It’s autumn in Hackney. As a warm day dipped into a chill evening, Eat Hackney wandered along to one of our most cherished green spaces – Hackney City Farm. The farmyard was hazily backlit by the low sun, a donkey brayed loudly, a squirrel skipped along a fence clutching a nut and Nat Mady was tending the herb patch she maintains here for the Hackney Herbal project. In the agreeable tangle of rosemary, sage, nettles and calendula, Nat told Eat Hackney the Hackney Herbal story.
Trained as a structural engineer, Nat always had a dream of sustainable living and has done a lot of garden volunteering. She quit her engineering job in 2013 and started delivering community activities as part of the Cordwainers project, developing a small site on Mare Street by the fashion college into an abundant space where local people who don’t have gardens are given plots to grow flowers and veg.
Nat went to a two-day course at Walworth Garden in Kennington, and was inspired to read more and begin teaching. So Hackney Herbal was formed, and Nat and her colleagues began running courses to teach Hackney folk how to grow and use herbs, which can thrive in confined spaces such as windowsills and balconies and thus are well suited to the urban environment.
On a Hackney Herbal workshop you can learn to make teas, concoct natural cosmetics such as lip balm, try some herbal first aid and learn about foraging, sowing seeds, taking cuttings and harvesting.
The best time to harvest is in the morning on a dry day before herbs lose their volatile oils
Do not harvest more than a 1/3 of the plant
Leave herbs to dry in a cool, dark place for three days to a week, depending on humidity
The classes are very much about community and communication: many workshop participants share knowledge from their own cultures, often recalling stories of aunts and grandmas preparing herbal brews. The Nigerian caretaker of the Hackney Herbal studio on Well Street shared a story from home about a group of hunters going into the forest. The hunters came across gorillas tending a baby gorilla which had been shot, and watched as the mother collected a series of different leaves to treat the wounded baby. The hunters took this knowledge to use back home in the village.
Nat has forged impressive connections across the borough, including with the Centre for Better Health; she has also worked with Mind and believes than gardening and making can be very beneficial for mental health.
Having given Eat Hackney the background on the project, Nat did a tour round the herb patch. This compact and pretty space has umpteen remedies within its leafy borders. Here are some of the plants and their properties:
- The patch is fringed with nettles: you can easily forage for nettles which are high in iron and good for detoxing – throw them in soups and stews as once they’re cooked they lose their sting (though wear rubber gloves when you wash and handle them!).
- A hot infusion of sage tea soothes sore throats.
- Fennel is a digestive aid – you can use the leaves or seeds for tea. It’s also taken by breast-feeding mothers as it helps babies who have colic.
- When Ophelia said in Hamlet ‘there's rosemary, that's for remembrance’ maybe she wasn’t so crazy after all. Because rosemary improves memory and concentration – in addition, rosemary-infused oil can soothe aches and pains.
- Pretty, daisy-like feverfew is used to treat migraines and period pain.
- Marshmallow roots are used for many complaints, including sore throats, tonsillitis and digestive problems.
- Put fresh rosemary into a jam jar. Cover it with olive oil. Leave on a sunny windowsill for a couple of weeks, place in an airing cupboard or warm in a bain-marie for half an hour. Drain and use the oil as an anti-inflammatory.
- Echinacea is great for colds, and is also being used as a natural cancer treatment.
- As well being gorgeously scented and tasty in tomato salads, basil has immunity-enhancing qualities.
This was only a fraction of the plants contained within the small space, and we’ve given only a tiny fraction of their benefits and qualities. Inspired by Hackney Herbal, Eat Hackney is already clearing her windowsill to grow some healthy, happy herbs.
Peppermint, sage and echinacea tea
This is a restorative tea for when you are feeling under the weather. Sage is good for a sore throat, peppermint is cooling and echinacea will give your immune system a boost.
Mix equal amounts of dried herbs – peppermint, sage and echinacea – and infuse for a cold-busting winter-warming drink.
Sleepy hot chocolate
Valerian is a powerful sleep remedy that not only helps you to fall asleep but also aids sleep quality. Heat up a teaspoon of valerian root with a heaped teaspoon of cocoa and a cup of milk. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for 30 minutes. Strain out the valerian root, re-heat and add sugar or honey to taste.
- 10ml beeswax
- 60ml infused herb oil
- 10 drops of essential oil (or about 2 drops per small tin/jar)
- 1 tbsp cocoa butter/shea butter/coconut oil (optional)
making a herb-infused oil
Place your dried herbs in a glass jar and cover with oil (sunflower, almond and olive oil all work well)
Leave on a sunny windowsill for two weeks to infuse, then strain away the herbs and use within six months.
Heat the herb oil in a bowl set over a saucepan of hot water (a bain-marie). Dissolve the beeswax (and other oils if using) in the infused oil once it has warmed up. For a looser balm or ointment use less beeswax.
Mix gently on a low heat until the wax has fully dissolved: do not allow oil to boil. Add the essential oils and mix fully. Pour into sterilised glass jars or tins.
Take care not to add too much peppermint essential oil for a lip balm as it can irritate some lips.
Almond oil – for nourishing and reviving for all skin types
Coconut - for dry and sun-damaged skin
Jojoba - for dry and irritated skin
Grapeseed oil - a light oil for oily and greasy skin types
Olive oil - for dry and thirsty skins