On Making Space for Nature with Sustainable Bungay

This post was first published on 24th September 2014 under the title ‘Mark Watson on Making Space for Flowers’ as part of the “Making Space for Nature” theme on the Transition Network website.

IMG_1158“Did you grow all those yourself?”, a young woman asked me last week at Transition Town Tooting’s 7th Foodival.

She was pointing to a wicker basket filled with the aromatic lemon balm, rosemary, anise hyssop, marjoram and a dozen or so more herbs and flowers I was preparing tea from at the event:

“A lot of them I grew at home in Suffolk, some are wild plants and others are from gardens here in Tooting, including the Community Garden up the road.”

She looked suprised, almost shocked. “My only reference for that kind of thing are the supermarket shelves,” she said.

In that moment I realised many things all at once: that events like the Foodival show how we can come together and regain autonomy over what we eat (and drink); that you never know who will walk in the door and get switched on by something they’ve never considered before; that making space for nature goes beyond the world of nature reserves, wildlife documentaries or even pilgrimages into the wilderness. I realised that an intrinsic engagement with the living world is what I’ve been showing and teaching in the last six years since I became part of the Transition movement; and that Transition has offered me a role where I can use my knowledge and skills to bring plants and people together in a dynamic and inspiring way.

Bungay is a small rural market town of 5000 people on the river Waveney in north-east Suffolk, surrounded by conventionally farmed agricultural land. The common idea that people in rural areas are automatically more connected with nature can be misleading. Wherever we live now much of the time is spent in artificial spaces: in front of computers, television screens, in our minds and indoors.

When I consider Sustainable Bungay, the Transition group where I’ve been most active since 2008, I see that (re)connection with living systems and considering the planet is implicit in everything we do, from the permaculture inspired Library Community garden, to the Give and Grow plant swap days to a cycle ride down to the pub by the locks of the Waveney at Autumn equinox. The very first Transition event I led was a Spring Tonic Walk introducing people from Bungay and Transition Norwich to dandelions, cleavers and nettles, the medicine plants growing in the neighbourhood.

Voilet-adorned prunes detailOur monthly community kitchen, Happy Mondays is now in its fourth year. A meal for 50 people, most of it locally sourced, is prepared from scratch in under three hours and features everything from nettle pesto and bittercress salad to puddings with foraged sweet violets or blackberries from the common.

Bungay Community Bees was formed in 2009 in response to the global pollinator crisis. There are now more than a dozen beehives in orchards and gardens in and around the town. The group has also created a purpose-built apiary (an observation shed with a hand-crafted glass hive) in association with Anglia Regional Co-operative Society and Featherdown Farms. In the summer schoolchildren from the region come to visit the bees and go on nature walks where they learn about flowers and pollinators.

College farm apiary

Even behind the Give and Take days with their ethos of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refashion, Re-just-about-everything, there is the sense that the planet needs a major break from all the stuff the industrial system keeps pumping out. Nature needs a breathing space!

Soil moving banner

A natural breathing space is among the many things that Bungay Community Library Garden offers. In 2009 a subgroup from Sustainable Bungay teamed up with the town library, organised an Introduction to Permaculture course with Graham Burnett and worked with local builders, gardeners, tree surgeons and group members to transform the unused brick courtyard with one jasmine and a honeysuckle into a flourishing community garden with raised beds, fruit trees, flowers and herbs.

BCLG 13.7.2014

Each year since its opening in 2010, the garden’s central bed showcases a different theme: plants for bees in 2011, plants as medicine in 2012, an edible bed in 2013 and this year dyes and textiles. This way people can get a feel for just how multi-faceted plants are and just how interwoven they are in our human lives. In many cases the categories change but the plants stay the same. The calendula you made a tea from in 2012, you tossed into a salad in 2013 and dyed a scarf with the following year!

The person curating the garden each year organises events around the theme. In the Plants for Life series I ran in 2012 focusing on health and wellbeing, there were monthly talks, walks and workshops with guest speakers, on everything from biodynamic growing to walking with weeds to the medicinal properties of homemade wine! I also ran ‘plant surgeries’ during the summer where people could come and ask questions about the project and the plants and exchange their knowledge too.

IMG_8305 low res

The garden has become a focal point for many of Sustainable Bungay’s activities from steering group meetings in the summer to seed and produce swaps, Abundance exchanges of foraged fruit, and apple pressings. It is also the starting point for the wellbeing walks begun by the Arts, Culture and Wellbeing group last year.

