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Dust To Dust

“We are stardust. We are golden. And we’ve got to get ourselves. Back to the garden”                                                            - Joni Mitchell, Woodstock

 
The wind blew in from Africa last week, just as the windflowers – as wood anenomes are prosaically known – arrived shyly in the wedge of ancient woodland here at Hawkwood. And the country was bathed in Saharan dust.

 
It wasn’t the dust per se, but its mixing in with local petrochemical fumes, that led to the hazy days and air pollution warnings. And, whilst this may be a cry from London’s latter day “pea soupers”, it doesn’t represent a sunny outlook for our atmosphere.

 
Yet there is something appealing about being able to place your hand on a fragment of iconic desert: a tangible, in your face reminder that we inhabit a joined-up planet; a reminder whistled, to the initiated, by the immigrant swallows and house martins that will not long be returning here on the crest of a current.

 
Prayers and praises to the wind. These weeks it blows hot then cold, wet and dry, changeably yet irresistibly carrying us into the growing season. Winter’s perm-washed fields have been blow-dried, allowing us to set foot amongst them for essential weeding and sowings, and it seems likely we’ll have some seed potato in the ground by the traditional Good Friday date, always a smashing feeling.

 
Spring salad planting is well underway, with sorrel, lettuce, rocket, beet leaf and wild rocket all hitting the ground running, and this seasons’ Production team has been assembled: Vi, me, Gary, Aimee, Sofia, Rob and Brandon, all of us backed up by the ranks of trainees, volunteers, learners and project workers that make this place grow. There are thrilling times ahead, though not without challenges: the mild winter’s failure to knock pests back is already showing in the slug levels on the beds of emerging asparagus.

 
It’s even dried out enough to dig the rotavator out. “The cut worm forgives the plough”, said William Blake, and I still believe that the benefits, for soil and aerial biodiversity, of green manure leys outweighs the damage caused by having to turn them into the earth. But any cultivation, especially one as aggressive as rotavating, loses soil carbon and nitrogen to the atmosphere. Up there, dust to dust, to a land who knows where. As I followed the machine up and back, pass after pass, I could only hope and trust that they carry with them specks of the Hawkwood spirit of solidarity, like a message in a bottle, like a glow in a smog.

“If you want to keep a plant, give it away!” Brian Holden rejoiced. We were in the Growing Communities’ Springfield garden, about ten years ago, where for some time sithe, a kind of perennial scallion, had been cultivated in the alium round of the rotation. Brian had cultivated these from a few bulbs gifted to him a further few years previous by Sari, whose partner had cradled them over the ocean from his – and its – native Caribbean island of St.Kitts. We’ve picked up the story at the point where Sari enters the garden for the first time, and is thrilled to find a whole bed of sithe growing, having lost her original stock to some disease or pestilence.

 
My mind has returned to this moment, and Brian’s profound utterance as, a year on from our planting out the wee rhizomes of the endangered Walthamstow Yellow Cress (see May 6, 2013 entry), it has established well enough for us to propagate, and send it out into the wide world. As we reach the end of the Waltham Forest Cultivate Festival, there are now five guardians of this freak East End watercress, making its survival in this part of the world more certain, just as its original sole habitat on the Walthamstow reservoirs appears less so. Furthermore, I’m proud to report that Slow Food UK have ushered this shy leaf into the hallowed ranks of “Forgotten Foods”, one of only nine vegetable foods to achieve the distinction. Forgotten but not gone, if our release strategy works.

 
Such selling or gifting of plants and seeds, the letting go in order to keep, is a common practice that might be variously seen as generosity or enlightened self-interest. Or, to use the term popularised by Peter Kropotkin, “mutual aid”. In his 1902 book of the same name, he presented extensive examples of how nature cooperates, within and across species, for shared benefit. Written shortly after Darwin, the concept provides a sane, rational and rich response to the tendency to reduce the notion of “survival of the fittest” to “every man for himself, and devil take the hindmost”.

 
Today as in Kropotkin’s time, this tendency has a powerful lobby. That’s why the EU is seeking ways to outlaw the distribution of “unregistered” plants like sithe and the yellow cress. That’s why genetic modification technology continues to be pushed, though it is failing in its own supposed objectives of reducing pesticide use and increasing yields; and it is driving small farmers into extinction; setting brother against sister and children against Mother Earth.

 
The garden in spring speaks of different possibilities, of working together for sensual and material abundance. In the glasshouse afternoon, the broad bean flowers emit a heaven-scent perfume better than any bottle. The bumble bees bumble about them, as bumble bees do, feeding themselves and performing the vital act of pollination. So we can eat, the beans can reproduce to fight another day, and, going underground, bacteria at the roots fix nitrogen for the following crop, whilst worm casts its dark magic. “The earth is made a common treasury for all”, the Diggers proclaimed as they set about establishing their outlaw agricultural communities as the English Revolution reached its climax. They may have been naïve, still they weren’t wrong.

