Monday 29 April 2013

Let's Keep the Seeds Real... and introducing Huauzontle

UPDATE 11th March 2014: See also this short post with links to the most up-to-date info on the seed regulation.

UPDATE 7th May 2013: Due to hard lobbying and hundreds of thousand of people writing and sending emails in objection to the EU's "Plant Reproductive Material Law" (see below) some significant last-minute changes were written in the night before the law was presented yesterday (6th May).

These changes mitigated some of the law's more dire potential effects for seed savers and growers: "We must [however] remain vigilant to be sure it is not changed for the worse as it goes through the EU, and then is translated into UK laws."

Read The Real Seed Catalogue's update here.


Growing plants, particularly for food, and particularly in community, is a big part of the Transition experience and ethos. Many people in transition are active permaculturists. At the very least, most of us want to eat plants grown organically from good seed.

There are Seedy Saturdays and CSAs, and there's the joy of our Give and Grow events, where we swap both flower and vegetable seeds and produce.

Not only do we enjoy sowing it, saving it and exchanging it with each other, if we're to build any sort of resilience as we face an uncertain future, knowing how to grow our own food from a rich biodiversity will be vital.

I love swapping plants with people, whether for flowers, food or medicine. And I consider the free exchange of plants as a birthright for anybody born on this planet. It's certainly not something we should be dictated to about by seed corporations.

So when I was checking out The Real Seed Catalogue's website for the Huauzontle seeds I'm writing about here, and I found this:

The law will be presented at the EU in one week on 6th May so do read and respond and let's make sure that great places like The Real Seed Catalogue can continue their business. This is from their website:
You'll find no F1 hybrids or genetically modified seed here - just varieties that do really well and taste great when grown by hand on a garden scale. The name of the catalogue reflects what we are working to provide: real seeds for real gardeners wanting to grow proper vegetables. Many are rare heirlooms, and because all are open-pollinated (non-hybrid) , you can save your own seed for future years, using the instructions we supply. There's no need to buy new seed every year!
You can't get better than that!

HuauzontleIntroducing HUAUZONTLE. I haven't grown this plant - yet. I hadn't heard of it until a few days ago when I spoke to Rose in Bungay and she offered me some seeds. Rose is an ex-farmer and experienced grower who was influential in the sowing of a bee-friendly wildflower meadow with Bungay Community Bees two years ago. When she told me she had some Aztec broccoli seeds from the Real Seed Catalogue, my ears pricked up!

I wondered whether there was an Aztec name for it and discovered it was Huauzontle, an ancient and domesticated crop in the Americas, still cultivated but, like Fat Hen here (another Chenopodium), mainly considered a weed.

I've been planning a 'Mexican garden' this year (not so difficult - many of our favourite plants, vegetables and grains are natives of Mexico from sunflowers to corn). Several seeds of Cempoalxochitl have already sprouted, though I don't know if they will come true to the 'wild' Oaxaca form of Tagetes erecta I was carefully cultivating over the years, as at some point it got mixed with a yellow one from down the road, threatening to become a 'wildivated' Reydon form!

I have some Mexican Cigar plant given to me from Jenni in Bungay, and Toronjil (Agastache mexicana) and I've sown purple sunflower seeds, too. As well as Wild and Jasmine Tobaccos.

Then there''s Epazote (epazotl in Nahuatl, which translates as skunk sweat or filth, no less!), aka Mexican Tea or Wormseed. Skunk or no, Mexican bean dishes are just not the same without them.

I got mine last year from Dave Wrenn at Orchard End Organics in Kirstead (who has GREAT organic and biodynamic herbs!) and saved the seeds. They just germinated this weekend. Oh, and I must remember the chilis and tomatoes (tomatl). Though of course no chocolatl! Too hard to grow here.

This post on Huauzontle from Zester Daily based in Southern California, really made my mouth water! I must get those seeds from Rose...

