Blast away winter blues with herbs

Seeing as I’m running workshops at a city farm to help people move to a simpler lifestyle, I’ll start sharing some of the learnings here. I’ve covered lots of different subjects in my workshops this year: growing on balconies and containers; using and growing herbs; growing and pruning fruit; even keeping urban chickens!

A SAD antidote?

The clocks have gone back and it’s dark in the evenings – we’re in late autumn, heading to winter, with a few minutes less light every day. This can be a depressing time, and many of us adapt by enjoying winter fires and drinking hot-toddies. But how many of us use or grow herbs over the winter as a SAD antidote?

Many herbs are evergreen, including rosemary ( helps  with concentration, fatigue and depression) and winter savory. If you know someone with a decent rosemary plant in your area you could experiment with propagating it, even at this time of year – rosemary is a forgiving, easy-to-grow plant.  For instructions, see below with photos. Some tender herbs, like basil, do well indoors all year round – I have one on my windowsill which is flowering now.

I’ve seen a bay thriving indoors in a pot, and you might just get away with taking semi-ripe cuttings of a bay tree, now, if you want to start your own. Nurturing a new plant into life in your home over the autumn and winter is a simple way to bring colour and vigour to the season.

Seed sowing and light levels

As light levels decline, growth and germination drop off, but we can cheat a bit speeding up germination by sowing indoors in late summer/autumn. Coriander does particularly well (ie bolts less fast) if you sow it in late summer or early autumn, but it’s probably too late now to get much of a crop – but why not experiment? If you don’t take growing herbs too seriously and see it more as play and experimentation, you won’t mind if some of your trials don’t work!

Propagation – a revolutionary act!

One of the things I like about propagating from cuttings is not only the magic of conjuring new life, it’s yet another way of subverting a system which always wants you to buy things. You just don’t need to shop for plants once you become familiar with taking cuttings. And it’s not difficult to do.

This year I’m also going to experiment with growing mint over the winter indoors by chopping off some of its many runners, placing in a shallow tray and covering with earth to see if I can continue to harvest a supply of fresh mint.

Ginger and garlic

You can still get away with growing garlic now – though it’ll be a long time before you see any signs it’s growing.

And then there’s ginger rhizomes, which you can buy from the supermarket and grow indoors – apparently the best time for this is late winter/early spring. Just push one inch rhizome pieces into the soil, not covered too deep. I have one which is already sprouting, so I’m going to start now and see what happens. Ginger likes partial light, which makes it a great plant for growing indoors. If growing indoors, make sure you have good drainage. Apparently ginger likes humidity, which makes sense if you remember where it comes from, so it’s a good idea to spray the plant with water especially if you have central heating. It makes a handsome house plant, you can move it outdoors in summer, and once it’s grown enough next autumn you’ll be able to harvest some of the leaves or small rhizomes for tea. Not only that, you’ll have the uplifting scent of the leaves; you can give them a stroke whilst watching Christmas movies on TV!

In my next few posts I want to share other ways we can bring nature and beauty closer to us over winter; including growing indoor salad gardens and using natural materials to decorate our homes.

Propagating rosemary

  • When taking cuttings, an easy way to avoid mistakes is to consider: what are the needs of this shoot, which I want to encourage to grow roots, and make its own way as a new plant?Answer: a healthy shoot to start with; light; water; air and some warmth.
  •  Snip off a semi-ripe shoot (some green, some hard wood) just below a leaf node (this is a vigorous growing point of the plant). You want the shoot to be about 4 inches long. You could  tear a little of the adjacent woody stem so you get what’s called a ‘heel’.
  • Remove the lower leaves – you want enough so the plant can photosynthesise (thereby producing enough energy to make new roots) but not too many, as it loses water through its leaves (transpiration).  Also you’re going to bury part of the shoot in soil so you don’t want leaves getting buried and rotting in the soil!



heel of rosemary cutting

heel of rosemary cutting

heel close up

heel close up

  •  Your new plant will need air in the soil, to help those new roots form and grow, which means you need a good free-draining compost with lots of air holes – either buy potting compost or make your own by mixing compost 50/50 with sharp sand or perlite.
  • Pot up in a small pot- not too large, as you don’t want to encourage the roots to rot.


