Featured, Permaculture

What is permaculture? The Illawarra, Australia

June 21, 2015
Laura with her permaculture teacher and friend, Aaron Sorenson, on site at a local primary school

I first heard the word “permaculture” in 2010 while staying at La Finca Argayall in La Gomera. Nestled between the mountains and ocean on 1.5 acres of land, despite unfavourable growing conditions, the gardens were lush and bounteous and fed the bellies of guests. I learned this was thanks to the permaculture principles to which they were designed. In 2012 I attended a two-week Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course to learn the magic myself. In a word (or two) it was life changing but when I returned home babbling with excitement it was apparent that permaculture was not a common term… “sorry, perma-what?!”

To explain the word more eloquently than I ever could, I asked one of my bestest mates who (sadly for me but fortunately for Wombarra) lives in a small town an hour south of Sydney, Australia. Yoga teacher Laura Hartley took her PDC last year, relished the experience, and is now sharing her knowledge and skills in her local community.

So Laura, what is this permaculture thing all about?
Permaculture is a way of designing systems of living based on those found in the natural world. In permaculture everything plays a part, is valued and helps sustain the whole. Nothing is wasted. Although permaculture has gained most fame for its organic approach to land-care, its principles (of which there are twelve – see here) provide a complete guide for living as a human on this planet in fulfilling ways.

Permaculture is based on three ethics – earth care, people care and fair share. In practical terms, using these ethics leads to beautiful, inclusive, rewarding and healthy ways of living.

Greenhouse supplying the zero-mile eatery at OUR Eco-Village, Vancouver Island

How very permaculture: Greenhouse supplying the zero-mile eatery at OUR Eco-Village, Vancouver Island

How relevant is it to people living in cities?  
Very! The principles of permaculture take into account the differences and variations we experience as humans within society and the environments in which we live. This can mean urban or rural and everywhere in between. Everyone, no matter where we live, can use permaculture for the benefit of themselves, their families, communities and the world as a whole.

Cities have more people living in close proximity to each other so there’s greater scope for people to get together, share resources and have the best of services (think public transport and the internet). There are loads of examples of urban permaculture popping up around the world such as growing food on rooftops/balconies/verges/social spaces, shared work spaces, community and school gardens and urban foraging. The clear advantage to living in the city is having access to people, tons of people!  When people get together creatively all sorts of wonderful things start to happen.

Urban permaculture: roof top growing and an up-cycled plastic bottle greenhouse! (Food from the Sky, London)

Urban permaculture: roof top growing and an up-cycled plastic bottle greenhouse! (Food from the Sky, London)

What was the biggest lesson you took from your PDC?
Going into my PDC I didn’t think I was qualified to be a designer.  I doubted my skills and knowledge and held an oh-so-common mentality that someone else was better qualified to implement change.  One of our teachers got us to think about town planning and engineering.  Although there are innovative designers, planners and engineers, the accepted norm still seems to be based on inefficient practices, cutting costs (and therefore corners). My teacher taught me to be critical of ‘the experts’, to look at the mess folk have made already and have confidence in the fact that I can do better! Really, being open to learning and working collaboratively is the only qualification you need to be a permie (someone who practices permaculture).

What do you intend to do with your permie knowledge?
I’m already involved in my local food co-op, volunteering regularly in the shop and at community events, but since doing my PDC I’ve started volunteering in a local school working in the school garden (aka food forest).  I’m working with a small group of students to create a medicinal herb garden. The living classroom I work in is already 10 years old so produces an abundance of food, including macadamia nuts, olives, tons of citrus, bananas, not to mention all the veggies.  The teacher has always wanted there to be a herb garden too so, as an aspiring herbalist, I was invited to lead this particular project.  I’m thrilled to have a space to develop my knowledge and skills in.

I believe if more young people knew how to grow their own food and feed themselves the ongoing cycle of social exclusion, poverty, addiction, depression (to name just a few social issues) could at least be slowed down. What’s more empowering than having the skills and knowledge to feed yourself and your family? It’s extremely satisfying growing food, knowing where it comes from and what’s been involved in its production but it’s absolutely essential that we eat! Food, feasting and sharing food are key elements in ALL cultures, it simply brings people together.