And don't forget to read and respond to the URGENT CALL FOR ACTION - NEW EU SEED LAW to ban all traditional vegetable varieties unless registered and licensed. Let's keep the seeds real. Let's keep supporting people like The Real Seed Catalogue and Orchard End Herbs. Let's keep growing and giving!

STOP PRESS: Just saw on the Transition Bungay googlegroup from Kris that Avaaz have also set up a campaign objecting to the proposed EU seed legislation: We don't accept this. Let us keep our seeds EU!

Images: Huauzontle by Jim Pisarowicz (Wikipedia); Ready to cook, Huauzontle by Pabs004 (Wikipedia); Open source, open pollination, it's always a bit of a Mexican Garden here, incl. Epazote & Sunflowers, late summer 2012 by Mark Watson

Post adapted from Huauzontle - Let's Grow from Real Seeds, first published on Mark in Flowers blog Fri 26th April 2013

Tuesday 23 April 2013

doing the spring shift

There it goes again. Booooooooom! 4am, April 20. Bang on time. The bittern is back in the marshes. Gotta be spring out there, right? And yes, finally it is: bursting out of its cherry-plum celandine and alexander seams. I've been tracking it since we went to the woods down at Dunwich in March. First the honeysuckle, then the foxglove, then the odd blue veronica winking along the curb. We checked out wild daffodils on the tumulus and goat willow at East Hill and they were finally in their splendour. I saw my first bumblebee and first butterfly (tortoiseshell) and sat barefoot on the doorstep, prepping veg, face in the sun.

You think it means nothing a shift of season, but after this long, dark and bitter winter Spring feels like a reprieve. We're warm for the first time in months and a feeling of lightness and happiness is flooding the house. At our first Sustainable Bungay wellbeing walk a crew of us walked around Bungay on the first really great sunny day of the year, mapping the streets and green spaces. We met at the community garden and everyone shared their favourite places, the edges of carparks and rivers, the commons, certain streets, trees and  houses.

We set off to visit the now community-owned, Falcon Meadow and  the wonky colourful Bridge Street, once the main thoroughfare and site of the Halloween pumpkin festival. We exchanged our experiences and memories, knowledge about birds, trees, history, delighted at the texture of place - brick, flint, faded wood - the river, alleyways, benches, footpaths, the pattern language of our town and finally ended up at Bungay Tea Rooms, everyone's favourite cafe, where we sat in the garden with tea and chips.

The sun shone gloriously. We felt good. Not just in ourselves, but with each other. Life was harder for all of us, but treasuring the day and this town we share made it seem all right. We mapped out the walks we are going to do this summer too, including swimming down the river Waveney and holding our annual picnic by the shore. And then Mark and I did a manita de gata (cat's paw) tidy of the community garden and delighted in all the green shoots of the herbs and plants that made it through the dark and cold.

Right now in the garden under the budding greengage tree, the coldwater champion of England and fearless Transitioner, Lucy Neal, has established her caravan. We have begun work on the book, Playing for Time and each week over the summer she is coming to stay for three days and we are hammering out the Work in the tiny crucible. Here I am sorting out the hexagonal sections that make up the centre of the book: contributions from the artists, writers and practitioners who gathered at Lumb Bank. Lucy recently wrote about our experiences on the Arts Council blog here: 

This week we are looking at each of those sections, starting with one that matters more than anything . .

Images: honeysuckle and foxglove in Dunwich Wood, March; arts, culture and wellbeing walk en route to Falcon Meadow, April; in Lucy's caravan; message to Mark at the wild daffodil tumulus!

Friday 19 April 2013

Happy Mondays through the Window

Sustainable Bungay's Happy Monday at the Community Kitchen has been preparing from scratch and serving up delicious meals for 50 people every month for almost two years now, with the focus on locally-sourced ingredients and community engagement. And there's also the flowers...