pot up

pot up

  • Don’t put your cutting in a bright window. It will need some  light, so it can photosynthesise but direct light in the early stages will make it dehydrate and wilt. You can move it later once it’s growing strongly.
  • Water is the other key thing, but not too much – make sure the soil is moist but not wet. Keeping a clear plastic bag over it (until it takes) can help it retain moisture.
wrap up your cutting to keep humid

wrap up your cutting to keep humid

  • Gentle warmth from being indoors will also help. Depending on the light levels, the shoot can start to root in about 4 weeks. Pot on to a larger pot with normal compost once it starts growing bigger -which may not happen until the light levels pick up in February.
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Growing and making your own medicines

Earlier this month I found myself alongside three other women, standing round a stove watching an older, grey-haired woman stir something in a cauldron..sorry saucepan.

I was on a day’s intensive workshop focusing on 15 medicinal herbs – how to grow them, identify them and process them to make simple remedies for everyday ailments. Exzema, high blood pressure, colds, catarrh, period pain, cuts and grazes, that kind of thing. I’d read in numerous books how to use plants for these ends but it all seemed daunting and complicated and so I’d never tried.

There’s nothing like watching someone do something, and taking part yourself, for instilling confidence. Our herbalist teacher, Penny Ody, wants to empower people, and does so through her demystifying, generous and straightforward approach.  (You can read more about her courses here). Standing around the stove in her Hampshire kitchen, we all participated in stirring, tasting, measuring and macerating the herbs. Delighted smiles broke over our faces as we realised how simple and doable most of it is. It occurred to me, as we dug up plant roots in her garden and stirred hot syrup, that we were taking part in something which has gone on for hundreds of years; an older woman showing younger ones how to work with herbs.

I was there thanks to LILI, the low impact living initiative, an umbrella body for all kinds of fabulous workshops pointing the way to live more lightly on the planet. Through its website you can find workshops on all kinds of subjects, from hedgelaying to curtain-making courses.

We left with many plant cuttings as well as  five different herbal remedies for our home medicine kit – a therapeutic dried herbal tea blend, a macerated cold oil, a macerated hot oil, an ointment and cough syrup. More than that, we carried with us the knowledge of how to repeat the processes at home.



Basic home medicine kit: Calendula oil, Hypercal (St John’s Wort and Marigold Oil) Thyme Syrup, Comfrey oil, dried tea cold remedy

Making basic herbal remedies like this is something – like all those other skills such as carpentry, sewing and food growing – that until recently, most of us knew how to do. For me, learning how to use plants to keep well and treat simple ills,  is part of what the transition movement calls ‘the great reskilling’ – an important shift if communities are to survive and thrive within the unfolding ecological and economic situation. It’s about taking back some control, refusing to simply be a passive consumer, avoiding harming others in this economy of anonymity.

Thanks to recent legislation requiring medicinal herbs to be licensed at a cost of £30,000 per year, many small independent suppliers have been put out of business and it’s likely that certain herbs will become commercially unavailable. So learning how to find, grow and process them oneself is now even more of an imperative.

I won’t keep this knowledge to myself – I plan to share it during an upcoming herbal workshop I’ll be organising on a London city farm soon. And as I cook up my own remedies, I’ll be sure to post photos and descriptions here.









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Bladerunner weather

Friends dubbed last year’s winter ‘Narnia’, it went on so long, with snow falling on Easter Sunday. This year the winter reminds me of Bladerunner, as I negotiate city streets through day after day of rain. Today, as I hurried past scaffolding ominously flapping in 50 mph winds, I realised that the weather is both depressing and invigorating me.

All over the country, but especially in the Somerset Levels, or Dawlish, where a rail track transformed into to a rope bridge overnight, we’ve been staring awe-struck – and sometimes aghast – at what nature can do. It’s like we’ve belatedly realised – duh! we’re part of an ecosystem, not separate from it, not above it.