Cress Is More

Arguably our most valued crop here at Hawkwood is the winter salad leaves. They may lack the mass appeal of toms and strawbs, but they make up for this in longevity – spending up to twelve months in the ground; and in the dormant period their rare dependable fresh growth and emerald hue have us hunting and gathering them to the point of endangerment. But winter salads, like winter pansies, are in their pomp not in their appointed season, but in the sharp spring that bursts it.

The wild rocket, chicories and miners lettuce are all exhuberant right now, especially under the glass, where their last mad surge of youth will soon outsprint us. The secateurs will give way to their flowers, the flowers in turn to the compost heap, then summer rolls in another rotation.

Of the more punchy ingredients, those cockle-warmers of the winter leaves, watercress has been especially good. Every year we grow a bit more of it, and every year we have no regrets. Whilst OrganicLea was established to “sustainably rehabilitate the food growing heritage of the Lea Valley”, a heritage we’ve explored in various publications and presentations, we’ve largely neglected the area’s history of growing watercress, in favour of more cultivated plants of the garden. That is, until Hannah picked up the story in last week’s Local Food News, our “in-house” news sheet.

A native of very wet ground, watercress would surely have been enjoyed by the first folk to hang around the Lea’s marshes, and was likely harvested and managed in some way by the area’s first farmers and gardeners, the Saxons in the sixth century. In the nineteenth century, Hackney became noted for its cultivation of said Rorippa nasturtium-aquatica,  great stands of it in Morning Lane and Hackney Wick, fed by the flowing Hackney Brook as it bubbled into the Lea. But as Hackney became more definitely part of London, the water quality declined. A cholera outbreak in the early twentieth century was blamed on the cress, and that was curtains.

The spectre of polluted water, either by man or by sheep, in the case of the potentially fatal liver fluke, (rightly) continues to deter people from foraging the peppery creepers. But our watercress is safely reared on filtered rainwater, as are our beds of its rarer cousin, the Walthamstow Yellow Cress Hackney Brook is now many feet under the rumble of Morning Lane, though no doubt many gardeners in the area safely nurture a bunch or two; and perhaps those clumps of cress I spot thriving upriver, in the small weirs beside the Navigation’s locks, are proud descendants of former aquatic gardens.

Curiously enough, watercress doesn’t even need to be grown in water: they like it damp, but can be happy in a soil bed, as in our glasshouse, as long as it’s well irrigated. The habit of flooding watercress beds has, I believe, much to do with weed suppression, and with moderating cold temperatures, so making it such a reliable outdoor winter vegetable.

The winter, and its woeful water excess, is behind us now, leaving us washed up and warmed by the wealth of watercress and winter salad. In their current ascendancy , they are a reward for, and lesson in, resilience: the resilience of all the gardeners who’ve been showing up here through the dark days. After troubled waters, the good times flow.

New From Old

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”  – Arundhati Roy

 This week the smell of spring is unmistakable. A mild surprise, as there’s not been a “real” winter. There’s been plenty of weather alright, but that’s not quite the same thing. We’ve held back from resuming our weekly salad deliveries – they can only restart once a year – on the guestimate that, going on recent times, this land and its flora will be held in an icy grip at some point. If Jack Frost is still planning a visit, his fashionable lateness is now way beyond cool: crocuses are out, the dawn chorus are tuning up, and the overwintering rocket is going to flower, its frost protection fleece lying crumpled, barely worn, at its feet. It’s time we begun.

 

There is a freshness to everything now:  the resinous waft of the wood chip mulch laid down to protect the soft fruit; the clean slate of the black bare of just-planted artichoke bed;  the annual tidiness of the propagation benches. The ol’ garden is, of a sudden, new. This is The Thing about gardening: resurrection is not a utopia or a religious belief, it’s an event.  It happens once a year in a big way, with small revolutions occurring every month, week, day…

 

This month, in our crooked corner of this built-up city, I will be one of the thousands of new gardeners sowing new seeds. There are old and new volunteers helping to rekindle the growing season at Hawkwood, where our latest attractions include Jerusalem Drive, the Walthamstow Yellow Cress Welcome Bed, and an exploding World of Chillies. Some of these will join the hundreds more across the borough who now have access to an allotment. Waltham Forest has created 200 new food growing plots in the last year, and reduced the allotment waiting list dramatically, as part of its Food Growing Strategy. A lot more people are talking about food growing now, but as yet few local authorities have seen fit to exercise their statutory powers in support of local production.  I am proud of Waltham Forest, and OrganicLea’s small part in effecting the zeitgeist and the political will.