Nineteen degrees! That was the temperature on Monday (15th April) late afternoon in Bungay as I dropped Charlotte off at the Community Centre where she was co-cooking the April meal as part of Sustainable Bungay’s Happy Monday crew. The highest in a very low temperature year so far. T-shirts? Outside? For months I’ve only known T-shirts as the bottom layer of several (and that’s been in bed!).

I was down for meeting and greeting people as they came in for the meal and had a couple of hours to spare, so I wandered round the back of the building and found the remnants of a garden there. Packed with tansy (I must make that old recipe, tansy pudding, one spring) and the odd fennel and lamb’s ear, and loads of red deadnettle, it was the kind of place I love, a bit of a wasteground, a bit of a garden.

I moved some of the rubbish and cleaned up a few discarded plastic jugs and containers. They might come in handy sometime.

Then I looked up, and through a window I saw the kitchen crew in the midst of preparation (it’s quite an intense experience in that Happy Monday’s kitchen, making a 2-course, multi-dish meal for 50 people from scratch in two and three quarter hours).

The menu this month was: barley and beetroot risotto, black badger peas with sundried tomato and preserved lemons, grated carrot and mustard salad and stuffed portobello mushrooms with a nettle pesto. The dessert was a chocolate crunch base topped with soaked prunes, Greek yoghurt and garnished with a sweet violet. It was delicious! And all for a fiver!

Through the window in the picture at the top you can see Margaret. Though she didn’t see me at first! Each month for Happy Monday, Margaret makes sure the tables are decked with flowers and greenery and always puts on a lovely show along with the help of one or two other people.

Yesterday she’d brought ivy, sweet violets (which also adorned the dessert), forsythias and daffodils to set the scene and we talked about everything being so late this year.

I told Margaret I’d planted some seeds from a cut flower I picked up from a roadside stall last September and they were the first to sprout of the ones I’d sown so far. The plant is a China aster called ‘Hulk’ (Callistephus chinensis ‘Hulk’) – I found that out by poring over the Chiltern Seeds 2012 catalogue from the beginning, looking at everything under Asteraceae). Luckily I only needed to go as far as ‘C’.

Margaret said she’d like to find some spare land, maybe part of an allotment that’s not being used, to grow flowers specially for Happy Mondays. Do contact us if you know of any. Meanwhile I’ve promised her to plant some of those ‘Hulks’.

“Do bees like them,” Margaret asked. “I’m trying to only sow bee-friendly plants.”

“Funny you should say that,” I replied. “I just found this picture of the Hulk on Flickr by someone called Viveka in Sweden. There’s both a bee and a hoverfly on the flowers. The picture below is of the original roadside stall bunch from last September, with the Hulk on the bottom right accompanied by dahlias, chrysanths and perennial sunflowers. The green ‘ray florets’ are actually leaves.

Images and text by Mark Watson and Josiah Meldrum: Happy Mondays through the Window, April 2013 (MW); Washing discarded plastic jugs for reuse (MW); Chocolate crunch with prunes, yoghurt and violets (JM); Violets, Forsythia and Ivy – Margaret’s flower display for April’s Happy Monday (MW); Roadside stall flowers from Suffolk, September 2012 (MW)

NB: All text and pics subject to Creative Commons with Attribution Non Commercial No Derivatives license

This (amended and expanded) post first appeared on Mark in Flowers on 16th April 2013

Monday 15 April 2013

From the Mourning of the World to Happy Mondays

This year I'm co-curating one of the stages at the Uncivilisation Festival. All manner of poetry, prose and performance will take place on the Woodland Stage, as well as workshops in the woods (programme to appear soon!) When night falls and the fires are lit, the musicians will take over. Amongst them will be singer Marmaduke Dando, who this year has compiled an album of some of wild and uncivilised music associated with the Dark Mountain Project.

From the Mourning of the World features an alternate version of Caesar, recorded specially for the album by Chris Wood, as well as celebrated artists such as Jon Boden, Chris T-T and Bethia Beadman (whose track is a duet with REM’s Mike Mills). 

