Elderberries are very easy to add to any garden, if you have some space. The flowers make a wonderful cordial too, used as cure for all kinds of ailments since Roman times. 

If you don’t have a garden, or access to a garden, there are plenty of ingredients in your kitchen that you could try. Tea leaves, pomegranate seeds and skins, avocado skins and pits. If you’re looking for a very vibrant colour, try using turmeric.

We are used to the bright colours of artificial modern dyes, and natural vegetable dyes in particular, can look very disappointing in comparison, so prepare yourself and your students for more subtle colours than is usual today. Additionally, many vegetables and fruit that are suggested for home dye projects actually yield a muddy brownish-pink. Beetroot and raspberries, although they stain clothes, make for poor dyes. The other element to consider is that many vegetables and fruit used for dyeing require a mordant. 

Mordants can include

  • Alum – readily available in pharmacies
  • Nails in vinegar – rusted nails soak in vinegar for 3 days. However, don’t put a lid on the container as it can explode
  • Vinegar – make a vinegar solution with four parts water to one part vinegar (vinegar isn’t technically a mordant, but an additive that modifies pH, essential   for those dyes that require an acidic pH to “strike” or adhere to the cloth.)
  • Salt – 16 parts water to one part salt
  • Without the fixative, the dye will just wash out again.  See below for using the mordant.

Good choices without a mordant

  • Red cabbage 
  • Black tea
  • Saffron
  • Turmeric (with some vinegar in the dye bath)

Using the mordant

If your chosen vegetable requires a mordant, then start by simmering your fabric in the mordant mixture for about an hour. If you are doing this in class, you might want to prepare the fabric before class. Make sure to keep it damp, as it works better when wet. Perhaps prepare the dye bath while the fabric is soaking if you’re doing this at home.

Making a dye bath

Chop up and then gently simmer the chosen vegetables in the same volume of water for an hour, and strain.  You can use the dye bath immediately by putting your textile straight into the same saucepan and simmering for another hour. If you don’t want to most will keep in the fridge in a glass jar for a few days.

Rinse the fabric in cold water and leave it to dry.

What to dye?

Animal fibres are the easiest to dye, but tend to be more expensive. Plain white cotton T-shirts that have been washed a few times are a good classroom option. Another good option is old plain tea towels.  Ideally the items fit neatly into the saucepan you will use (that won’t be used for cooking) without the need for messy removal.

Any special equipment?

For making vegetable-based dyes you will need a stainless steel pan that you plan to only use for dyeing (these vegetable-based dyes are all non-toxic, but it’s good practice to avoid mixing food-preparation and dye-preparation vessels), a sieve,  a wooden spoon that you don’t mind dyeing, and rubber gloves, to avoid dyeing your hands and possible irritation from the ingredients. 

You can enjoy the fabric as it is, or use it as part of a project. It can help make a mixed media collage, or a historical display for the end of the unit.

Gardens to visit for inspiration

Here in Switzerland, you can see dye plants at the walled garden at the Château de Prangins in Canton Vaud. This newly created section of the garden was made in connection to the permanent exhibition “Les Indiennes”. It’s a retrospective on chintz, and a look at the plants used to make the rich colours. Nathalie Pellissier, a guide at the Chateau and creator of the practical “plants for dyeing” course explained.

“ The new area allows practical observation of plants that are used for dyeing. They will be used in combination with plants growing in the Park and the Orchard in our hands-on dyeing classes. We look at many different aspects of dye colours, including indigos, yellows, and blacks, such as those usable in inks. Also, we look at trialling different lichens that have been sustainably collected. We also work with different fibres, such as nettles.” 

If you visit the chateau gardens for yourself you’ll see plants like Coreopsis, as well as Madder and golden marguerites.

About the Author

Hester Macdonald is a garden designer, broadcaster, and founder of the Swiss Gardening School. She is also the author of “Gardens Schweiz Suisse Switzerland”. It’s a trilingual guide to the 52 best gardens open to public across Switzerland, published by Bergli Books.

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