The big elephant in the room, Climate Change, oh we’ve so tried to ignore it and get on with our lives –is roaring and pouring and squalling at us.  And yet, even now, BBC news online discusses the causes of the wettest winter for over 100 years without mentioning climate change once (

I told you so, I told you so- I can almost hear the voice in my head as I dodge the rainwater waves thrown by speeding cars. This is exactly as predicted. Mainstream reality, as doled out by the media and business as usual, has ignored the scientists, the activists, the Occupiers, the film makers, the artists, the many many people who care enough to send warnings, to carry out studies, to plea, to show another way. But this is harder to ignore. This is really beginning to cause serious inconvenience.

Dried off, indoors,  I watch silent aerial TV footage of more Biblical flood scenes from around the country. The water’s creeping closer to the capital now, with 2,000 homes in the Thames Valley affected. The camera sweeps over a huge Gothic pile, with towers and ironically a swimming pool, marooned on a tiny plateau. Middle England is going to wake up.

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On foraging

I’m writing this in response to a recent column in the Independent on foraging. The column by CJ Schuler was prompted by destructive, commercial foraging of wild garlic at a local ancient woodland in south London. 

Any foraging, let alone commercial foraging is inappropriate in such a fragile setting. As a conservationist I’m as concerned by this kind of ignorant foraging (trampling the stock, removing too much and done for profit) as Schuler is, but I must disagree with his conclusion that ‘Foraging is not part of the solution; it’s part of the problem.’

A newspaper column like this one entails confrontational argument, which generates more heat than light. Schuler seems to think that most foragers are aiming to source their entire food supply from the wild, rather than supplementing their diet. Perhaps this is to shore up the confrontational stance, or perhaps he hasn’t met many foragers, or listened to what they have to say. No forager I know would ever entertain that thought, and would understand that on a small island like ours, with its relatively large population, mass foraging for all our food would spell environmental disaster and starvation. Foragers also know that sourcing all one’s food from the hedgerow, even if were possible, would be depressing and unpalatable.

But my real bone of contention is when he denies that foraging establishes a connection with nature ‘in any meaningful sense’. Do you have to source all your food supply from nature’s larder to establish a meaningful connection? I don’t think so. His logic is all or nothing – if it’s impossible to source 100 per cent of your food supply through foraging, it must be irrelevant and absurd at best, destructive at worst.

In my environmental education work I try all kinds of approaches to galvanise engagement with the natural world. None works so well and so consistently as food – whether it’s growing fruit and veg, herbs, or the therapeutic and edible properties of wild plants. When you talk about food, people make the connection between their bodies and those of the natural world around them. They see the reasons to protect these plants, and how they can work together with them for mutual benefit. This is instinctive conservation, and this bond is what has protected the natural world for millenia. And I would argue that we’ve only needed ‘professional’ conservationists to step in now that most of us have stopped depending directly on the land for our food, fuel and other resources.

It’s not all about harking back to some golden era of hunter gathering. Fifty years ago most  Londoners were foragers. It’s not something alien and exotic. Many kept chickens, grew peas and beans, and would pick blackberries, rosehips (encouraged during the war), mushrooms and go scrumping. And of course, as regular foragers they would know that if they wanted a good meal next year, then it made sense not to take too much.

Many of the people coming to my workshops originally come from other countries, where the responsible foraging tradition is still alive and strong, and where herbal medicine is still current. Talking about food, foraging and helping them ID British wild plants has been a wonderful way to validate their traditions and exchange cultural learning.

There’s something elitist about Schuler’s tone, which is probably just the tone he has to strike for the article. But it bothers me. Do we condemn a whole practice on the actions of an ignorant few? Do we blame those teaching and encouraging responsible foraging for the actions of a minority who’ve misunderstood? If you extend that argument then we’d have to stop teaching and start banning a lot of things. Like driving. Or media punditry.

If we want to win the battle against the impoverishment and destruction of the natural world, then we must democratise access and engagement. Encouraging people to make the link between plants and food is vital part of the process, complementing efforts to get kids playing in nature,  and other more ‘hands off’ ways to experience nature such as walking, painting, photographing, or writing about landscapes. 