Like many creative grassroot projects, Dark Mountain funds its annual anthology by crowdsourcing - a kind of community-supported publishing. You order a book (or in this case an LP) by pre-ording a copy, and this in turn pays for the production. Following the trend and in the spirit of celebrating the beautiful and the physicial, From the Mourning of the World will be a 12” double-gatefold vinyl album, with a cover by the wonderful Rima Staines. Check out the crowdfunding page here:

I'm planning to give a workshop on Earth Dreaming at Unciv this year, and there will be more about this and other creative Transition projects during 2013, from Playing for Time to the new Arts, Culture and Wellbeing group. But right now I've got to proof the upcoming second issue of Transition Free Press and go make nettle pesto and beetroot risotto for our April Happy Mondays at the Community Kitchen. Stay tuned!

Monday 8 April 2013

Considering Transition community events as cultural and creative acts

Last month as part of the Playing for Time project, a convergence of artists, theatre makers, writers and tutors met at Lumb Bank, the Arvon Foundation's centre in South Yorkshire. We were collecting material that will form the core of the book - the practices and projects of community-led creative action. To help shape the week and to introduce Transition, I mapped out the following events in the light of the work.

The invitation

Dear contributors to Playing for Time,

I am writing a few notes on three Transition events, so you might consider your own projects and practices in the light of one very ordinary Transition initiative.

If you don’t know much about the Transition movement, this is one way of looking at it in action. Every initiative differs according to its town or bio-region, but all of us work from the same premise: to help create resilient communities that can adapt to the shocks of climate change, peak oil and economic downturn. In many ways we are working in preparation for hard times ahead - creating a low-energy future that people might want to live in, rather than fear. And one, for sure, where none of us feels on our own.

I have included links to blog posts about these three events if you would like to check them out later (no pressure!)

Looking forward to working with you all this week.

Best wishes,


Who we are

Sustainable Bungay is based in a small market town in Suffolk, in the Waveney Valley. We are unfunded and without any formal links to any organisation, or public arts body. None of the people taking part in this initiative would consider themselves artists, or these events we put on as art forms; yet thinking about creative collaboration within the context of Playing for Time, everything we do has strong creative base. We are deliberately forging a new culture for a new time, a culture not made up of operas or fine wine or complex poetry.

Our work comes from necessity, rather than theory: it’s grassroots, vernacular, based on gatherings, rooted in time and place. It doesn’t have a hero writer or diva centre stage, with an audience gazing passively upward, but takes place in a room full of participants, with an organising, often invisible, core. Everyone belongs in this space and time. Everyone has a voice.

In Bungay we all bring something to share and we all take turns. Our events are organised by one to five people and everything else self-organises. We don’t do visionings or have strategies. Most of us learn on the job. None of us are rich or influential. 

We have a core group of 15-20 people with several sub-groups, who have been working together for five years, producing a regular monthly programme of talks, walks, workshops, film showings etc. that are open to all the community to attend. These include a twice-yearly Give and Take Day, monthly Green Drinks, and seasonal celebrations, such as summer picnics and seed, plant and produce swaps. Our activities are based around the local library where we built and maintain a community permaculture garden, and hold many of our meetings.

All these events were photographed and written up afterwards in a series of blogposts. Keeping a record is part of our communications work.

The events

Monthly meal for 50 people, cooked from scratch using local, seasonal and mostly organic produce. £5

Crew: 16 (5 cooks, 2 front of house, 3 servers, 3 set-up/flowers, 3 washers up)

Venue: local community centre

All of our meals have a theme and sometimes this is a country. Last September I directed a meal, based on Mexico (where I once lived) that took place just after Mexican Independence Day. Most of the food was locally sourced, including several kinds of chilli. Our maize, onions and runner beans were from a  local allotment, blackberries from the common, Mexican sunflowers and cosmos from local gardens. 