Volunteers with the Flame Tree Coop, Thirroul, NSW

Volunteers with the Flame Tree Coop, Thirroul, NSW

Is there anything you do differently now? Has it changed your outlook on life?
I’m more adventurous in the garden now. I scatter more seeds randomly and am less controlled about where plants are planted and at what time.  I encourage happy accidents in the garden!  Working and socialising with other local permies, I get given cuttings and seeds for things I’d never have considered growing.

I’m more open to learning from the plants now simply by observing them and watching them through the seasons.  I made the mistake recently of trimming the sage plant in the same way I trim tansy (fairly roughly) and felt like I got a telling off from the wise old sage!  A sage plant demands care and respect.  I’ve since apologised and have been forgiven… the sage is growing back healthily again!

I’ve also become much more conscious of my use of resources such as water, electricity and petrol.  We live in a rented apartment block so it’s not practical to redesign our plumbing so that all our waste water gets used in our veg plot.  However we can control the amount of water we use, recycle it wherever possible and turn off unused lights and electrical switches.  I’ve recently changed my electrical supplier to one that uses 100% renewable energy and plan on changing my bank to one that invests in sustainable practices instead of one that funds coal seam gas exploration.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to learn about permaculture?
Start by doing whatever you can in whatever time you have.  It’s really important that you do things that truly interest you otherwise you’ll simply lose interest!  Also, because Permaculture is based as much on collaborative principles as it is on organic land-care, it’s essential to work with others and get involved in ‘community’.  One of the most valuable lessons for me is that I don’t have to be good at everything.  I love gardening, baking, fermenting and learning about the medicinal properties of herbs but am not such a great designer or builder.  These are skills I can practise and learn but until I feel confident doing this side of things then I can work with and learn from others.

There are so many intro sessions, day workshops and short courses available, the best thing to do is to try lots of different things… just get started!  Local libraries are a great resource as well and youtube has videos about how to do just about anything!  Do It Yourself, whatever interests you, you can!

It’s easy to watch the news, look at the negative effects of globalisation and feel completely overwhelmed and powerless.  Permaculture is a system that gives individuals permission to make change for themselves.  You just need to start.

An outdoor kitchen, the heart (and heat) of any gathering

An outdoor kitchen, the heart (and heat) of any gathering

What other permie stuff is happening in your area? 
There’s so much around here, I’m really lucky! To name but a few:

  • Permablitz the Gong organise community gardening days where residential gardens get transformed by an army of willing permies.  Once you’ve partaken in three Permablitz days you qualify to have your place done.
  • The Flame Tree Community Food Coop has been open for five years.  It’s a shop run by its members and sells organic, local and ethically-sourced food in bulk as to reduce packaging and waste (and cost).
  • The Hidden Harvest crew use food that would otherwise be wasted to produce culinary feasting events whilst raising awareness about food waste.
  • The Port Kembla Community Project is an umbrella organisation that oversees incredibly inspiring social enterprises such as Green Connect (urban sustainability, food security and job opportunities) and Tender Funerals (not-for-profit community based funeral service).
  • Wild Rumpus is a creative social enterprise that promotes doing-it-ourselves and community skill-sharing through workshops and local makers markets.

* Lead photo: Laura with her Permaculture teacher and friend, Aaron Sorenson, on site at a local primary school.

Featured, Plant Medicine

Natural remedies for kids: Northaw, UK

February 6, 2015
Urban Witch Elecktra

The growing light and increasingly loud bird song have roused me from a two-month hibernation. Like determined green shoots pushing up from the Earth and the promise-filled budding branches, I feel energy renewed for the year ahead, and I can think of no better person to kick off the 2015 Urban Witch blog festivities than herbalist, teacher, change-maker, wonder woman and friend, Karen Lawton – who has generously shared her wisdom on using herbs with children, and effectively treating common conditions naturally.

