Archive for the ‘Wastegrounds’ Category

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.


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.

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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!”


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

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

Teas in Transition go walkabout!

I wrote this piece for the latest edition (Spring/Summer 2014) of Transition Free Press, the quarterly grassroots UK newspaper which reports “on a culture that’s shifting the way it looks at and engages in the world… with news and feature stories that other papers don’t quite reach.” I manage the distribution for the paper. The piece both records the first Sustainable Bungay* wellbeing walk of this year, which I introduced with a pot of tea, and looks at how paying attention to where we are can show us how we belong in a place.

Teas in Transition go walkabout

“Can you guess what’s in this tea?” I am standing in the community library garden in early April, introducing the first Sustainable Bungay wellbeing walk of the year. The liquid I’m pouring from the large white teapot is a light golden green in colour; “pale sunshine” someone calls it. Though no one recognises its fresh, mild taste.

The tea is from the leaves of a nearby birch tree. I’m talking about its spring tonic qualities – the theme of this walk. Birch leaf tea helps cleanse the system and reduce uric acid. Several people here have told me recently that they suffer from rheumatism, arthritis, even gout. Time to get acquainted with birch!

The monthly walks themselves are about paying attention to where are and discovering what makes us belong in a place. They began last year after a Green Drinks discussion about wellbeing and community, where we decided to walk together and map the places and green spaces around town that we valued and made us feel at home.

The route is decided collectively on the day by everyone who turns up. As we walk people show each other the meadows and alleyways that have resonance for them, as well as swapping local knowledge and stories. One month we may hear about about the history of local trade and shops, and another discover how the relationship between human society and the River Waveney has changed over time (and take a swim!). It’s also about engaging with the people (and plants and places) you meet along the way.

When I organise a walk there is a strong focus on plants and trees and learning to see them as multi-faceted fellow inhabitants of the Earth with their own reasons for being here, as well as their medicinal qualities. And there is always a pot of tea!

Birch leaf tea: 5 fresh or dried birch leaves per person (picked spring/early summer), infused 5-10 minutes in just-boiled water. No harmful side effects. Drink freely.

I teach people how to connect with the living world through plants (and my ever-present teapot!). I also manage distribution for Transition Free Press and chair Transition initiative Sustainable Bungay* in northeast Suffolk.

Photo caption: Me with a teapotful of wild and community garden flowers at Transition Town Tooting’s foodival, September 2013

Credit: David Thorne, Transition Town Tooting

More Than Just My Cup of Tea – Teapot on Tour 2014

Teapot in Tooting detail2014 is the Year of the Teapot for Mark in Flowers, and I’ll be on my UK travels visiting people and places and demonstrating how to connect to the plants growing locally and the kinds of teas you can prepare from them.

For several years now I’ve been leading talks, walks and workshops introducing people to wild, feral and cultivated plants in all sorts of places: hedgerows, woods, town streets, roadsides, gardens, car parks, wastegrounds and riverbanks.

And with all sorts of groups and individuals: from transition initiatives in Tooting, Belsize Park, Norwich and the one I’m active in in Bungay, Suffolk, to community beekeepers, neighbours, festival goers, permaculturists, artists, scientists, herbalists, younger people, older people and more. Always the focus is on where we are and what’s growing on around us, on the living systems of the earth right at our feet.


Image243Learning to pay attention to plants reconnects us in a simple and direct way to the places we live in and the planet that sustains us. And anyone can do it. We all eat, drink and dress in plants, and we take them as medicine. We make art and build with them. We garden with them. They condition the very air we breathe.

My sessions provide a space and time for the multi-faceted nature and value of plants and our human connection with them to be considered. They are a modest way of keeping the door open in a time when most people, plants and places are seen just as resources to be exploited, not seen at all, or both.

Walking-with-Weeds-detailThey are a way of touching base with the physical places we are in and being where we are rather than wishing we were somewhere else.

They are also practical, friendly, fun, informative and open to anyone and everyone.

And as a response to a rapidly changing climate and the overuse of fossil fuels, these sessions are a small contribution to relocalisation and a lower carbon way of living, too.

And at some point there is ALWAYS a pot of tea.

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What’s In The Pot?
A pot of tea is a simple thing. An inexpensive thing. Drinking tea in some form or another is something that billions of people do every day. In my sessions we drink tea with conscious awareness of what goes into it!

Image3068 lowresIt’s not just plant material and hot water. It’s not just stuff. It’s what the plants Teapot 4 Febare connected to, what they connect us to. When I add lemon balm and anise hyssop along with ten other herbs to the pot at Bungay Community Bees’ summer open day in the local community library, I mention that bees love both of these plants, so having some around is a good thing for them as they struggle in the face of modern industrial agriculture’s excesses.