The idea behind the walks was to explore local places together to encourage wellbeing and a sense of belonging. How that might increase personal, and particularly community, resilience, help combat the desire to be somewhere else and so encourage lower use of fossil fuels. Many people reported that simply by taking part in the collective walks brought an experience of wellbeing in itself.

Image3313

There is more. Recently a group called NR35 (‘Natural Resources’ 35) based on the local postcode, began to explore “how to use our skills, knowledge and labour to generate an income by sustainably managing/harvesting the resources which are wildly abundant around our rural market town.” The results include the harvesting of fruit and vegetable gluts, some of which are supplied to local restaurants and grocers and a communal firewood store. Last spring a small group of us learned how to make a dead hedge with local tree surgeon Paul Jackson. It took just a morning but I remember practically everything Paul taught us.

So what I’m saying here is that making space for nature can start right outside our doors, and in the places we find ourselves. That it’s not always the big exotic landscapes abroad where Nature is to be encountered. We need to discover the natural world where we are and engage with it, because it’s the natural world that makes sense of everything in the end.

P4050041 tempcopy

In 2015 it will be my turn again to curate the theme at Bungay Community Library garden, and the focus will be on ‘Helpful Herbs’ of all kinds. Lavender and rosemary are settling into bed, with thyme, St. Johns Wort, sweet cicely and others already there. And I’m working with a team on some exciting events. I’m also planning to map the project as part of a group helping to shape a new Transition Diploma, a collaboration between Gaia University and the Transition Network. Oh, and to make it into a Transition livelihood!

Meanwhile here is a picture from a plant walk around Bury St Edmunds I led in June this year with Sustainable Bury. The caption would probably go something like this:

“You can’t go anywhere nowadays without people sitting on walls looking at Hoary Willowherb!”

hoary-willowherb-bury-wall-14-june-2014

Mark Watson is co-chair of Sustainable Bungay, a Transition Initiative in Suffolk, UK. Mark teaches groups and individuals to reconnect with nature through plants in the places they live. Details about his talks, walks and workshops can be found on Mark in Flowers.

Images: Talking plants and teas at Tooting Foodival, September 2014 by Chris from NappyValleyNet; Wild sweet violets adorn Happy Monday pudding by Josiah Meldrum; School visit to Bungay Community Bees’ observation hive by Elinor McDowell; Preparing the beds, 2010, Bungay Community Library garden (MW); the garden flourishes, summer 2014; Walking with Weeds, Plants for Life, 2012 (MW); 1st Wellbeing walk by the Waveney, 2013 by Charlotte Du Cann; Throwing our arms up under the cherry trees, April 2014 (CDC); Of walls and hoary willowherb in Bury St Edmunds, 2014 by Karen Cannard

Flowers, Fruits and the Colours of the Day

HB30SEPT14-#2 640x480

Every year I sow heavenly blue morning glory seeds hoping that they’ll flourish and flower together with the (yellow) sunflowers. Every year they tend not to do either, preferring to stay inside and push out some blooms when they feel like it. On Sunday (30 Sept) I found three truly glorious ones in the conservatory when I’d almost forgotten about them.

20140928_172454 640x480

The chillis have done really well this season. The slim red ones here are Ring of Fire, They bite like hell and have the extraordinary effect of bursting about six different flavours into your mouth in the two seconds before the skoville factor hits and all subtlety vanishes! The small red ones are the Apache variety, again hot but less so with good flavour for general cooking and salsas and beans. The yellow ones are Ají Limón or Lemon Drop chillis used a lot in Peru. They took a long time to germinate, grow & ripen but wow! what a fantastic multiflavour, multiaroma chilli. Like the Ring of Fire they smell great raw – just don’t rub your eyes (or nose) with your fingers afterwards – they’re really hot! You can get the seeds from The Real Seed Catalogue and then save your own for next year. Well worth it for the colour alone.

20140926_122519 480x640

The fiery hummingbird sage comes back year after year with its compellingly pungent leaves and bright red flowers. A native of northeast Mexico, I started growing it in 2003 from seeds gathered at a herbalist friend’s land in Arizona. Here in Suffolk I keep it going by cuttings every couple of years. So far they’ve set no seed though.