One of my first herb harvesting experiences was infact with Karen and her daughter Elektra. One sunny afternoon Elektra showed me how to pick delicate Tilia blossom and explained that Daisies help make coughs go away. She was five years old at the time. Naturally I was impressed by my young friend’s knowledge and wondered why it should be that I was only discovering the healing powers of these plants in my thirties! Why don’t we learn this in school? How can we better teach our children about their plant allies? And how can we share knowledge and inform parents of the safe alternatives to pharmaceuticals? Karen had a few ideas…

Urban Witch Karen

What’s your experience of introducing children to herbs?
Elektra’s school has involved me with her class over the past couple of terms. I’ve taken the children out to the woods and also explored the school outdoor environment with them. In the last session we talked about what they might want in a first aid box, and looked at Lavender as an anti-infective and anti-inflammatory that can be used on cuts, scraps, burns and even for headaches.

My son, Harry, and Elektra drank chamomile tea from a few months old and as they grew I simply added more herbs to their palates. At four years old Harry knew all of the Latin names of our local flora, as I was studying for my degree in Herbal Medicine. We called them ‘the magical names’ so a walk to school would be filled with stories of The King, Quercus robar (Oak) and his many subjects, fairies and elves. Elektra helps me harvest flowers from the garden in the summer months, which is a total joy. She’s extremely observant of every plant and cuts each flower head so carefully while she sings!

I had tonsillitis frequently as a child, what herbs are helpful for this?
When Harry was 13 he had tonsillitis and the white spots on his swollen tonsils indicated it was bacterial. He felt utterly miserable but he wanted to use herbal medicines he made himself rather than see the doctor.

He made a tea with Bay leaves, Thyme, Sage, Marjoram, Elderflowers and Rosemary all thrown into a pot and left to infuse for 15 minutes. He drank a whole pot with plenty of honey every couple of hours. I also made up a mix of Elderberry syrup, Pokeroot, Marigold, Ginger, Sage, Thyme and Rosemary tinctures and put them in a spray bottle for him to spray on his tonsils regularly.

Sage, Thyme and Rosemary are full of antiseptic oils that help fight the infection. Pokeroot and Marigold are powerful lymphatic herbs that encourage the immune system to remove the infection from the area, to be safely excreted by the body. Harry soon felt better, although he’s insistant it was the ice-cream that cured his tonsillitis!  He’s 18 now and has only taken conventional medicine once, when he had meningitis as a baby. He received intravenous penicillin that saved his life but other than that he has only ever taken herbs to treat various ailments.

Elderberries by Simon G

Elderberries by Simon G

What’s your go-to herb for colds and flu?
I make Elderberry syrup every Autumn and have a year’s supply in my fridge. Harry loves it as, like most kids, he enjoys sweet tastes. It’s extremely immune-stimulating and anti-viral, and therefore very effective for flu. Hypocrites called the Elder tree the Medicine Chest, as it’s used to treat so many ailments.

We have oil burners with essential oils of Geranium, Lavender and Eucalyptus, which is a staple blend for getting rid any cold viruses that may enter our home. Essential oils are very powerful medicinally, and help to prevent the spread of infection to other family members, while being uplifting and beautifully scented. We don’t have ‘normal tea’ so pots with various herbs brewing are the norm. The children love to harvest and make their own concoctions from the garden, field and hedgerows.

For coughs, especially when there’s lots of mucus, I’ll make a tea by first decocting Marshmallow root and then add Thyme. Marshmallow root is demulcent and soothes inflamed tissue, while Thyme is an anti-viral and expectorant, and helps move phlegm up and out of the body. Elektra and I made a video on herbs for childhood coughs, with some more helpful tips.

Are there natural remedies for childhood acne?
Acne is an embarrassing condition that typically develops in teenage years but is becoming increasingly common in the pre-teen age group too. The cause of nearly all teenage acne is the complex hormonal surge that occurs around the time of puberty, which can also be aggravated by stress and bad diet. Roaccutane seems to be all too easily prescribed to teenagers with acne, with reported adverse reactions including gastro-intestinal disorders and even suicide.

