Facilitating Green Exchange

Walking taller and doing things more slowly and carefully, this has been the effect of completing thirteen out of a 24 form sequence of tai chi that I’m currently learning.  This experience lasts for about half an hour and I feel at peace.  The routine is more automated and I’m experiencing flow¹ whilst moving through the form set.

Pondering this change, even if it does only last for about half an hour, I ruminated on other transformative experiences during the short six weeks since retirement.

I’ve not woken up at 4 am in the morning worrying about something I need to do.

If I can’t sleep, it’s no big deal, I just go read for a while and return to the warmth of the duvet when sleep takes over.

I’m starting to listen to my partner more (except when he talks about the financial markets or when he’s disrupting the flow of a blog post! Then, the tiger in me wants to disappear into the forest and hide).

I’m paying for things in cash and notice that we’re more likely to get into a conversation than if I’d used the plastic.

I’ve discovered joy in labour and the value of ‘green exchange’.

Green Exchange

An email request via Leeds Permaculture Network brought me to the student union of Leeds University.  The union has a Green Fund which is used to bring sustainability to everything the union does.  Some of the funding goes to the ‘Green Exchange‘.  The Green Exchange aims to normalise green behaviours and encourage mass participation in ethical and ecological issues.  It commenced with one action, banning bottled water and introducing filtered water fountains – something I made profuse use of throughout a sweltering hot day.  It has created edible gardens and walls around campus, the food from which is used in the union rectory.  However, the main edible garden has been lost due to the sale of university land.

The Green Exchange are undeterred by this set back, not least as the garden was three miles from their office and the rectory they were supplying.  As a result, each Thursday for the next few weeks are being spent on creating a self-irrigating roof garden, and they need volunteers.

Ecotherapy or Green Exchange?

I was torn between my plan to go to an ‘Ecotherapy’ group meeting to create planters and bird feeders from water bottles and milk cartons or to engage in roof gardening.  I’d been dutifully saving suitable items in a recently acquired eco-bag.  As I’m on a crusade for knowledge, I decided to opt instead for the Green Exchange.

Niels Talking to the Plants

When I arrived, I was pleased to see a familiar face.  I participated in a Permaculture Design Certificate course three years ago, and Niels was one of the two teachers who delivered the course.  Somewhat unassuming, Niels is a surprising treasure trove of knowledge about all things plants and I’d developed a warm liking for him.  It was good to see him again.

The reunion immediately put me at ease, as I thought I’d probably be out of my depth for this project, but it turned out not to be so.  I’ll come back to this issue a little later in the article as I think it’s an important one for community exchange and involvement.

I stepped onto the roof terrace and saw that a great deal of the structural work had already been put in place.  Water collection butts lined the outer wall and lines of water-filled gullies sandwiched between planks of wood.  Caroline was equally welcoming and explained the assembly line approach they were taking to getting things done.  Understanding that the green exchange in this case is knowledge for labour, Niels explained the overall process.

Cheryl took up her position in the corner tending to tomatoes, cucumbers and other salads, Niels continued with construction work in the greenhouse, Caroline set about planting and I rolled up my sleeves to continue the creation and soil-filling of the self-irrigating planters.  Happily, a chatty Rita soon joined me and made lighter work of the process.

I’m going to try and explain exactly what this entailed with the help of…


Hope you can follow.

How to grow salad on a roof

As Caroline pointed out, there was 7 tons of soil needing to find its way to the 2nd floor of the building.  The roof will need to be able to support not just this, but the people working the garden and the water.  I’ve never owned a roof that would achieve this, I doubt I will in the future, but I do suspect I’ll be needing irrigation solutions that could be creatively adapted from what I’ve learned today.

Water collection:


The installation of a greenhouse with a sloping roof creates a collection point for rain water which is channelled into water butts. Each water butt connected with a pipe.


The water butts feed water channels, which, in this case, are roof gutters.  These are laid and between supporting wooden planks.  The ends of the gutters are closed off and have an inlet fitting for pipes to draw water from the butts.  You can see them laid out on the floor here.

Creating the planters:

The planters were made from large recycled plastic food boxes obtained from the rectory the salad would be distributed to.  A hole about 3 inches in diameter was drilled into its base.  Like a Blue Peter demonstrator, Caroline had preprepared several ready for filling.  She had also prepared a template for cutting landscaper’s lining into about 10in squares.  A square of lining was placed into a net pot of the same diameter as the previously drilled hole.

Net pot

Using a small handful of compost, the lining is pressed tightly into the bottom of the net pot, ensuring that there are no spaces.  When settled, the pot is completely filled with compost and then pressed into the hole at the bottom of the planter.  The planter was placed onto a small crate to achieve this.

drilled holes for net pots
Example of drilled holes ready for net pots to be installed.