P1020392 640x480

And then sometimes you just have to leave the house and garden and get out a bit amongst the subtler but equally stunning wildflowers. Here is Charlotte ’52 Flowers’ walking amongst the flowering Devil’s-bit Scabious on a nearby common last Sunday (28 Sept).

A Raw Food Demonstration

IMG_6286 On Saturday 11th October I’ll be visiting local Bungay greengrocers, Giddens and Thompson, and running three raw food demonstrations in the shop as part of this year’s Waveney Valley Food & Drink Festival.

Simon Thompson says, “Mark will be making delicious dishes that are not only very good for you, but taste amazing. You’ll be able to sample all the dishes being made and take away recipe sheets (as well as purchase any ingredients you might need, of course).

???????????????????????????????Tickets cost £5 and booking is essential as places are filling up fast. There is a maximum of ten people at each demo.

To let Simon know which demonstration you’d like to attend: 10am, 12noon or 2pm, call 01986 897944. Each session will last about 30 minutes. Look forward to seeing you there!

Note: All of the featured raw food dishes have previously been tried, tested and thoroughly enjoyed at Sustainable Bungay’s monthly Happy Mondays at the Community Kitchen meals.

Images: Raw Food evening with the Low Carbon Cookbook group at The Nectar, Norwich, August 2011; beetroot, carrot, parsley, 2011. by Mark Watson under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license

Making Tea in Tooting – Foodival 2014

Tooting FoodivalI was delighted to be invited back for the second time to take part in the 7th fabulous Transition Town Tooting Foodival, which took place this last weekend.

A total celebration of locally grown and cooked food, involving many different people and organisations from the local community: individuals, restaurants, the community garden, the Friends of Streatham Cemetery bee group… it is a most joyous affair, with performances by neighbourhood musicians and artists and a Top Tooting Cook competition to boot.

20140914_115834 enh 1024x768

I was there making and demonstrating fresh herb teas and like last year I was struck again not only by how much everyone enjoyed the teas, but how interested people were to know about the plants.

IMG_1158I collected 25 or so different types of leaves and flowers from the garden here at home in Suffolk, and was brought lovely bunches of lemon balm, sage, marjoram and thyme by Jenny from Tooting Community garden and Malsara from the Foodival organising group. And on Sunday morning Lucy took me to a spot on Tooting Common where she’d seen yarrow growing after we found the community garden wasn’t yet open. And there it was! The day was saved.

It was in fact a brilliant day and I didn’t stop making, pouring and talking about the plant teas from the time the event began at midday until about 4.30pm. I hardly left the table. Thanks to Charlotte (the day’s ‘food tsar’) and Lizzie at the food table, I got to taste some of the wonderful food – including delicious aubergine fritters, spicy vegetable stew and poori masala.

My only regret at being so busy is not having had more time to visit the other stalls at the Foodival. I need to factor that in for next time. But it was a great day and I spoke with many people. Some hadn’t realised they could grow herbs themselves and didn’t have to get them from the supermarket; others wanted to know what to do with all the lemon balm in their garden; still others had no idea that there was a community garden they could join in with in Tooting. One woman who had no growing space where she lived was delighted to find out about it.

IMG_1168One of my favourite things was seeing people’s responses when I offered them to smell the mixture of plants in my herb basket. And the openness many showed for trying something different. The small pieces of Aztec Sweet Herb flowers and leaves went down particularly well. As you chew the taste just gets sweeter and sweeter. I’ll write about this extraordinary plant in another post…

Meanwhile thanks to all the Foodival crew at Transition Town Tooting for welcoming me up from the country for the event! And of course to Lucy and her husband Simon for having me to stay and being great hosts.

Foodival

Delicious teas

PS If you would like to host a plant medicine talk, walk or workshop with me please see here for details.

Images: Foodival banner by the Phantom Knitter of Tooting; Setting up the herb tea table; talking with people about the plants; tea-tasting; the foodival in full swing; a lovely bit of twitter feedback Photos by Simon Maggs, Transition Town Tooting, Mark Watson and Chris at NappyValleyNet

Text and images: Creative Commons with attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives

Summer Plant Highlights (i) – from Humble Pavement to Grander Garden

Epilobium parviflorumAs we move into autumn, I plan to put up some short posts with highlights from my engagement with plants this summer. The first is from mid-June, when I was invited to Bury St. Edmunds by Sustainable Bury to lead a mid-summer plant walk through the town. I found it very rewarding and good fun – the whole group really got into the spirit of the walk and connecting with the natural world via the plants and flowers.