As herbalists we treat each person on an individual basis but there are some general principles to treating acne, such as supporting the liver and lymphatic system, and healing the skin which you can read more about on our blog. Steam facials are also a good tool. I fill a basin with boiling water and a few drops of Lavender essential oil, then ask my patient to put a towel over their head and leave their face in the steam for 5-10 minutes.

Rays of sunshine and skin healing balm herb: St John's Wort

Rays of sunshine and skin healing balm herb: St John’s Wort

Herbs for eczema
Since birth Elektra has had very sensitive skin with a predisposition to eczema. We make a healing balm which has been amazing on her skin and really helped to clear the eczema. For the healing balm we:

  1. Make herbal infused oils with St John’s Wort, Calendula and Lavender. To do this dry the freshly picked herbs for a couple of days on newspaper in the airing cupboard then put each herb in a glass jar, cover with organic Almond oil and leave for a lunar cycle.
  2. Strain the herbs from the oil when they’re ready and store the infused oils.
  3. Add 50ml St John’s Wort oil, 50ml Calendula oil and 50ml Lavender oil to 25ml cocoa or shea butter, and 15ml beeswax. Gently melt the mixture over a bain marie.
  4. To test whether the mixture is the right consistancy, drop a little of the mix onto a plate, leave for 5 minutes, then mash up with your finger. If it’s too hard add more oils, too soft add more beeswax.
  5. Once it’s the right ‘balmy’ consistency pour the mixture into small pots or jars, and leave to solidify and cool. For more info on these herbs check out the Sensory Herbcraft blog.

The digestive system is where a lot of skin problems and allergies originate so I’ve always used Chamomile with both kids to aid digestion. It’s a mild bitter with profound actions on the gut. It’s totally safe for babies and young kids and it’s important to get children drinking herbals teas and used to the diverse flavours so it’s easier to administer herbs when they’re ill.  The Herbal for Mother and Child by Anne McIntyre is a great book anyone wanting to learn more.

As a herbalist I see many patients wanting to give natural treatments to their children for specific health problems and my advice for getting children to happily take their medicine is to make herbal teas your daily family drink. Making a pot of different delightfully coloured, aromatic smelling herbs is magical and a form of healing in itself.

Elektra and Calendula

Elektra and Calendula

* * * * * * * * *

Karen and her Seed Sista Fiona Heckels run community workshops and apprenticeships, re-connecting people with native plants. Their mission is to make natural healthcare accessible to all. You can also find Karen teaching Sensory Herb Yoga in Enfield, North London.

Email sensorysolutions@hotmail.co.uk for more info or go to sensorysolutions.co.uk

19th March 2015 – Detox Juicing Day
11am-5pm, YHA, Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. £65
Learn about the benefits and pitfalls of detoxification, juicing and herbs. Includes a herb walk around the Lea Valley canals, making a herbal vinegar and cleansing juice with local greens, and energising yogic postures to support detoxing. Lunch is included.

2015/2016 – Sensory Solutions Apprenticeship
This initial one-year apprenticeship is designed to introduce you to the ancient, magic and practical art that is herbal medicine. The beautiful, Gaunt’s House in Dorset is our apprenticeship venue, which is fully residential over four seasonal weekends. All delicious vegetarian meals included.

Featured, Plant Medicine

Planting seeds of change: Victoria, Canada

November 13, 2014
Kimiko Foster

It only takes one person and one story to change your perspective and how you choose to Iive from that moment onwards. When I met Kimiko Foster at her DIY shower kit workshop in Victoria, Vancouver Island, I went home with much more than homemade natural treats for my hair and body. My relationship with the bottles in my bathroom would never be the same again!