 

It’s time to get out there, effect small changes.  Create the new garden, either literally, turning run-off hard landscape into a porous plant paradise, a flood of relief; or reclaiming and redeeming the battered waste ground which last year you once grew. And from that garden we climb, tendril by curly tendril, onwards and outwards: conversations over the allotment fence; swapping seeds with the world at the community garden;   walking straight past Tesco with community-grown, wildlife-friendly veg. Gardens are a retreat from the world, and also a reconstruction of it; a Spring board to a redeemed economy based on nature and nurture; to a renewed architecture – beautiful, socially useful. Worms turn, badger crossings, land liberated.

 

Time to pick up the trowel you threw in last Winter of Discontent, and Dig In for victory.

 

 “Whether you have never gardened before in your life, or are a gardener of fifty years’ standing, makes no difference: stop reading this and get outside. Happy new garden”  -  Monty Don

 

“What good is land without its bit of encircling sky?” asks Gill Baron, koan-like, in this winter’s issue of The Land. Our piece of sky here at Hawkwood can’t rival the Big Blue of the East Anglian plains, at whose centre our partners Hughes Organics stand; nor the distant hillside panoramas that cradle so many “Back-to-the-Landers”, but it’s ours, special and wonderful in its own way, and at this time of year it’s as wide and open as it gets.

The loss of leaf canopy all round sees the trees throwing starker shapes, and expands the aerial environment surprisingly, stretching it out past the old hornbeam pollards as far as Yates’ Meadow to the north, and over the reservoirs to the grey & glass rises of Ponders End and Freezy Water, now districts of Enfield both, to the west. In between, more space and time. It’s a phenomena that I believe is known to that section of people who don’t actually live in urban river basins as a “view”. Not much call for it round ‘ere.

Another atmospheric feature that us folk in The Smoke find equally splendid but unnervingly agrophobia–inducing is something they call “the stars”. On a clear night we’re lucky enough to get the odd twinkle here in the Darkness On The Edge Of Town, but the Milky Way is drowned in the street lamp glow and retail glitz, and with it that valuable reminder of our tiny place in the universe. A profound loss. It’s the oral exclamations of the creatures that claim the space when home time comes for Hawkwood workers, that we rely on to tell us we’re not alone here: the rutting deer, the wailing fox, the questioning owl. And our sowing and planting schedule is directed by the lunar cycle, so we know when it’s a waxing moon even when we can’t spot its light shed.

Globally, the International Dark Sky Association campaigns for peoples’ right to starlight, and has declared parts of this island, among them Brecon Beacons, Exmoor and Galloway Forest, as “International Dark Sky Parks”, islands of low light pollution. Doubtless I’d get short odds on East London being one of the last areas to achieve such status, but a small patch of our site now has its perpetual black ceiling on: the “Cockney Blanching Benders” are now over the Timperly Early rhubarb, removing their light for a couple of moons so as to yield, from next week, “Champagne rhubarb”. The pink stems of which are so prized, in the past for an early source of fresh fruity vitamins; in the now for its tender, sweeter, melt-in-the-mouth quality.

As much as it is welcomed, there are understandable mixed feelings about this “veal of the vegetable world”. Undoubtedly, the blanching process stresses the plant, though the work of the gardener is to stress it but not stress it out. And this rhubarb race, like the humans that grow it and eat it, is anaemic, fatigued, pale from constantly stretching for the sky, the stars beyond. Yet from these tortuous tunnels come patterns of great beauty, hope in the darkness, new forms of delicacy.

And the best kind of crumble.

 

Outside Inside

“When a great ship is in harbour and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But…that is not what great ships are built for” – Clarissa Estes

 

  “And smoke never lies, in truth
it’s better outside, but the proof
took time, took spring to mix water colours, took
summer for the land to laugh out land again”

 

  Ru Litherland, “Outside Inside” (1999)

 

Whilst the general synopsis for this winter is, thus far: mild; alternately damp and soaking; and firmly on the miserable spectrum, there have nonetheless been some glorious days in the garden. In last week’s afternoons we and the sleeping beautiful plants were bathed in that base gold limelight that only comes through this season’s narrow window. I tend to associate it with those dramatic, sharp, frost-tinted January moments, but am glad to recount that even in the absence of freezing temperatures, being caught in that grace gifts you the sense that the Great Outdoors is the greatest place to be.

