Nat Mady is a permaculturist with a passion for connecting people with nature in their urban locality. Permaculture is a gardening and design philosophy that draws inspiration from natural ecosystems.
She is the founder of Hackney Herbal, a social enterprise in London promoting wellbeing using herbs. Her team runs a variety of herbal workshops and events with all profits being reinvested into nature-based activities promoting wellbeing within the local community.
She is the author of ‘Enjoying Wild Herbs’ from a series of pamphlets created by Rough Trade Books in partnership with The Garden Museum.
Nat, can you tell us your background and what inspired you to start Hackney Herbal back in 2015?
Nat Mady: I was part of a community garden and experienced the positive benefits of bringing people together to learn about plants and make connections with their neighbours. I wanted to find an accessible way to share herbal knowledge across different communities in Hackney, East London, where I live.
I recognised that there was a wealth of plant-related knowledge across our borough and that people were keen to talk about their familiar plants. This excited me and presented an opportunity to celebrate the diversity of the area through the plants that people used culturally.
I didn’t want the project to rely solely on funding so I was keen to develop a social enterprise so we could generate some income to fund our work and run free community activities. Supporting people’s wellbeing and particularly their mental health was also a big driver. The first community course I ran was in partnership with mental health charity The Centre for Better Health.
What sort of events and programmes do you run?
Nat Mady: We run a mixture of ticketed and booked events, free community activities and a training programme.
We run gardening sessions, training programmes, workshops and events. We also take people out on Herb Walks to our local green spaces including along the Lea Valley and the Olympic Park. A new project for this year is running team away days for companies looking for a fully nature-immersive session for their employees.
Tell us more about the Nature Club that you started during the pandemic and the link between mental health and nature.
We started Nature Club last summer to bring people together to explore local green spaces in a safe and accessible way. The group meets every week and spends time in places like Wick Woodland and Hackney Marshes as well as taking trips to other green spaces. The group is centred around spending time in nature with others, as a way to build confidence. A big part of the project is for people to connect with others and feel part of a supportive community group.
Nature Club means a lot to me. It has given me a purpose to look forward to weekly. It is contributing to my healing. I have been introduced to a hobby that I love (foraging). Nature club means meeting new friends and gaining new knowledge.
Nature Club Participant
How has Hackney Herbal grown and developed over the years?
Nat Mady: We’ve come a long way since our humble beginnings. When I started it was very much a side project I did in my spare time. Now it’s my full-time job and I work within a core team of five people.
At the end of 2019, we took over a garden space of our own having previously grown on borrowed and shared spaces. This has been a huge change for us and has allowed us to literally put long term roots down in the land. In this space, we are creating our dream herb garden as well as a forest garden and focusing on creating spaces where people, plants and wildlife can thrive.
You aim to be inclusive and get people involved from all across the Hackney community. How do you do that?
Nat Mady: A big part of our social enterprise model is using any profit we generate to deliver free community activities, removing the financial barrier that people might face. Through our community work, we are very connected to the local voluntary sector and over the years we have formed partnerships with several groups.
We have linked up with organisations like City & Hackney Mind, The Recovery College and The Centre for Better Health to ensure our activities reach people who could really benefit. We have also made connections with social prescribers (who work within the GP surgeries) who will refer people to our projects. We do as much outreach as we can to promote the opportunities we have to community groups in Hackney.
We are also part of various local networks and many projects are led by our community, to make sure we are providing what is relevant and needed in the area.
In the last few years, we have also been working to address the lack of diversity within the horticultural sector. A lot of people get into this line of work through volunteering or unpaid work and this is not accessible to many. Part of our work is centred around providing paid training opportunities to people of colour.
What do you think is the main social impact of what you do?
Nat Mady: Wellbeing is the overarching theme of our work both for the people that we work with and also for the planet. We help people to connect with plants in many different ways and support people to develop their own practices to support their wellbeing with herbs.
This might be through growing them, making remedies or observing them on a walk. For our community work, we provide ongoing opportunities to support people’s long-term connection to and relationship with people and plants.
What is your favourite herb and why?
Nat Mady: Eek, this is always such a hard question to answer. One of my absolute favourites is Marshmallow. It has super soft leaves like bunny ears and pretty little pink flowers. It’s a wonderful softening and soothing herb and the whole plant can be used medicinally. It was also one of the many herbs used by Ancient Egyptians. My Dad is from Egypt so I like that it connects me back to my own heritage.
When you are not at Hackney Herbal, how do you look after your own wellbeing?
Nat Mady: It is somewhat ironic that in running a social enterprise centred on wellbeing, I am sometimes guilty of overworking and burning myself out. It’s really hard to find a balance when you are passionate about your work and the work-life balance becomes a bit blurred. I try to make sure I go out for walks around Hackney Marshes and the River Lea to help de-stress and re-balance.
I also love swimming at the lido in Hackney and spending time with friends and family.
As you might expect I also use a load of herbs to look after my wellbeing. When I had Covid I was taking a lot of antiviral herbs like lemon balm and thyme and also lots of immune-supporting echinacea.
For anyone living in a city who feels cut off from nature, how can they rediscover that connection?
Nat Mady: Find a green space near you, or somewhere you can easily get to, that you can visit intentionally on a regular basis. That might be somewhere close to home, your workplace or somewhere along a route you often travel. It could be your nearest park or a tree you pass on your way home.
Take time to notice how your nature spot changes through the seasons. Spending time observing these spots is a great starting point for enabling a deeper connection.