Hoary Willowherb

We spent a couple of hours visiting plants in all different locations – from the humble pavement to the grander (but very friendly) cathedral herb garden and the riverside. In the herb garden we sat and tuned in to plants and place, taking notice of whatever plant our attention was drawn to, whether familiar or unfamiliar, hoary mullein or prickly milk thistle. We then returned to the community garden that Sustainable Bury set up and co-runs, picked an assortment of fragrant fresh herbs (including the delightful lemon verbena) and spoke together about our findings over a collectively brewed herb tea.

From long-forgotten childhood memories of foxgloves in Wales to an increased awareness of colour and smell, to a determination to do this more often, the richness and variety of people’s experience was striking. And all by taking time out to pay a different kind of attention.

Hoary WIllowherb Bury Wall 14 June 2014

Humble Pavements aka “You can’t go anywhere nowadays without people sitting on walls looking at Hoary Willowherb!”

For more info on my talks, walks and workshops, please see here.

Images: Hoary Willowherb by Hectonichus (from Wikipedia under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License); In the street by Sustainable Bury and Sitting on Walls by Karen Cannard; Text by Mark Watson. Creative Commons with attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives

Just How Much Epazote in the Beans? And When?

I’ve been looking at some Mexican cooking forums to find out exactly when to add epazote to black beans (see previous post) and just how much.

P1020067 1024x768Una ramita, a sprig, seems to be a common guide on how much epazote you put in the olla (pot) when you cook frijoles (beans). Traditionally (but by no means exclusively) it’s used with black beans. And how much you put in also depends on when you put it in. More at the beginning and less right at the end.

It’s a very strong smelling plant when fresh, and (to me anyway) utterly compelling. The word like, or even dislike, doesn’t really come into it (which is great given how like is so overused these days). There’s really nothing else like it no matter how we might talk about similarities to tarragon… or varnish!

20140729_092708The intensity does break down in the cooking. Last week I cooked a pot of black beans and then put a ramita in before going on to the refried stage, which took another hour or so. Next time I might try it a little nearer the end of the cooking time.

I’ve found epazote a very easy herb to grow here near the Suffolk coast in the east of England. I don’t know if it has to do with the soil, which is light and sandy, but some of them are well over five feet tall. It’s mostly described as an annual but most of the plants I have are in their third year – including this mammoth one.

Images: Two sprigs of epazote; epazote growing tall, Suffolk, England July 2014 (both by Mark Watson)

Of Blackcurrants and Beans, Epazote, Cosmos and Playing For Time

Herbs, Flowers, Food 22-3 July 2014 smaller 2The days are hazy and warm if not always entirely dry this post-midsummer here in Suffolk. And whilst in the moment time feels fairly slow, the days and weeks themselves seem to rush on apace.

This week Lucy is here and she and Charlotte are at work in the caravan putting the finishing touches on Lucy’s book about collaborative arts practices and new narratives, ‘Playing for Time‘, which they have been working on for the past year and a half. Maybe calling it finishing touches is a bit premature as there’s still quite some editing and picture work to do over the coming months. But later this week Lucy will take her Puck caravan back home to London and her regular visits will have come to an end.

So yesterday, whilst they were both in London meeting with the publishers, I prepared the evening meal. What was to be a tortilla had to undergo remedial action as I almost burnt it chatting to Lucy and her daughter Alice in the garden when they got here. All was not lost though I just had to rename it an egg and potato hash! It tasted fine.

I prepared a herbal refresher as ever and added some very lightly stewed and strained blackcurrants to the 18 herb infusion, which along with the lemon juice turned the whole thing a startling magenta pink (see bottle in picture).

But the refried beans were what most excited me. Already cooked black beans simmered for a further hour or so along with two large sprigs of our homegrown epazote (aka Mexican Tea or Wormseed) and a bunch of coriander with tomatoes, onions and salt added. They were delicious. Epazote is incredibly pungent but when cooked tastes very different from what it smells like raw. It’s what makes Mexican beans taste like Mexican beans. And as you can see in the picture (above left) it grows very easily here.

The centre picture in the banner is of feverfew, orange cosmos, Moroccan mint and Japanese mugwort, all growing happily by the back door.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 34 other followers