I’ve tried to buy natural skin and hair care products for many years, somewhat conscious of the toxic chemicals big name brands pack into their bottles, and the health-harming effects of which are only now being discovered (carcinogenic parabens and sodium laureth sulphates, for example). Buying products that are genuinely free of toxic chemicals requires close scrutiny of labels, as words like ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ are not regulated and as such big business can profit with chemical laden products and misleading marketing.

Thankfully in 2011 I discovered Read the Label at London’s Camden Market – a delicious range of 100% natural soaps, body scrubs and moisturisers handcrafted by Daniel Knight, who not only supplied goodies for guests on our retreats but also brought to my attention to the dubious regulatory process by which mainstream bodycare products are approved for public use. Check out the video on the Read the Label home page.

Fast-forward three years to Oaklands Community Centre and Kimiko is reminding me of the harmful chemicals found in everyday cosmetics, and that while our bodies may only absorb small amounts deemed “safe” each time we wash our hair, moisturise our face or apply make up, over time these chemicals accumulate in body tissue and have been linked to asthma, severe allergies and even cancers. Parabens have been found in breast cancer tissue, and it’s thought that the average woman is exposed to 15mg of parabens a day through cosmetics.

Shocking as these facts are, it was learning the devastating effects of the petrochemical industry (who manufacture these toxic chemicals) on the environment and the health of a whole community living on the other side of Canada in Sarnia, Ontario —also known as the Chemical Valley, with the most polluted air in Canada — that really opened my eyes.

urban witch toxic

Is this really clean?
Kimiko wasn’t always into natural products. It was an Anthropology and Environmental Studies degree at the University of Victoria that first drew her attention to the process behind the products, inspiring her to write a paper on industrial pollution and indigenous people in Canada. Her research focused on Sarnia’s Chemical Valley where there are 65 industrial facilities in a 25km radius, making household cleaning products, plastics and cosmetics. The Aamjiwnaang people — a community of less than a thousand — live next door to the rows of smoking chimneys, their rivers classified as toxic and home to tumorous fish.

Aamjiwnaang women have a 30% miscarriage rate, children suffer with breathing difficulties and rare cancers are common. The connection between this and the filthy air emitted by the production of chemicals used in our household and beauty products is undeniable.

The Aamjiwnaang’s fight for the basic human right of clean air has been widely reported in national press but as yet their request for thorough research into the effects of the air pollutants has been been ignored due to ‘lack of funding.’  This short documentary on Vice.com gives you an idea of what they live with.

Deeply affected by this knowledge, after leaving university Kimiko was on a mission to raise awareness of chemicals and reduce consumption. This is how her business, Seeds of Change, was born. A period working for local government on campaigns to educate people about what not to put down the plughole (fish can’t say no to drugs!) made Kimiko even more conscious of her own habits. She experimented with recipes for natural home and body care products, and began teaching others how to make them in 2013.

urban witch seeds of change

“Here comes the science bit”
Before we set out to make our shower kits, Kimiko explains that on the surface of our skin is a fine, slightly acidic film that protects us from bacteria and viruses. It’s known as the acid mantle and has  a pH level of 4.5 to 6.5. Most commercial shampoos and body washes are alkaline, which strip away the acid mantle in the ‘cleaning’ process and then replace it with a chemical layer. This is why hair can become oilier when washed daily, as the skin is trying to rebuild the acid mantle. It also means when the acid mantle is removed, we’re more vulnerable to external chemicals, especially those we’re rubbing directly into our skin or scalp! Kimiko went on to explain the structure of hair and that conditioner is, essentially, like a hole filler for damaged hair to give it shine. Most manufactured conditioners fill these holes in the hair shaft with synthetic proteins and plastics. which took me back that classic 90s L’Oreal ad with Jennifer Aniston. I think we’re all worth more than Ceramide R!