That said, the indoor environment, now at the limit of its annual swing from stuffy to cosy, is currently a delight too. Jonny and I have been pulling beetroot out of the sheltered store: denuded of leaves but as firm and vibrantly flushing as when we tore them from the Entrance Field tilth on that bustling T-shirted Harvest Day at the end of September. That’s the power of clamps: an ancient method, rather than fixed design, of storing root crops in the off-season. In harmony with everything else here, our clamps are a late urban twist on rustic tradition, fabricated with branded builders’ sacks, pallets and coconut fibre in place of field trenches and straw. Clamps don’t have to be indoors, but ours are: specifically, in the Ambient House, as we have Dubbed the cool storage section of the building.
This is the first year of the Ambient and its attendant clamps. It was constructed as part of a significant building development that we embarked on after confirming our thirty year lease. The works also included the decommissioning of the oil-fired boilers; installation of a walk-in chiller; and creation of the Beetroot Office (where the Distribution and Infrastructure workers are clamped), in a programme called, somewhat uninspiringly, “Building Phase Two”, as the Maoists already had dibs on “The Great Leap Forward” and “Let A Thousand Salad Leaves Unfold”.
So presently the greater weight of produce emanates from the Ambient House rather than directly from the ground. From there we’ve moved most of our squash mountain, and garlic and potatoes trickle onto the Farm Stall. Meanwhile inside the House of Glass there is much movement: storage systems are overhauled, capillary sand replaced, pot and trays sorted, glass washed, preparations made for new beds and vent maintenance.
It’s the spaces inbetween that are often the most interesting, and its exactly on the threshold between in and out that Theo, our new-ish Site Development Worker, seems to spend much of his time: installing cabins for firewood logs, and erecting the peach protection frame against the glasshouse, which will keep all this dirty British drizzle off our fine Mediterranean friends. It’s painted a fitting Italian azzurro: it’s functional and beautiful. Around the corner, against the East Glasshouse “wall”, he’s engineered a hardening bench, a brilliant development that will dramatically reduce the damage to our plants during that critical week in the halfway house between the “intensive care unit” that is the propagation area, and the cold beyond-the-pale light of day Out There: the wild soils, the uncertain wind- and slug- swept shores; the manhandling of the commutes through our plant stalls.
After the builders, the gardeners: we’ve laid down the capillary, the black geotextile “floor”, and set out hardy green plants in a semblance of order. And it looks, we look, to all intents and purposes, like a proper plant nursery. Looking at it, no visitor would guess that, indoors or outdoors, we’re just playing.

Returning to Hawkwood after midwinter’s Long Pause, I’m relieved to find little wind damage despite the Christmas and Boxing Day Gales. The crop covers had blown clean off the naked brassicas in the Entrance Field (I say “brassicas” as if we grow an extended family of greens, when actually they’re all minor variants on the kale theme, such is the present popularity of this ancient superfood), yet no bird damage evident. This serves as a reminder that wood pigeons are like the rest of us, featheriness and bulging eyes aside: they’re creatures of habit, and once they’ve established their feeding stations it can be surprising for how long they will overlook better dining options right under their beaks.

 This was just one theme addressed at the Oxford Real Farming Conference last week, attended by a dozen-strong OrganicLea delegation. Not that of pigeon protection (or not in the sessions I attended at any stretch) but of human habitual behaviour. When asked, a large slice of the population pie want their diet to be  more local, organic, community-led, yet when offered this at reasonably competitive prices, many of us manage to switch our shopping habits as swiftly as the proverbial oil tanker.

 Which is one of a number of factors coming together to whip up climate change, which is one of a number of factors coming together to prise open the floodgates, alongside soil management, increased hard landscape and loss of flood plains. It’s not just winter – nowadays it seems like a week doesn’t go by in Britain without some poor village somewhere getting flushed out of their homes – but in another example of human limitations, I tend to consider things more when they are right in my face. The Thames had burst into Oxford city centre as the Real Farming Conference, and its “business as usual” counterpart, the Oxford Farming Conference, proceeded; and back at Hawkwood every bit of ground is thoroughly waterlogged, and new springs spring forth.

 Maybe it comes from approaching middle age, but lately I find the most uplifting moments come in weather-beaten. In a field blistered with puddles, the resilience of the red radicchio is fortifying. The small supergreen shoots of overwintering garlic, and the swelling rose buds of rhubarb, are enough to bring a tear to the eye. Yet even these purest of gifts, the ability to gaze on harbingers of spring, are not always without conflict. It’s been a very wet, very mild winter, and I’d sooner see a decent cold snap to knock back pest and disease and make the temperate plants feel more at home. If the last decade is anything to go by, winter and summer tend to mirror eachother: bright cold winter followed by bright warm summer, mild damp leading to mild damp. Time will tell its own tale.

 On reflection, “natural purity”, untainted by worries such as climate change and flooding, is an ideal we can never realise. The Earth is awesome, wonderful, terrifying, messy, dirty and gorgeous, and humans are of her and crawl over her. Perfection is beyond us, but still, there is scope to behave in ways, and push for social institutions, that facilitate a more kindly, sharing, lighter presence on the planet. As we are still in the time of resolutions, let’s plump for some of these.

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