Netplants: the beginnings of our Big Green Adventure

By October 20, 2015 Features No Comments
Superact have been branching out to new, green pastures with the Netplants project. Sarah Le Breton elaborates:
“Where to begin with explaining my involvement with Netplants?! A fantastic 2 year EU project that aims to engage disadvantaged adults from across the UK, France, Spain, Ireland and Romania who will develop new skills associated with plants, vegetables and fruits to improve their all round wellbeing.  Each partner organisation, (of which Superact is the UK partner) gets incredibly hands on, working with local experts to create workshops and handbooks that will encourage local people to develop new skills related to growing, cooking, foraging and natural art.  Throughout the project each partner organisation hosts a visit at which trainers and trainees from each country participate in the workshops.  Newly learned skills can then inform and enhance their own organisation’s programmes or practices.  In a nutshell, it’s all about our reconnection to the land, our environment, to ourselves, to each other.
Sea panorama
I was invited to become lead trainer for Superact at the kick off Netplants meeting in Calais, France from the 21st – 25th September.  How can I explain that from the moment I heard about the Netplants project I knew I had to be a part of it, for its aims are already a part of me.  One of my first memories is of sitting with my friends under our neighbourhood Copper Beech tree, munching on beech masts, I must have been about 5.  I grew up studying wild flowers.  I remember my parents having to wait for hours beside me on the chalk downs as I learnt about and counted the rare flowers and then painstakingly drew them in my notebook.  I didn’t know there was such a word as ‘foraging’, I thought it was just eating: after all isn’t that what you do when you go out for a walk?! 30 or so years on I make my living as a willow artist, weaving sculptures and baskets, and finding it completely unimaginable that I could ever survive if I didn’t grow my own vegetables, nourish my family.  To describe the essence of our Netplants meeting I will offer our last supper together.  After a week of workshops we were all very tired, we had very little food left and 24 hungry international mouths to feed…  But within an hour a veritable feast lay before us, created from left over veg and foraged food from outside our gite.  Without initially realising it, we were using the skills and knowledge that we all had learnt in the week.  We entertainingly debated (often trying to do this in several languages at once!) the merits of our cooking methods.  We need ‘x’ someone would cry, and next moment a group would head for the hedgerow outside… The tasty roasted vegetable dish and the apple crumble complete with elderberry sauce were glorious.  Made even more so by the murmurs of appreciation, big smiles, warm hearts and full bellies.  All I could think was that if this was the end of our first Netplants meeting, with such an incredible sense of camaraderie prevailing, how on earth would the project be by 2017?!
Throughout the week with our host organisation Les Anges Gardin, all trainers and trainees were able to participate in 4 workshops that involved gardening, cooking, wild plant foraging and natural art.  Les Anges Gardin is an organic farm that trains disadvantaged members of the community through growing vegetables for their veg box scheme and cooking in their new restaurant.  For the Netplants project we met their experts and in our workshops foraged the farm, creating recipes and eating the resulting food each day.  In our workshops we also made longer lasting additions to our surroundings, creating a raised vegetable bed scheme and decorating the farm with an insect hotel and natural art pieces.  I’m someone who frequently teaches workshops but rarely gets to be the participant.  But here at Les Anges Gardins as one of the trainers I got to do every workshop alongside the trainees.  And this I feel is key to the project’s success for this is where the magic happened… At every workshop the local experts helped to extend my existing knowledge, such as learning how the bed ‘lasagne’ method works in raised vegetable box planting and in finding new and delicious wild plants to eat.  Gems of absolute wisdom were passed on by fellow trainers from all the organisations involved and inspired insights were often offered by trainees.  Furthermore, (and this may be the continuing professional development overload side of my nature!) I got to learn how to improve my own teaching methods, how to enhance my own workshops… and well frankly, this kind of experience is invaluable!
Wild flowers
My own teaching speciality is within the natural arts, so of course I was most looking forward in the week to participating in the Natural Art workshop.  But it’s a complex mix that prevails within, you want to learn, but also to prove your own expertise.  So with excitement and it has to be said a few nerves, I began alongside everyone else, to create pictures with natural materials and decorate the new vegetable box planters.  However, what I needed for security and familiarity was willow.  So grabbing a pair of secateurs I raced off across the farm through the mud to harvest the willow trees which had been planted to provide a windbreak around the perimeter of the newly established orchard.  Returning with one year old willow rods we proceeded to redefine the workshop tutor’s vision of a rectangular picture frame by doing what willow does best, swooping and curling it around, playing to our hearts content.  It was at this moment that the tutor who spoke very little English came up to me and announced, ‘You are a big woman’.  Slightly perturbed I carried on, then after watching my antics he repeated again, ‘You are a very big woman’.  Finally seeing the gleam in his eye I relaxed and laughed, somewhere lost in translation was an observation of a mutual artistic confidence, a respect and understanding between us.  For me our Netplants meeting became a week of such gems, knowing that each and every one of us there was individually and collectively growing, nurturing, seeking and creating.”

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For more info on Netplants, please visit our website  or the Netplants UK facebook page, or contact Ursula on ursula@superact.org.uk / 07741458188