So what’s the alternative?
Unfortunately most of us grow up believing that clean means ‘squeaky’ and loads of bubbles (me included, I love bubbles). Many of the chemicals in shampoos and body washes are designed to create those effects, and they are just that, effects. Kimiko demonstrates it’s possible to make effective shampoos and body washes using alkaline ingredients that don’t destroy the acid mantle, such as glycerin and castile soap. A conditioner using a base of apple cider vinegar (pH 3 – 4) will also support and replenish the acid mantle. Next, the group are let loose on tables of steeping herbs, herb-infused oils and essential oils, and encouraged (with suggested recipes to guide us) to tailor our homemade shampoos and conditioners to our own unique hair type. Kimiko advises that we may initially experience a ‘grease period’ as our scalps adjust to a new, more balanced pH level, but once they do our hair will, undoubtedly, be healthier and stronger.

It was heartening and empowering to spend a Sunday afternoon with a group of people united by a desire to keep toxic chemicals out of their home and live lighter on the planet. I left with new skills, an awesome tip to use coconut oil as an eye-maker remover (it’s amazing!) and a Seeds of Change Morning Java circulation scrub recipe that Kimiko kindly gave me to share with you.

Seed of Change body scrub

Kimiko’s philosophy is that sustainable living is fun, easy, affordable and rewarding. There was no preaching at this workshop – just the facts laid bare for us to make our own choices. She admits that no longer needing the cleaning and cosmetic aisles at the supermarket gives an interesting perspective, as well as saves a few dollars!

Due to public demand she has just launched her first range of gift bundles and stocking fillers for the festive season including herbal muscle sticks, a ‘for everything’ salve, citrus laundry soap, eco-friendly dryer balls, an all-purpose lavender cleaner and an up-cycled record bowl.

People of Victoria, don’t miss out on her Do-It-Yourself Holiday Crafting Workshop & Mini Craft Fair on Sunday November 30th 12pm – 3pm.

For more information on workshops and Seeds of Change products:

Thanks to Bree @ Breeze Photography for the photos.

Featured, Permaculture

After the pumpkin droops: Walthamstow, UK

October 31, 2014
Urban Witch Hex

Massive thank you to Hayley Johns — yoga teacher, original Urban Witch crew and guest blogger this week. She rocks. Nuff said.

The lovely Katie kindly asked me to write her Samhain blog post as a guest, she knows I love this time of year. Definitely, one of my favourite holidays. Now, I do love to party, especially when there is a bonfire involved, but I thought I might talk about what happens after the pumpkin starts to droop!

Unlike some, I actually get excited by the prospect of the darker nights that come, following the 31st October. I do not begrudge the Winter, for I see it for what it is, rather than an endurance race back to the glory of high Summer, hunkering down and battling on, with my coat pulled up and my hat pulled down. I instead look at it as a time of deep nurture and protection. I look forward to coming back indoors, being able to light the fires and set my home aglow with candles. Eating slow food, sleeping more and fattening up. It is a time, or almost non-time, where we get to stop.

From the 31st up to the 21st December, everything gets to sink back; me in to the couch with a blanket, some animals in to hibernation and the vegetation in the earth.

Sleep Dalai Lama

Ok, I am fully aware, I can’t stay holed up on the couch until Spring. Yes, we gotta work, we gotta care, we gotta feed. But having an awareness (that all important word) of the shifting rhythms of the year is a deeply empowering thing, even when we are living in cities. Looking at the world through the lens of sustainability even when looking at ourselves.

Whatever we take, we have to put back in. Whether, it’s our expended energy of Summer or nutrients from the earth. This ability to move to a more closed loop system, whether that is the way we feed ourselves, treat ourselves and our community.

I have a yoga class on my schedule that operates a little differently from the rest, something that was all the rage a little while ago, a Donation class. We’ve been running it about six years now and the idea is that people pay what they can. The many nourish the few that can’t pay, the busy times sustain me financially and the cost of the space we rent when times are leaner. There is space in that class where my students share, retreat, replenish their own energetic bank account and expend them when the time is right. It is to date, my most popular and my most SUSTAINABLE endeavour. It’s scary putting it out there like that. I know. But, it’s like it has it’s own energetic flow, just like that loop, the wheel of the year, just like us.