Our Abundance table was truly abundant, filled with Indian summer sweet corn and chilli plants, tomatoes, peppers, raspberries, apples, garlic etc. Mexico is a great place for convivial gatherings, and this was the theme of my short talk between courses, as well as Beans and their place in a low-carbon diet. We also had a Spanish-singing Transition a capella crew, singing the mariachi standard, Cielito Lindo.

All simple stuff. Yet it’s this attention to detail and celebration of ordinary and beautiful things at your feet and working alongside your fellows that makes such events joyful and satisfying in a way a Hollywood movie never can be.

A daylong “celebration of the honeybee and the flowers they love”, as part of the town’s annual festival, held at Castle Meadow (one of the town commons). Free.

Crew: 16  (one event manager, one stalls manager, 3 cafe organisers, 10 set up and breakdown/stall keepers, one grower of bee-friendly plants)

Activities: stalls, workshops, plant walk, film, talks, cafe, children’s corner

Venue: festival marquee, under the trees and around town

The Bungay Beehive Day is organised by members of Bungay Community Bees - the first community-supported apiculture in the UK. The group keep community hives in different gardens and orchards around the town, teach children about bees, give talks about pollinators to local groups, work with a local nursery to promote bee-friendly plants, build their own top-bar hives, train beekeepers and have bee-related events.

Beehive Day invites several speakers, ranging from the professional (Heidi from the Natural Beekeeping Trust) and amateur (Philip, ex-surgeon and local bumblebee “expert”) to local beekeeping groups and the day includes discussions, a film and readings. The stalls sell honey and organic plants, have demonstration hives, info about pesticides etc. and there is a honey cake competition and a bee-flower walk around the town.

Beehive Day is visited by between 600-800 people, and like other SB events, is self-funded.

BCB also grow their own stock of bee-loving plants and have planted a wild flower meadow, with a local landowner, as part of a “River of Flowers” project around the town.

A series of knowledge. skill-share and reconnection with nature events, based around a Herbs for Resilience plant medicine bed at the local library. Donations.

Crew: 2 (organiser and event manager)

Venue: community library and courtyard garden

Each year the Library community garden central bed has a different theme and is curated by a different member of the group. In 2010 this was Plants for Bees and Butterflies, this year The Edible Garden. In 2012 the bed was abundant with wild and garden medicine plants, from a huge burdock to stands of tiny thyme flowers.

Each month between eight and forty people came for a talk, walk or workshop on the theme of plants as medicine. Each Plants for Life session featured a guest ‘plant person’ speaker and included medical and lay herbalists, authors, organic and biodynamic growers, and home winemakers.

“We looked at the medicine under the ground as we connected with our roots in January, learned growing tips in February, adopted a herb to focus on for the year in March, walked with weeds in April, heard about hedgerow medicine in May, made midsummer wildflower oils in June, went on a bee and flower walk in July, had our world shaken by 52 flowers in August, made autumn tonic tinctures in September, medicinal wines in October and French tisanes in November.” (Mark Watson)

We tasted, talked, foraged, shared tips and teas and exchanged seeds. Transition medicine is as much about plant knowledge and maintaining well-being, as it is about getting in synch with the living systems - not as a solitary practice but as a communal one.  

Images: creatures made from clay behind our backs - workshop led by Julia Roundtree (Clayground) at Lumb Bank ; Sustainable Bungay crew with van, Give and Take Day, 2012;  Abundance table at Mexican Fiesta, Happy Mondays, Sept 2012; bees in one of Bungay Community Bees top bar hives; poster for Plants for Life, Oct 2012

Monday 1 April 2013

Workshops - From Sheds and Swarfega to Hot Beds and Gemütlichkeit

When I was growing up workshop meant the shed out the back where my Dad repaired wind instruments and fashioned our kitchen cupboards from scrap wood and old insulator crates from the railway. Where the tools were well-kept and tidy and there was a smell of swarfega.