Foraging does not operate in a vacuum. It’s happening in a world where profit trumps ethics and selfishness is encouraged, and where populations are transient. But that’s not foraging’s fault. I would argue that responsible foraging works against these pressures.

Conservationists and environmentalists, including me,worry that they don’t garner more support, or attract diverse audiences. I think it’s because too much of our message is ‘don’t do this’ ‘stop doing that’ and ‘look, don’t touch’, or even, ‘we know best’.

I whole-heartedly agree with Schuler’s encouragement to let the dandelions, nettles and weeds flourish in your garden – assuming you have one, of course. This is the main way that I forage, although as my communal garden was built on a former industrial site and  the land deemed ‘contaminated’ when I moved in, I tend to pick the weeds which sow themselves into empty pots.

Foraging shouldn’t have to involve travelling far and certainly shouldn’t take place in any nature reserve or protected space. For me, foraging is all about a deepening relationship, between myself, a particular spot of land, a plant and the seasons. Our fates become entwined, and I look out for the elder bush opposite my house, making sure it doesn’t get chopped down in the latest well-intentioned community clear up. After all, I’m looking forward to that elderberry cordial later this year.

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Simplicity and wildflowers Part 2: New London Meadows

All over London this summer, I’ve noticed wildflower and grassy meadows where before there was regularly mown grass. This is something I’ve been persuading landlords to do for the last year and a half, and now, suddenly, it seems to have become part of the general zeitgeist.

mid late June 2013 020 (2)

Sometimes people worry that they make a place look neglected or untidy, but this isn’t the case if the areas are clearly demarcated with tidy mown strips beside them.

2013-05-31 20.23.12

This shows it’s clearly a deliberate act. Meadows (even small ones) are fantastic for several reasons; they encourage pollinators and other insects, which are essential for both our food supply and which many birds and mammals depend on; they help reverse the general impoverishment of our age, where once common species have become a rarity; they bring moths, butterflies, bees, hoverflies, flying beetles into the common experience once again, thereby gladdening city-dwellers’ hearts; and – a real clincher for cash-pressed councils and parks – they save time and money. I’m pretty sure that austerity is one of the main factors behind this sudden attention to wildlife, alongside a growing awareness of the benefits. And that cheers me – I’ve finally found one positive then, out of all the injustice, pain and loss which, to me, UK ‘austerity politics’ represents.

iphone photos 2013 341OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA2013-05-31 20.24.15

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Simplicity and wildflowers Part 1

In my part-time day job, I attempt to sow wildflowers, food and inspiration in built-up urban areas. The idea is to make them healthier to live in, for both humans and other beings. Despite the huge benefits, there are many barriers to inviting nature in to a concrete jungle, both physical and psychological. I’ve heard people calling nettles and teasels ‘dangerous’ for example. Or residents worried that a nearby bat box will mean bats come stalking them through their bedroom window.

Most people can enthuse about a wildflower meadow however –  partly thanks to the recent media focus on wildflowers, pollinators and particularly, bees (see Sarah Raven’s BBC Series, the Olympics wildflower meadow, the recent neonicotinoid and bee campaign).

Of course, I want to build on that enthusiasm and create a wonderful wildflower meadow, replete with grasses, poppies, cornflowers, buttercups and ox-eye daisies – a Jackson Pollock of colour. Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple to pull off something glamorous and eye-catching. Whilst it may look stunning in the height of summer it can turn straggly and brownish for part of the year.  All kinds of things can go wrong: birds can eat up the seeds, housing contract gardeners can mow the meadow down too early, people can dump litter, steal plants, or let dogs poo on your great work. The best meadows need impoverished soil, plenty of sun and regular watering at the start.  Very often in urban areas the ground is too shady or nutrient-rich (thanks partly to dog poo and previous regular mowing) to give meadows the best chance.

So here I am, working hard to achieve a glorious result – and in the meantime have neglected my allotment. When I do finally turn up, what do I find? A gorgeous, entirely natural and self-seeded wildflower meadow!