When a few of these had been completed, they were placed between two planks of wood (so as not to disturb the net pot protruding from the bottom of the planter).

We mixed locally-produced biochar with soil at a ratio of 1:8 and proceeded to fill each of the planters.  The planters were passed to the next stage of the assembly line – the planting, before being placed on the water irrigation gutters.


The net pot is placed in the water, and the landscaper’s lining absorbs water to irrigate the soil.  The space between the rows enables easy harvesting.  The depth of these pots would enable multiple leaf cuttings from six plants and the salad would return early spring as long as protected from severe frosts over the winter.

Rita and Niels taking a break

5 Steps to Gaining more Volunteers

I went to the Brighouse Incredible Edibles committee meeting last night and one of the topics of discussion was how to encourage more volunteers.  A similar question was raised at The Green Exchange.  Due to being university based, they were short of volunteers through the summer.  They were interested to know how many another Green Fund project managed to attract at their work-day.  One of the pertinent question was why many first time volunteers never returned again.

As a volunteer, I have some possible insights, but I’m not a normal volunteer.  I gave up my job specifically to do this and like a sponge I’m gathering all I can to enable a successful permaculture community in the future.  But I’ll throw out some ideas that have made it a more or less comfortable experience for me.

Step 1: Give something back

But first you need to know the volunteer’s need.  Take time to find out.  My hosts have been great, I’ve made no bones about why I’m there and what I want out of it, and they’ve shared knowledge as a consequence, and I’ve left satisfied.  For others it might be to meet others, to feel valued, to feel like their making a contribution, to overcome boredom, to gain skills for a job – whatever it is, that need should be identified and met.  Make the Green Exchange, they’re more likely to come back.

Step 2: Gap Shap

Or general chit chat, in English.  My most positive experience is finding someone to chat with while working who understood my more esoteric of ideas regarding the establishment of a permaculture community.  But it doesn’t need to be someone who’s so equally like-minded.  For me that’s completely rare, but even a chat about the weather, family, gossip in the news, anything makes the person feel included.

Step 3: Forget the Forms

This might not apply to other volunteers, but I had a strange reaction when it was suggested I fill out a form.  I left my job to get away from bureaucracy, ticking boxes and being held to account.

I don’t mind accountability per se, I like to live ethically and feel I should be accountable for my actions, but on my terms, not according to someone else’s ethics or ideas about the ‘right’ way things should be done.  My plan is also to live off-grid, hence why transactions are now in cash instead of plastic.  I’m not prepared to leave an electronic or paper trail of where I’ve been and all my behaviour.

It’s not that I have anything to hide.  I simply like my privacy and don’t want to continue contributing to a system I believe to lack in humanity.  So for this volunteer – forget the forms!

But I will happily swap numbers and email addresses as newly acquainted friends do.

Step 4: Provide food

It doesn’t matter how simple or humble, but what we’re doing is about providing food for a community.  Offering a leaf of lovage, explaining what it is and how it can be used is something the volunteer can take away with them.  They’ll feel they have permission to forage from the community beds in the future.

Having something to bring home is also a great idea.  The volunteer will share how they attained the produce with their loved ones or friends and perhaps volunteering will snowball.  I’ve loved the cucumbers, potatoes and herbs I’ve been offered.   I’ve appreciated them so much more knowing where they have come from.

Step 5: Eat together

How about recruitment days in the guise of a Big Lunch?

There is something very bonding about eating together, and of course, food and gap shap go together.  If the big lunch was combined with tours, plant identification guides and recipe ideas, then the community garden immediately becomes more accessible.

I’m a happy volunteer and the ideas above have contributed to that experience.  Thank you all!

Pretty flowering and fruiting tomatillos


  1. ‘Flow’ is term coined by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  It describes the experience of being so involved in a challenging, doable and usually creative task, that we lose self-consciousness (e.g. when painting, writing, working on a project, doing tai-chi or a karate kata, etc). The experience of flow is an experience of being completely in the moment, all other thoughts, past and present become obsolete.  Csikszentmihalyi believe that the experience of flow was instrumental to the experience of happiness.

Bedford Fields Community Forest Garden

What could you do with 1/3 acre of unused local council land?

One solution is to enter into a management agreement with the council and create a community garden.  It may seem a daunting task, but 5 years on from inception, Ben and Joanna of Woodhouse in Leeds, now manage a 1/3rd acre of land in a suburban area of Leeds and have created a thriving natural environment of some 86 edible species, known as Bedford Fields Community Forest Garden.