So this time, this non-time, from here until 21st December, when our light returns, let the dark nights spark your imagination, in this rest time, focus on what you might need to replenish. Physically, emotionally and energetically.  Where in your life might you need to aerate your soil and fertilise! Or even plant some new seeds, that you can sustain through the frost and let bloom come Summer.

Hayley Yoga
Hayley’s donation class is every Monday at 7pm, URC Church Hall, Walthamstow, London.
For details and more classes see hayleyyoga.com

Featured, Plant Medicine

Going back to our roots: Dorchester, UK

October 27, 2014
Fiona Heckels

Fiona Heckels is a traditional herbalist and one half of wild and wicked witchy duo, Sensory Solutions. She started working with medicinal plants at Neal’s Yard in her teens and, being blown away by their power to heal, went on to study a BSc in Herbal Medicine. She’s also trained in reflexology and aromatherapy massage, is currently studing yoga nidra, and combines aspects of these healing arts with plant medicine with her patients. Two weeks of being a midwife’s assistant in the US, learning from Ina May Gaskin, not only prepared her for the birth of her bestfriend’s daughter, but inspired her into further studies and a particular interest in using herbs to help pre and post natal women, and children.

Fi and her partner in crime, Karen Lawton, have been my teachers and inspiration on many levels for over two years, and are largely responsible for my chaotic cupboards crammed with jars, tinctures and drying herbs. Together they run workshops around the UK, as well as year-long apprenticeships, reconnecting people with their native medicinal plants, sharing remedies for common conditions and providing informative, professional guidance for more complex health issues.

As the days get darker and we approach the festival of Samhain — or Halloween — we got chatting about pumpkins, Day of the Dead and adventures in digging.

What does this time of year mean to you?
The trees have almost finished shedding their leaves and the wild weather and storms are hitting the coast of Dorset. It’s a poignant time in the farming calendar as the last harvest has been collected, except maybe berries like sloes, and also chestnuts and roots. That palpable energy of growth is dropping away. Creative energy is returning to the earth.

This is a special time of year for me as we’re approaching my favourite festival, Samhain — or Halloween — which I love not just because it’s my birthday but ‘cos it’s such a blatant Pagan festival that almost everyone celebrates in some way! Whether carving pumpkins, dressing up or doing more intentional ritual, it’s a recognition of the changing seasons, a celebration of death and psychic abilities. I think it reflects our desire to touch the dark side – we need the dark as well as the light, to face our fears and the fear of death.

In our culture we’re encouraged not to think about death and to move on from grief quickly. In the UK if you’re experiencing depression mourning the loss of a loved one, after two months it can be classified as a mental condition and medicated with anxiolytics. In the United States it’s two weeks. There’s pressure to ‘get on with it’ rather than to feel grief to its full extent.

The Day of the Dead in Mexico is another example of a pre-Christian festival celebrated by the masses. They have huge parties in graveyards and remember the dead through storytelling and music. As with Samhain, it’s a celebration to honour those who came before us, our ancestors and people we knew in our life. A time we can fully acknowledge death and the dead.

DAY OF THE DEAD. Image courtesy of Andrew Rollings

DAY OF THE DEAD. Image courtesy of Andrew Rollings

What potions are brewing in your kitchen now?
I’m currently making a Horseradish root infused oil, an awesome native circulatory plant. We use it in our Ache Ease balm with Comfrey and Heather. It’s an extremely fiery plant, so I wear goggles chopping it up – the mustard oils that are released can be painful even breathing them in! I chopped the root into small pieces and placed them in a paper bag in the airing cupboard for 2 – 3 days to remove some of the moisture. After that I put them in a glass jar, covered with almond oil, put the lid on loosely and placed in a sunny spot. Two weeks later the oil has gone slightly cloudy, so it’s ready to strain. You can read more about making Horseradish oil here.

If you find Horseradish growing wild, you’ll usually find it in abundance, as you will Comfrey and Heather. That’s why we use them in our Ache Ease balm, for muscle and joint pain, and teach students on our apprenticeship how to make it too.

