Posts Tagged ‘the living world’

Goldfinches

As I write this from near the east coast of England at 2pm on 17th December 2015, the weather outside is mostly overcast with pale gold light streaking through the clouds to the south. It is also extremely mild, probably 14 degrees Celsius.

Not such a different temperature in fact to that of the early October day when I took this picture of a flock of goldfinches which had landed in the elder tree at the bottom of the garden.

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It’s not a particularly sharp or fine picture and I don’t have a very good camera; but something about the flashes of dandelion gold on the goldfinches’ wings, as if the colour came directly from the sunny flower of that plant itself, whose seeds they love to eat, made me want to post it…

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Sunflowers and Tree Spinach to Brighten up the Back of the Library

A couple of years back I suggested to Charlotte and Lynne at the local library that it might be nice to brighten up the back border behind the building with some summer flowers. They thought that was a good idea, and this year I got round to it.

I felt it should be kept simple, with some tall plants to reach the top of the fence – so I started off some sunflowers and tree spinach at home, dug, sieved and prepared the soil in spring and popped the young plants in at the end of May.

Here is a collage of the border, starting in May and going up to the end of August. Unfortunately there are no pictures of the moment when most of the sunflowers were blooming – including a very large one which decided it wanted to face the house over the fence and not the libary! – because I forgot to take them.

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But as you can see, it did make a difference to that bare edge… and as of today, 8th September, the ‘China cats’ are still putting out blooms, the tree spinach has flowered, and the one here has outgrown the sunflowers:

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‘Kimchi Slaw’ Variations and a Jar of Smreka

Dear Reader, this post follows the variations on my recent ‘kimchi slaw’ fermentations. See HERE for original recipe link.

11th March 2015
Kimchi-Smreka March 2015New ‘kimchi slaw’ in the jar, this time leaving out the shitake mushroom water, powdered kelp and onion and adding organic sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca). This was dried, so I rehydrated it, draining the first 1/2 cup of water away (the smell was a bit strong for me, though I may give it a go next time).

I added another 1/2 cup water, then liquidised both sea lettuce and liquid for the sauce along with the cranberry juice, garlic, raw honey (from Bungay Community Bees), 1 homegrown Ring of Fire chilli, a lot of fresh ginger, half a dried pear and the flesh of a small apple.

These pickles/slaws/kimchis are really versatile. This morning’s version has a good, fresh smell of ginger and leek – I’ll be burping the jar from tomorrow and starting to eat it in three days.

The bubbling jar in the background is fermenting juniper berries aka smreka, following a recipe from Bosnia which appears in Sandor Katz’s excellent The Art of Fermentation. It’s been on the go for three or four weeks now, I release the lid at least once daily for burping, and I’ve had a sip – very light and sweet, even though it’s just juniper berries and filtered water with nothing added.

Early Feb 2015
The bulk of my latest fermentational ‘kimchi slaw’ experiment is made up of a Chinese cabbage Charlotte brought back from a Turkish shop in Tooting (on a recent Playing for Time visit to Lucy), along with local organic carrots, leeks, apples and a little chopped red cabbage.

This time I added a dash of organic cranberry juice to the sauce and the whole jar smells completely fresh and amazing. See here for full recipe and method of my previous kimchi slaw along with all relevant references, acknowledgements, inspirations and links!).

I’ll be tasting this one on Tuesday 10th Feb (giving it a full three days in the jar) and will report on it here (below the picture) for anyone interested.

Kimchi-Slaw 8 Feb
11 February 2015
Well that is my favourite ‘kimchi slaw’ ferment so far (even though I say that every time!). I enjoyed the fresh tartness of the apple (no pear this time), and the pungent flavour of those leeks goes brilliantly with the ginger. We opened the (litre) jar last night and finished a third of it, with handcut (by me) chips (French fries) done in the oven with rosemary, green peppercorns, rapeseed oil and lemon.

Text and Image by Mark Watson under Creative Commons with Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives license.

Flowers, Fruits and the Colours of the Day

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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.

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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.

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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!”

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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

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.

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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.

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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

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)