I joined them yesterday for an impromptu workday.  I’ve only seen a forest garden that is 3 years old, and I was surprised by what an additional two years of work and attention could gain.  As Ben explained, yields have increased year on year, and they’ve even had a surplus of fruit to give away this year.  We foraged for remaining berries. Blackcurrants and raspberries were particularly ripe and needing urgent harvesting.  I like this kind of ‘work’.  Crouched in the undergrowth, I became acquainted with the local resident, a common frog.  Images-from-Within-a-Food-Forestweb
I say common, but like many insect dependent creatures, they have experienced declining populations.  My encounter illustrates the value of a food forest for more than human populations.

I also found myself remarking on the number of pollinators taking advantage of the many herbal flowers.  There were at least two varieties of honey bee visiting in addition to bumble bees and butterflies.

My second observation was the remarkable health of the plants.  No pesticides nor fertilisers, but instead clever companion planting and plenty of mulch to add to existing good soil .  The land had been undeveloped since WWII, illustrating how the natural process of succession leads to environmental healing independent of any human intervention.


Permaculture helps quicken this natural process by aiding soil building.  Layers of organic matter over time means increasing soil depth and quality.  While the health of the environment was outstanding, Ben’s own observations pointed out a fungal infection that had affected the leaf of a couple of raspberry varieties (interestingly, one variety was resistant).  The reason was a dense canopy of hawthorne blocking sunlight.  So the first task of the day was some hawthorn thinning.

Now, I’m a little superstitious about meddling with hawthorn.  I see it as a magical tree, being the favoured dwelling place of the sidhe, or fairy people (I lived in Ireland a long time and lived on a street where several of the houses were believed to have been built in a fairy ring and many family tragedies were attributed to this).  But with good will and many silent apologies to the hawthorn, the sunlight did dapple through the trees to aid the raspberries below the canopy.  I suffered a couple of scratches when I was a little less than respectful of the 1 inch thorns, but otherwise was surprisingly unscathed.

I took advantage of a welcome, orange-lip-inducing spaghetti lunch to take a few photos,  I haven’t managed to capture the spirit of the place as adequately as I would have liked, the overview above doesn’t do it justice.  But of course, I did get another borage picture!

Earlier, Ben had shared the nutritional benefits of nettle seeds.  He stated that it was the most nutrient rich naturally growing item in Britain.  Whatever you can do with a poppy seed you can do with a nettle seed.  He did say he’d add seeds to the spaghetti lunch, but not sure if I experienced their edible nature or not.

Peacock Butterfly Caterpillar
Peacock Butterfly lavae, photo taken in Brighouse.

I decided to investigate the value of these seeds further, and they are indeed nutrient rich and have been found to have significant effects in the treatment of adrenal and kidney related problems, including failure.  If you’re feeling lethargic due to stress, then they are recommended for increasing alertness.  Some people are more sensitive to the stimulating effects than others, lost sleep could be a side effect.  Given certain mild symptoms myself and Verd experience, we’ve decided to go foraging.  Ben told us that this time of the year is the optimal time for gathering, but don’t forget to leave enough for the plant to reseed itself.  You may have to get ahead of the peacock butterfly, which lays eggs at the top of nettles.  The black caterpillar appear to be particularly partial to the seed as well as leaf.

Over lunch, Ben explained how the trees were the heart and first plantings on site.  After 5 years growth, the fruit tree yield is impressive.  Both apples and pears are abundant.Images-From-With-a-Food-Forestweb

I made a mental note of the design principle, as I’ve always planted somewhat randomly and generally ineffectively, with taller plants blocking out the smaller.  From the trees as a central point, other plantings extended out from this centre.  As the project developed, the separate circles would finally merge.  You’ll see in the top picture how paths between plants are maintained with a comfrey lining.  While the edibility of comfrey is largely debated, this plant has several functions in a permaculture garden.  A good nitrogen fixer in the soil, it can be Images-From-Within-a-Food-Forest-3web
chopped and dropped profusely throughout the year to use as mulch.  This particular variety, creeping comfrey, also provides sufficient ground cover to control more insidious weeds.

The last part of my day was spent cleaning cut branches to make poles suitable for the creation of a trellis later.  Unfortunately, I was unable to stay long enough to help in the evolution of one, but was shown how a drill and wire would work to hold it together.

The visit was a great way to take one of those first steps towards the great adventure.  Although I didn’t ask too many questions, I learned a great deaI.  AND it was fun, not least as it was a glorious day, from which I didn’t suffer from too much; canopy layers of trees are an effective filter.


Many thanks to Ben, Joanna for hosting and to the other workdayers, Ian, Adam and Sam for the welcome!


All photos taken at Bedford Fields Forest Garden, except where indicated.