I wasn't terribly interested in kitchen cupboards or wind instruments. That was just what Dad did in the shed. This was the 70s and a whole generation of us were 'learning' that what you think you can do with your mind is far superior to what you might actually do with your hands. The theoretical had begun lording it over the practical big time. Of course I wouldn't have put it like that then.

There are consequences. I wouldn't know where to begin to fashion any cupboard, kitchen or otherwise, though the ones my Dad made remain firm in my memory. The strange thing is, that I was probably in my thirties before I realised I was actually pretty practical. Had I paid some more attention I could have learned a few very useful tricks from my Dad. But the world was young and so was I and though we were by no means wealthy by UK standards, there was OIL, and CHEAP TRANSPORT and you could GET A GRANT and go to study languages. So I did.

In the concept I have of workshops today the shed has given way to a room in a civic centre or hotel, the tools are far more abstract and you wash your hands with soap. In time the shed is years, the room is a weekend.

And how many workshops now have anything to do with work? Mainstream culture is so focused on leisure and entertainment, we could really call a lot of them leisureshops.

Yet there is much to be said for the weekend, day or even half-day 'workshop', where people teach and learn skills which could prove invaluable as the party really starts to be over and meeting up with one another may be more to do with necessity than entertainment. And this is something transition really encourages and makes space for. We learn to value the skills we have and how to share them with others, whether they be foodgrowing, repairing, communications, minute-taking, organising meetings or the ability to work with all sorts of different people.

Throughout my five-year involvement in transition, I've attended workshops and classes and joined in with all sorts of things I'd never have imagined before, from Sustainable Bungay's Introduction to Permaculture (weekend) course with Graham Burnett, to the Transition Town Anywhere group process at the 2012 Transition conference.

I also do my share of teaching. My departure point is constant: learning to pay attention to and connect with the living systems of the earth. This I do by introducing people to the wild, native and other plants that grow in the local area and considering them in terms of food, medicine, pollination and as co-habitants of the planet along with ourselves.

Throughout the whole of 2012 I organised a series of monthly talks, walks and yes, workshops on the theme of plants as medicine with Sustainable Bungay, as well as curating a plant medicine bed at our library community garden. We learned from guest speakers, authors, growers and herbalists about everything from biodynamic and organic herb growing to how to make (medicinal!) fruit wines.

At the end of the year I handed the baton over to Lesley Hartley. An experienced and keen grower, Lesley's focus for the Library Courtyard garden throughout 2013 will be Edible Plants. She is also organising regular workshops from 'Hot Beds and Leafy Greens' (who could resist that?) to Edible Bouquets.

At a recent Common Room event in Norwich, I taught a Trade School class on resilient herbs. It was winter, it was cold, many people had been down with the flu or colds which were taking ages to clear up, and spring seemed a very long way off. We needed something heartwarming to cheer our spirits and keep the circulation going. I would teach the 45 minute workshop/class on rosemary.

I also wanted everyone to take at least one thing away from the session they didn't know before they came. Something they would remember about the plant (not too difficult with rosemary as it helps improve memory)! You can read more about the class itself and what Rosemary did here.

First though, a pot of rosemary, lavender and thyme tea. What we first needed to establish on that cold day was what in Germany is called Gemütlichkeit, a general sense of calm, social belonging and 'well-being'.

I don't know if it's possible to teach that explicitly in a workshop. But the innate value of such a collective 'mood' or 'temper' seems just as important as the more obviously practical teachings, especially in times where there is less of everything and we need to work together, shop less and share more.

Times that are not the 70s, where cheap oil is no longer plentiful, and education no longer free.

Images: Shed Made with 100% recovered materials in 2008 by Richard Watson (my Dad); Planting Medicine with Transition Belsize, May 2012 (MW); Hot Beds and Leafy Greens poster by Lesley Hartley; Rosemary tea for Gemütlichkeit on such a winter's day, February 2013 (CDC)

This post first appeared on the the Social Reporting project on the Transition Network site on Friday 29th March 2013