Since I started blogging for Transition on This Low Carbon Life when it began in October 2009, and on the Social Reporting project since last September, I’ve written posts on everything from connecting with the earth and the value of a handmade ‘A’ board to personal carbon reduction and how to make a medicine jelly.
Sarah Nicholl and Alexis Rowell were part of the original steering group of Transition Belsize in north London and have been instrumental in setting up both the food growing site at the Premier Inn on Haverstock Hill and the more recent Royal Free Permaculture Garden above the local hospital car park. Sarah is a trustee of the Transition Network and Alexis was a local councillor (Camden 2006-10) bringing climate change and peak oil to the local agenda. He also wrote Communities, Councils and a Low-Carbon Future: what we can do if governments won’t (Green Books, 2010).
Last weekend Sarah and Alexis invited me up to run a Planting Medicine workshop at the Royal Free Permaculture Garden where I spoke about the medicinal value of wild and garden plants and brought some along to include in the bed with the food plants and fruit trees. They also put me up for the night, did brilliant publicity for the event and made me extremely welcome. Alexis cooked a delicious risotto for dinner accompanied by vibrant beetroot tops, curly kale, kohl rabi leaves, purple sprouting broccoli leaves and spinach all freshly picked from the Premier Inn site.
I’ll be writing more about the actual workshop in the near future, but I also took the opportunity whilst I was there to speak to Sarah and Alexis about some of the reasons they are involved in these growing projects. My questions are in italics and Alexis’s and Sarah’s responses are in normal type.
What motivated you to start up these garden projects?
Primarily I wanted to inspire people to understand food and plants, learn how to grow their own, about the medicinal, the edible, as well as the beautiful.
What difference has your involvement in the gardens made to you?
Well, it’s very relaxing to be on the growing sites. And also encouraging to see how many people want to participate. Also restoring a piece of neglected ground from a place full of cigarette butts and empty bottles to a living space that has meaning and beauty and relevance is very satisfying.
Has doing this work increased your knowledge of plants?
Before transition I knew nothing about plants. Now I know so much – about foraging, how to make a food site, do container planting, set up a wormery, and of course now something about medicinal plants.
Do you have any favourite plants?
Now Mark I think you know the answer to that one already.
This is true. When Alexis first came to visit us in Suffolk, I saw a pair of cycle shorts and a bicycle pass by the window and overheard a male voice say “Alexanders! I LOVE Alexanders!” Which was excellent, because the whole of our area is awash with alexanders. That was a very good start and we did a lot of foraging together that weekend and enjoyed some awesome salads.
What keeps you involved in the food (and medicine) growing projects?
I’ve had a long term fascination with food, medicine and nature. Growing food physically helps to reconnect us with the living systems we depend on. It makes us whole. For me this is important given how disconnected we’ve become within the global industrial food system from the food we eat.
Growing food inspires all sorts of people and can really capture the imagination. At the Premier Inn site which has been going since last year, it’s rewarding to see how building the garden has deepened friendships, formed new ones and how the combination of Transition and food creates beneficial relationships on so many levels. And all in the corner of a hotel car park! Now we have the Royal Free Permaculture Garden above the hospital car park. It’s much bigger and feels more daring.
Yes, it’s a very different space, more open and of course in the hospital grounds. How’s it go
It’s been amazing. We started the planning in December and planting in March. The mix of everyone holding the vision, planning and joining in the practical action is very exciting. It has the potential to be a really great site and bear good healthy fruit on all levels. And it’s something everyone can benefit from, including visitors and people who work at the hospital.
I know you have been instrumental in both these projects Sarah, from the planning to the planting. That takes hard work and commitment. What has your involvement in the Premier Inn food site and the Royal Free Permaculture Garden brought you?
Well, there’s a good sense of teamwork. I love that. At the Premier Inn there’s a nice dynamic, building beds together with people you didn’t know before, making friends with the people working at the hotel. I’m always learning something about myself and others, and about how we can co-operate with each other.
And what about the plants? I know from my experience setting up the Plants for Life talks, walks and workshops in Bungay that even after all these years working with plants myself, I learn something new every single time from the people who come, both the speakers and those coming to join in.
Well, my knowledge of plants has definitely increased. Though I’ve always loved them, especially herbs, and been a keen gardener for several years now, the learning never stops. We’ve done a lot of foraging for wild food as part of Transition Belsize as well. I’ve learnt to look at the many aspects of plants from the edible to the medicinal to how they bring up nutrients from the soil and what insects visit them.
It’s also really interesting in an urban, public setting. You’re working on the plant beds, people are passing by, conversations start up, you get to know your neighbours. I think this is one of Transition’s really strong points. You’re out there in the open, growing food together with others. People stop and ask what you’re doing, some of them come back and get involved. They want to know about growing more food for themselves. They might want to learn about why we’re doing it, helping to relocalise food sources for the future, having a living example of what’s possible.
So working with plants in this way helps to make these links between people?
Yes, I think it does. After the workshop you gave today several new people approached me to find out about getting involved with the garden. Suddenly plants you thought were quite ordinary turn out to have all these amazing qualities. It was very inspiring.
Thank you Sarah. I enjoyed it thoroughly and really appreciate the effort you and Alexis made to publicise the day and get such a great crowd to come. It made all the difference. That’s the kind of behind-the-scenes work I normally do in my Transition initiatives.
You’re very welcome. We’ll get those lovely medicine plants in now. It’s great to see these patches of bare neglected earth transforming into a vibrant healthy garden.
And it’s great being with it whilst it develops.
Photos: Nick Watts, Bungay Library 2011; Premier Inn food growing site, Belsize Park, May 2012 (MW); Alexis prepares white deadnettle and lemon balm tea for the Planting Medicine workshop (MW); Sarah Nicholl (SN); Planting up the Royal Free Permaculture Garden, March 2012 (Transition Belsize); Planting Medicine workshop poster in South End Green newsagents window by Sarah Nicholl and Alexis Rowell
Published originally on Transition Network Social Reporting Project on 29th May 2012