How perverse! Nature has created the result I’ve strived for elsewhere – but in the ‘wrong’ place. How could she do this? So rants my mind. And then my annoyance turns to admiration, humility and reflection: it is us human beings who are perverse. Meddling, egotistical, arbitrary – wanting wildflowers here, but not there. We want Nature to dance to our tune, when we say so, where we say so. But we forget we aren’t her master – we’re part of her.

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Sunlit tree flowers and leaves

In homage to this week’s beautiful sun-filled evenings…


Sun through horse chestnut leaves, Dulwich

Silhouetted tree flowers, Dulwich


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Heygate Urban Forest

As featured on the new nature.


I lie on my back on the grass and watch the clouds, my view framed by hundreds of newly-budding branches arching above me. I’m the only person in this vast decanted housing estate, once home to 3,000 people. There are precious few places you can do this in London without sharing the space with others. Lying here, I feel both grateful and vulnerable.

There are 450 mature trees, some of them exotics, in this estate which is earmarked for development. For this reason the activists who have been trying to save the Heygate Estate trees call it an urban forest. Apart from the famous parks, nowhere else in central London has this amount of public tree canopy. It is cushioned from the dirt and noise of Elephant and Castle roundabout by the original design, which placed larger blocks on the periphery to protect its low-rise heartland.

Forest. The word itself is romantic. It can mean different things to different people, but I think this site is entitled to bill itself as an urban forest as it fits the definition of ‘a large area chiefly covered with trees or undergrowth’. Moreover, forests have long been places with their own rules and where commoners have had special rights. I find something of this character lingers here in the Heygate Estate, as it does in Epping and the New Forest. A special bond between people and place, forged over time.

It feels mournful here, as well as peaceful. Residents have created a gallery in the heart of the estate to tell the story of being forced out of their homes with compulsory purchase orders, and priced out of the new high rise development that is already being advertised to rich international buyers. Here and there you find the detritus of past lives – a broken tennis racket, a jumble of audio tape spool lying in the grass.

In the three years since most residents left, nature has taken over. A quietly rampant carpet of green tears up the tarmac, and at night bats dart amongst a secret greenwood world of light and shadow. This morning the birds are triumphant, their spring song bouncing off walls and grass. All these mature trees have finally reached the optimum height and size envisaged by the architect, Tom Tinker, when he dreamed up the site in 1969. His plans belong to a more visionary, egalitarian period, when architects and developers built high quality housing estates for all classes of people, and when government set money aside to maintain them.

This is a special time, a hiatus, after the people have left and before the JCBs move in. Already fences and barriers have gone up to prevent pilgrims like me from traversing the walkways. Pretty gardens have been smashed up. A yard or so away, a robin sings, before swiftly treading a female. Forget-me-nots and violets stain the grass purple and blue, the former strangely mirroring the aquamarine of some graffiti on a lock-up opposite.


Lichen, moss, chickweed and buddleia creep over the steps and walkways. A 3D image of a wolf’s mouth, colourful elephants and other fantastic creatures adorn some of the walls, created by graffiti artists exploiting the brutalist vertical and horizontal lines. It all adds to the feeling of this being a secret, uncircumscribed, wild place.

Guerrilla gardeners tended vegetable plots here last year, working alongside isolated residents who refused to move out. Broad beans and flowering lettuces sprout up amidst DIY raised beds. In one area, the gardeners stacked crates of flowers and plants up a slanting brick wall. The plants have long since escaped their plastic framework and the wall is covered in green and brown leaves, which spill and spread over the floor. How quickly we can be replaced and forgotten. A post-apocalyptic landscape, all quiet now after some great lost battle with market forces.

Over 300 of these 450 mature trees will go, it seems. The developers promise to replace all of the trees they remove where they can in the new development, and in surrounding streets. But, given the housing density required to make the project “economically viable”, the forest’s days are numbered.

This spring has been fast and furious, making up for the Narnian winter that dragged on for months. I’m hungry and diligent for all the signs of spring, having waited for so long. The transient beauty of tiny tree flowers is capturing my attention, unfurling with the leaves. Like the woodland here, they will be gone before we know it.