I also mention that just brushing past lemon balm and taking a good deep breath at the same time is enough to lift the most flagging of spirits. I might add that the leaves of anise hyssop make an excellent tea for coughs, fresh or dried. And that both these plants are in the mint family. And don’t forget their wilder cousin white deadnettle, which flowers for most of the year. Bumblebees love it and its medicinal properties are legion. Make sure you keep some in your garden. And put some leaves in the pot too!

I’ll get people talking: have you grown or used these plants? What for? Let’s share some of our knowledge with each other. Tea-drinking is really a community thing!

If you’d like to host a teapot session (groups of 8-25) with accompanying Talk, Walk or Workshop, see HERE for info and contact details. And watch this space for updates on the travelling teapot!

A pot of tea will never seem the same again!

Unciv Flower Walk 1

Images: A teapot and a bunch of Suffolk plants and herbs framed by Transition Tooting’s 2013 Foodival; Plant man illustration*; Walking with Weeds April 2012; Keep Circulating with Rosemary in the Common Room Norwich February 2013; Herbs for Resilience winter teapot February 2013; Yarrow, Elderflower and Echinacea winter tea, February 2014; Mark Brown sniffs the wonders of lemon balm at Uncivilisation Festival, Hampshire August 2013

All pics MW except *from Healing Plants P.151, ed. W.A.R. Thomson (MacMillan 1978) artist credit unavailable

Click on images for links to posts

January Yarrows

Images2014-520 - Yarrow bannerIt may have been the stormiest and windiest winter so far for many years here in East Anglia. But it’s also been one of the warmest, the days alternating between sunny, still and mild, then very windy, rainy and mild.

These yarrows on the vergeside down the road from where I live have been in constant bloom since the end of summer. I took these photos this morning.

Yarrow is one of my favourite herbs for resilience, and although it feels odd to see this classic midsummer plant blooming so profusely in midwinter, still I always greet them gladly (and quite often out loud) as I cycle to and from the town.

2014 is going to be the Year of the Teapot for Mark in Flowers, and I’ll be visting all sorts of people and places teaching how to connect to the plants growing locally and the kinds of teas you can prepare from them. If you’d be interested in hosting a teapot session, see here for my Talks, Walks and Workshops info and contact details. And watch this space for updates on the travelling teapot!

Meanwhile for a resilient winter tea
To warm the system up and help keep the body strong in winter, add equal amounts of dried elderflowers and dried yarrow to a pot with a pinch of peppermint. Infuse for at least five minutes. Drink.

Yarrow detail IMG350 7 Dec 2013

Images: Yarrows in flower, Suffolk, 5 January 2014; Yarrows in flower, Suffolk, 7 December 2013. Text and images by Mark Watson under Creative Commons license with Attribution Non Commercial No Derivatives.

St Johns Wort at Lowestoft Station Summer 2010 (poem)

St Johns Wort at Lowestoft Station, Summer 2010

You were gold against the old concrete of the old platform
You stood up and out against the grey
Against emptiness
Against nothingness
Against nothing

You were there and it was good.
You sprang up and out from where no one walked
From where no one had walked in a long time

Walking amongst you then
Your thousand lights
Your thousand suns

It was as if you had been there forever
Would be there forever

As you stretched out into the advancing afternoon…

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Poem and Photo By Mark Watson. All Rights Reserved.

Let’s Get Ruderal!

I opened an old copy of A Dictionary of Biology at random last night before bed and rediscovered the word ‘ruderal’: Plant living in waste places near habitations.

I suddenly remembered all the ruderal plants growing on an unused stretch of platform at Lowestoft train station several summers ago. The St Johns Wort was particularly striking, though buddleia, yarrow, mugwort and (of course) ribwort plantain also burst through the cracks.

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That year in late Summer the whole platform was cleared of the plants and they have not been permitted to return. Which is a shame because the whole place was brighter, better and more cheerful for their ruderal presence. It’s not for nothing that St Johns Wort is an anti-depressant.

Image2013-719 SJW Oil enhMy friend Rose, who is extraordinarily green-fingered, recently gave me a bottle of the superb St Johns Wort oil she made from the plants in her garden this year. Charlotte always keeps St Johns Wort oil in the kitchen in case of cooking burns and swears by it. It’s also great for sunburn.

So some of those flowers in the top picture, infused in virgin olive oil over a few weeks and placed in a sunny window, would have given you something like an oil this colour.

Though I probably would not have wanted to disturb or pick the platform flowers that summer. Just left them to do their crackbursting, ruderal thing. And return the next year.

Images: St Johns Wort and Other Ruderal Plants, Lowestoft Station, July 2010; Rose’s St Johns Wort oil, October 2013 (both by Mark Watson)

Text and images by Mark Watson. Creative Commons with Attribution Non Commercial No Derivatives license. A Dictionary of Biology by Abercrombie. Hickman and Johnson.