NSSM Guest Post from Dave Richards

Reading International Solidarity Centre (RISC) is a Development Education Centre close to the heart of Reading’s town centre. They work with schools and community groups to raise the profile of global issues and promote action for sustainable development, human rights and social justice. As part of RISC’s focus on sustainable development and food security, the edible forest garden on the flat roof of the building was designed as an educational tool using permaculture principles and has now become an oasis in the centre of Reading. Today’s guest post by garden coordinator, Dave Richards, explores some of the many stories that gardens contain and how they can also make ideal places for creating and telling stories.


A land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees…

The Promised Land in The Bible, Deuteronomy 8:8-10

By the Fig and the Olive

Oath in the Holy Qu’ran, Sura Tin (The Fig) 95: 1

An unlikely oasis a stone’s throw from Reading’s Inner Distribution Road – a 200 square metre forest with over 180 species of useful plants – growing on a roof. Crazy, but nowhere else to create our outdoor classroom, designed to demonstrate sustainable living and solve the problem of a leaking flat roof. A space to enjoy lunch or watch the bees sampling nectar that originated in far off corners of the temperate world.

Like all relationships we have found unexpected joys as we have watched our garden grow over the last 15 years… A space for children to walk around the mulberry tree, watch the very hungry sawfly munch through the Solomon’s Seal, recognise some of the ingredients of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Four Seasons, harvest a turnip… and discover other stories as we got to know our plants and their place in history.

Emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum) a wild grass domesticated about 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent that enabled farmers to grow enough food to support urban civilisation. It was introduced to Britain by the Celts and was used to make beer and bread. Today, Emmer is still an important crop in Ethiopia and its cultivation is expanding in Italy where it is used in soups and organic pasta (farro). Its productivity on poor soil and disease resistance are attracting plant geneticists developing new varieties of wheat.

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) which comes with a health warning that fascinates visiting school children: contains toxins that undermine your immune system and can kill. Yet Nature – the supreme biochemist – provides a plus-side; these same toxins are used as an antidote to snake bite and a microbicide for treating HIV. Cooking can neutralise the toxins and in the USA the boiled leaves were eaten by the poor, a tradition celebrated in the 1969 swamp rock hit Polk Salad Annie written by Tony Joe White (check out Elvis’ cover on YouTube).

And questions: How did Indians spice their curries before Columbus? Did Italians have pizza before Columbus? What did the Irish and Spanish do for carbs before 1492? Because as we all know chilli, tomatoes, potatoes and maize are all New World crops.

Every plant we use has a story to tell, woven into the fabric of human history, used to clothe, warm, shelter, cure, scent, decorate and feed us. Celebrated in art (sunflowers by van Gogh and Ai Weiwei), music (seasons by Vivaldi and Beethoven), language (“I don’t give a fig”). Our garden has not only become a beautiful space to read a story, it holds a thousand stories… if you can find a storyteller who knows the secrets…

The RISC roof garden has National Garden Scheme open days during the summer (for details see http://risc.org.uk/gardens). We also offer consultancy if you want to create your own garden at home, school or community space.

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Children created stories based on plants in the garden during a workshop by Danielle Corbishley of Beautiful Creatures. Song of Crow, was an ambulatory outdoor storytelling performance by Jennifer Leach, first staged on the roof garden in 2007. It is about Creation’s challenge to Mankind, the species that has fallen out of love with its own habitat and its own creativity – a lament for the destruction and diminution of beauty, and the elimination of balance.  

We would love to hear about your own special outside spaces – and particularly those that have been created for storytelling. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.


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