© Kirsten Downer 2013

heygate garden

NB For those interested in more on this, my earlier blog post has more:

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Tree flowers

I’ve really enjoyed noticing flowering trees this spring, hungry for signs that the Narnian winter was on its way out. Many wind-pollinated trees put out tiny flowers before, or alongside, their leaves, as leaves can get in the way of this process. Sitting on the top deck of the bus is great for noticing them high in the canopy. They’re easy to miss, and given the pace of growth this Spring, will be gone before you know it. A simple way to connect with nature in the city.


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The denatured cat

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA beautiful rescue cat has recently come to live with me, and she is wild and lovely in many ways. No-one knows how old she really is, but we guess somewhere around 10-14. That means she’s on the elderly side, but she doesn’t act that way. She behaves like a new kitten, charging around the flat transforming crumbs, elastic bands and plastic bags into her toys. She plays ferociously.

However, in some ways she is just as denatured as the rest of us. Ok, I know that the domestic cat is itself a ‘man-made’ creature, but over the past twenty years the cat – all pets – have become massively commodified. I climbed a steep learning curve the first time I walked into Pets R Us and saw the scale of  ‘choices’ awaiting me in the food section. There was food for indoor cats, food for kittens, food for special breeds, food for obese cats (‘Obesity Management’); on and on, the products filled an entire wall in the megastore.

When I was a girl and grew up with cats, vitamins and minerals were never mentioned. Now on every packet it seemed special cat-related minerals and vitamins had been added to meet ‘a healthy cat’s needs’. I looked at some of the ingredient lists and shuddered inwardly at the ‘reconstituted poultry meat’; a large proportion of the food seemed to be vegetable oil. But nowhere in this confection was there any raw meat,  despite this being the diet cats have evolved to live on.

What feline in the world consumes cooked food? Yet this is what we are told to feed our cats, and then charged for the extra vitamins and minerals needed to make up for the fact that we’re feeding them something un-natural.

In the past, cats worked for their living, and if they needed anything extra,  people fed them meat and fish scraps and bones from the butchers. Somewhere along the line we’ve forgotten this, and now are duped into shelling out yet more cash on food and supplements. And of course pet insurance to cope with all the ailments that arise from eating a junk food diet.

Cats often experience problems with their teeth nowadays, but this wouldn’t be the case if they followed a natural raw diet, because animal bones provide the necessary calcium and trace minerals as well as necessary teeth-cleaning effects. So it’s important for a cat to learn how to chew bones.

Another trumpeted amino acid is taurine. There’s no need to supplement with this if you give your cat fish heads, because the eyes in particular have plenty of this so are really nutritious to cats.


So I was pleased that I was cooking trout the following day – this way I wouldn’t have to throw away the fish heads or tails – they would go to good use. Unfortunately, when I put them in her bowl, although she liked the smell, sniffing at them was as far as she would go. She had no idea how to eat them, and subsequently ignored them. I thought of chopping them up, but if anyone out there has tried, you’ll know how slimy and impossible this is to do, without a meat cleaver, at any rate.

I realise now that the only way I’m going to get her to eat raw meat is to chop it up small and hide it within her ‘de-natured’ tinned food. Some older cats can be weaned back to their original diet this way, I’ve heard, though by no means all. Some have become so addicted to the carbohydrates and additives in the cooked tinned food they’ve been given, they are hooked for life. Just like so many of us with our sugar addiction.

She’s only been with us a few weeks, but I noticed another example of denaturing recently- the failure of our new, energetic cat to tackle our mouse problem. Both humane and ‘evil’ mousetraps have failed to capture the rodent, but I assumed that the mere smell of a feline would cause the mouse to move on. Wrong. One morning recently I went to fetch a hat, and picked up a mouse instead! At first I thought it was the cat’s fabric mouse-toy, but as it wriggled under the nearest door I realised it was the real thing. Meanwhile my cat remained immobile in her chair, simply blinking at me as I muttered vague anathemas…


For more on raw food and pets, go to:

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