So you harvest more roots at this time?
Yes it’s a root-tastic time! Dandelion, Burdock, Elecampane, Marshamallow, Valerian and Blackberry are just some of the roots we harvest. Roots have a sweetness to them. They are nourishing and grounding, and although they may have direct actions on different systems, almost all have an action on the digestive system.

The digestive system is the first point of entry of food into the body. How we process our thoughts, digest information, is dependent on how well our digestive system is functioning. If we’re having trouble with our digestion, that might manifest in cloudy thoughts and being unable to think clearly. In elemental herbal medicine, the digestive system is related to the element of Earth, and the roots of a plant are connected to Earth.

Elecampane root is a shit hot lung herb, currently being tested for MRSA treatment, and we use it in lung tonics and our cough mix. It’s also a warming digestive. Marshmallow root too is a lung herb but its mucilaginous quality makes it great for soothing and treating stomach ulcers, gastroenteritis and gastro reflux. I also use it when there’s unquenchable thirst – particularly in winter when we’re continually moving between really hot, dry environments and the cold. It helps hold in fluids to keep us hydrated, nourished, warm and literally rooted.

ROASTED DANDELION ROOT. Image courtesy of George Wesley.

ROASTED DANDELION ROOT. Image courtesy of George Wesley.

Dandelion root is known for being an ace liver herb but it’s also highly nutritious, regulates blood sugar, is fibrous and helps keep us regular. Similarly Horseradish root is a bitter stimulant. It has an action in the gut, helping to break down fatty foods, which is why traditionally it’s eaten with red meat — to help the body to digest. Valarian root is so sweet and nourishing, and Blackberry roots are highly astringent, so a great remedy for diarrhea.

Roots are used a lot in Traditional Chinese Medicine also, particularly Ginger, another great warming digestive herb. Herbalists in the 1500s were actually called Root Doctors because they would travel with plant roots more than the aerial parts, as they hold more strength and would last longer than leaves and flowers.

How do you harvest roots?
Digging for roots is always an adventure, heading out with your shovel and properly getting your hands in the dirt. There may not be much of the plant visible above ground so you need to look for leaves dying back or signs of last year’s flowers.

Make sure you don’t take all of the root, no more than 60% to 70%. You can drop seeds in the hole, to put something back where you’ve taken. You might want to set an intention with the seeds, an idea you want to grow as the seeds do.

Harvest with care and respect. A herb journal is a great way to keep track of herbs you know grow in certain places – note what you harvest, when, where and what they were like. You can also harvest roots in Spring just before the plant starts to grow. They’ll have a different quality so it’s good to compare roots from an Autumn and Spring harvest.



What can we learn from roots?
Roots teach us about nourishment. How am I nourishing myself? How can I nourish myself more? Whether it’s taking a deep conscious breathe, doing yoga, sprinkling seeds on your porridge, having a nice shower gel to use. What things do you do to nourish yourself?

Roots teach us about stillness. Even if they are fiery or watery or earthy, all roots hold. They are stable and secure. They can help us know who we are, where we are going, and give ourselves space to do so. It’s important to nourish ourselves. To rest, be still, to listen. Take the phrase “getting to the root of a problem” – we can understand and see things better from a place of stillness, taking on the qualities of roots. They are the foundations for everything.

Where can we find you over the coming months?
Workshop on History of Witchcraft and the Green Flying Ointment, Bridport
9th November, 10am – 2.30pm, £45

Workshop on herbs for the reproductive system, Dorchester
26th November, 10am – 2pm, £30

Sensory Herbcraft Apprenticeship, Dorset
18th September 2015 to 13th May 2016
This initial one-year apprenticeship is designed to introduce you to the ancient, magic and practical art that is herbal medicine.

Sensory Solutions Airstream

Dorchester in three words
Ancient, historic, old.

Contact Fiona at sensorysolutions@hotmail.co.uk for more information on workshops and the 2015 apprenticeship. You can also find heaps of herb info and recipes on the Sensory Herbcraft blog and on Facebook.