My journey into the world of herbs started and was very much fuelled by joining a community garden close to my home in Hackney. At the time I had no garden where I was living with a group of friends so I sought out a local project to join. I was already aware of Capital Growth - a campaign to support community food growing in the city - and this led me to a place called Cordwainers Garden. It was from this humble patch of land tucked behind the bustle of Mare Street that my passion for growing things developed. It also sparked my career change from working as a structural engineer to a community gardener!
I set up Hackney Herbal in 2015 as a way to connect people and herbs in my local area. My main aim for the project was to find a way to share knowledge about herbs and wellbeing and do this in a way that was accessible to people living in Hackney. I had been running some community gardening workshops that had been funded through a small grant from the local authority and through this saw the positive benefits of bringing people together to learn about plants and make connections with their neighbours. At the same time I recognised that there was a wealth of plant-related knowledge across Hackney and that people were keen to talk about the plants they valued. This excited me and presented an opportunity to celebrate the diversity of the area through the plants that people used culturally. Frustrated by the restraints of funding for charitable projects, I decided early on that I wanted the project to develop into a social enterprise whereby we could generate some income to fund our work and run community activities that were free for people to attend without being reliant on grants. So the initial iteration of our social enterprise model was to grow, harvest, dry and process herbs into herbal teas and use the income generated from these to fund the project. We sold the teas locally and the funds helped to support our first partnership with The Centre for Better Health - a Hackney-based mental health charity. They agreed to pilot our 6-week Herbal Craft course alongside their existing programme of wellbeing courses and complementary therapies. We’ve been working with them ever since and have also delivered activities with our local Mind Charity and Recovery College. We quickly realised that growing and selling herbal tea was never going to make us financially sustainable and since there was a lot of interest in workshops we focused on developing this side of things.
Photo credit: Ella Brolly and Emily Munster
We are now based at Trowbridge Gardens in Hackney Wick and are gently transforming the gardens into spaces where people can learn and share knowledge about growing, herbalism and land-based practices. We were offered this space back in 2019 and it has been a huge change for us, allowing us to quite literally put down roots in the ground. In this space we are creating our dream herb garden as well as a forest garden and focusing on creating spaces where people, plants and wildlife can thrive. The space is owned by Hackney council and also homes a cafe and gallery, a fitness studio and a number of creative studios. It’s a lovely creative community to be part of. From here we are growing a huge variety of plants and growing in line with permaculture principles. There is always so much to do in the garden as we have so many ideas but we see our work here as long term. We’ve been gently tweaking and adjusting the planting that was already here. Much of it was overgrown and had been left to its own devices. There are still patches that we leave fairly wild including a thick border hedge and a healthy community of weeds. Most of these are edible and/or medicinal and add to the biodiversity of the space. We’ve got a fair amount of bindweed and bramble to keep on top of but our ethos lies far from creating a tidy and ordered space.
Photo credit: Ella Brolly
The garden hosts weekly gardening volunteering sessions, community projects, training programmes, workshops and our programme of free monthly events so there is always something happening! Our events follow some of the key seasonal points in the year with our largest gatherings falling in line with the summer solstice and autumn equinox. We also enjoy taking groups out to our local green spaces to learn about wild plants and practices for connecting with the land and wild beings around us. We are so lucky in East London to have the Marshes and the River Lea close by. It’s one of my favourite places and somewhere I spent lots of time exploring during lockdown. In all the work that we do there is an overarching theme of helping people to see the value, beauty and magic of the natural world. În doing this we hope to support people to form their own relationships with the land around us and in turn be conscious about how our lifestyles impact the earth and all of its people and creatures.
Learning and connecting with plants and particularly herbs has also been a way for me to connect with my heritage. I’m half Egyptian and although I have visited many times as a child I have never lived there. It’s interesting to me that when I started growing herbs as an adult I found myself particularly drawn towards plants like marigold and marshmallow. It wasn’t until later that I found out these plants were used by my ancestors in Ancient times. It might sound silly but I don’t think it was a coincidence and I really think something inside me was curious to find and grow these herbs.
I feel very lucky that growing up my parents helped me to form a connection with the natural world from a young age. I remember walks with my mum where she would point out different wild plants and repeatedly tell me about her favourite Keble Martin book (an illustrated guide to British flora) that a friend borrowed and never gave back. As a young child most of this washed over me but laid an important foundation for when I rediscovered plants as an adult. Herbs also featured throughout my childhood in cooking. Often when I visit my family my dad will put in a request for me to bring coriander, parsley and dill from the Turkish shop and it’s always my job to do the chopping!
I do try to live in a way that aligns with the seasons but I find it a constant challenge doing this whilst living in London and trying to run a social enterprise. I’ve definitely got better at slowing down and resting during the colder months but wish I could make the Jan-Feb hibernation period last a little bit longer. I do think that simply having an awareness of this helps even if we can’t always make it work. In our work we are often reflecting on how we can take influence from plants and wildlife at different times in the year. Birthing new ideas in the spring, being active and productive during summer and then slowing down through autumn to a good period of rest over winter. It’s definitely a work in progress for me! Spending time gardening or getting lost on a walk along the River Lea helps me to really switch off. Even when I’m really busy I try to pop out for a quick walk. Often all I need is a few moments staring up at the trees trying to locate where the blackbird song is coming from to make me feel instantly better. When I’m gardening I can while away the hours with no concept of time. I’m a very practical sort of person so I like to get involved, potting things up, moving things around, making a mess and then getting everything back in order. When I garden on my own I’m fairly inefficient, often doing multiple tasks at once, but I take so much pleasure in being totally absorbed in it all.