Working as ‘Resident Herbalist’ at the Forest Farm Peace Garden in Hainault

By Deborah Syrett, BSc (Hons), MCPP

Like so many newly-graduated herbalists, I came out of Uni with lots of impressive theoretical knowledge but feeling woefully inadequate in the practical stakes. I didn’t seem to have any skills to really connect me with the herbs – coming from a childhood in Hong Kong (where no-one had a garden and one rarely looked at plants outside a florists).  But the idea of being a herbalist who orders in all her remedies from commercial companies and never gets to ‘smell the flowers’ seemed intolerable to me – and not what I had dreamed of  when I decided to do the degree. It’s all very well to cover all the medical stuff but if I didn’t have a ‘feel’ for the herbs I felt lost. But…how to remedy this? 

Well, about a year ago, I contacted some local horticultural societies and offered to do herb walks and talks and one of my contacts suggested that I should speak to the head gardener of a Community Garden Project:  The Forest Farm Peace Garden in Hainault – so I did. The head gardener, Stefan King, asked if I would like to do herbal workshops at the Garden and I almost jumped up and down with glee – and made a bargain that I would do practical workshops there in exchange for the chance to learn about growing and looking after herbs. I’ve haven’t really stopped jumping up and down since!

So now I go to the Garden once a week and help with the regular maintenance of the herb beds, discuss with Stefan about the herbs we’d like to add to the Garden – its very important to us that, as far as possible, we are growing traditional British herbs (as well as all the well known ones, we’re planning a ‘practitioner-only’ bed tucked away so children aren’t tempted to try them on public days). My brief is to teach people how to use herbs safely at home to look after themselves and their families, and to teach them how to make simple home remedies from the herbs that we have growing in the Garden. I’ve found that this aim has become more important to me than spending my time trying to persuade City executives to change their diet/lifestyle/everything if they expect the herbs to work! 

During my first month at the Garden an elderly lady came up and asked me if there was anything she could take to help her sleep better as she was congested from a virus that had lingered. I took her over to the herb patch, showed her what to pick and told her how to prepare it – and felt a warm sense of achievement when she came back the week after to tell me that her breathing had cleared and she was now sleeping well. I do about nine formal ‘public sessions’ a year at the Garden, from a ‘Spring Herb Harvesting’; to ‘May Day’ (gathering in the Hawthorn that surrounds the Garden); to Syrup-Making; to ‘Male Herbal Health’. There is now a small, enthusiastic ‘Herb Team’ of eight people to help maintain the herbs and assist me on the Open Days as I take troops of kids round the herb patch and get them eating Marigold flowers and Hawthorn and Mint leaves. We have plans to put together a Herbal First Aid booklet for the Garden, and we are encouraging people to let us have any old family herbal remedies they remember to include in this. I’m not ‘protectionist’ about the Garden, by the way, and would welcome other herbalists who would like to come along and be involved in this wonderful project. Just email me on – in fact, I’d be delighted as I’m sure many of you have skills and experience on the growing side that I’m a total novice at!

From around April last year, when I first visited the Garden, to now, the transformation has been wonderful to behold. There are individuals with small plots of their own, (myself included now, for the first time), but the majority of people work on the main Garden where we grow vegetables, fruit and, of course, HERBS! 

The Garden is a very large piece of ex-scrubland running alongside the overground Central Line.  There are no fancy facilities – just a Nissan hut with a loo and some storage, but the atmosphere is ‘healing’. There are bee hives, a dovecote and ponds; a Willow bower and Willow corridor; a couple of small ponds; and there will soon be a poly tunnel for seedlings. There is a small wind turbine and a new ‘wood-turning’ facility, and they are planning a workshop so they can build new structures on-site. We have a central area with a large table where people tend to gather for a communal meal at lunchtime, with a fire pit and ‘cauldron’ to prepare freshly picked food. It’s a cooperative effort so every-one lends a hand and brings whatever skills they have.  We have exciting plans to involve the local school, 5 minutes away, in sessions picking food and herbs to take back to their kitchens and cook. As the facilities at the Garden develop we’re also hoping that I’ll be able to set up a regular ‘drop-in’ herbal clinic.

It was set up and funded by the Council as a therapeutic and learning centre, particularly for vulnerable members of society – people with mental health problems and depression, refugees, and the elderly. We have groups coming out now from the local NHS mental health facility who are ‘prescribing’ the Garden as therapy rather than drugs, (hurrah!). 

As well as the herbal activities they hold World Arts Days and sessions teaching wood carving, tree grafting, and hold small celebrations at Halloween. They take a stall at the Redbridge Green Fair where this year we are hoping to sell a few bags of our first organic dried herbs from the Garden.

All this is very ‘low-tech’ and far away from the image drummed in to us at Uni of treating patients with complicated, life-threatening illnesses but I am happier and more fulfilled now and feel like I’m actually beginning to turn into a ‘herbalist’. My hope for the future? – to become an honest-to-goodness, truly local, hands-on herbalist with her hands in the soil and (washed) in as many lotions and potions as I can make!


Deborah Syrett, BSc (Hons), MCPP
Resident Herbalist
Forest Farm Peace Garden
Hazelbrouck Gardens