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Tamed

The spasm that is our strawberry season is over, four weeks and two hundred and eighty kilos later, leaving me feeling much like I felt after England’s World Cup exit: anguished and relieved. There is a transcending vibe of relief coupled with joy, though, in all we do at the minute. Every year, as the growing season enters my peripheral senses, I worry that climate change will have hit the point of no return: that we’ll be dealt mild damp summers, followed by mile damp winters, ad nauseum, and that The Seasons, that elemental pattern that brings the organic grower such happiness and possibilities, will be consumed forever in the oil of greed. This year, not for the first or last time, nature has given us another chance, and with such grace.

The Entrance Field isn’t as complete as I’d like by high summer, and sadly we can’t blame the weather or the businessmen for this, just self-induced hiccups in planning and propagation. On the other hand, this has given us, and our bee brethren, the unplanned wonder of the wave of azure flowers of the bolted Treviso chicory. The salads are strong and untired, the “tropical salads” in the glasshouse looking especially at home in what for us mortal humans is wilting heat. Growth in this area has been impressive across the board: the annual Bean Sweepstake ended in a dead heat, all our climbing Borlottis crossing the two metre high-wire finish line on the same weekend. Photo finish technology was not something we imagined necessary to install, though I am pondering whether to erect cricket nets to prevent these intrepid clamberers breaking through the glass ceiling.

The cucumbers also started pouring over the top this week, and Aimee, Hannah and I started trying to coax them down again on our weekly tomato and cucumber training rounds. The former are throwing out side shoots less vigorously now: they’ve taken shape and the fruits are changing traffic lights where we’ve pruned back the lower branches. So we are approaching that point at which, in our East Anglian partner Grahame Hughes’ words, “the tomatoes are tamed”.

The Taming of the Tomatoes is a memorable concept, but one I’ve struggled with over the years. Whilst on the one hand, it sums up what a gardener does to plants quite niftily; on the other, like many I see problems caused by the extent to which the wild and free have been forced to the far periphery of the modern world, and regard organic farms and gardens as wildlife corridors back into our homes and hearts.

A reading from The Little Prince at Annie and Ben’s wedding last weekend finally saw me at ease, possibly helped by the Prosecco:

“I cannot play with you”, the fox said, “I am not tamed”.

Little Prince: “What does that mean – tame”,

“It is an act too often neglected”, said the fox. “It means to establish ties, If you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

“I am beginning to understand”, said the Little Prince. “There is a flower…I think she has tamed me…”

Our heritage tomatoes, saved from seed year on year, sown from seed in freezing February, potted on, fed on Hawkwood compost and London clay, pinched and supported to dizzy heights and lights, are unique in all the world.

Fine summer days; tomatoes: these things have a way of reworking the ties, bringing us back. Taming us.

 

Paul Robeson Sings

“Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans”, quoth John Lennon. Summer is life, a high note singing on a breeze: the Longest Day happens quickly.

 
This year, we marked this midsummer moment with a Permaculture Introduction course and gathering at Dial House, an autonomous space that reappears on numerous branches of OrganicLea’s extended family tree; and the traditional solstice celebration and horticultural games. In the latter, the Fruit Team’s triumph was long-awaited and fitting, for nothing says summer like ripe soft fruits.

 
Queen Crimson of the fruits is the strawberry, the picking of which has been as frenzied as ever over the midsummer weeks. This year the run-in to Wimbledon has met a sweet volley of warmth, meaning more time spent plucking into punnets, rather than chucking off the rotted and the slugged, an altogether better pursuit. Still, these days the strawberry harvest seems far from a fleeting glory, almost never ending, leading me to ask whether it’s sensible to cultivate eight beds of berries: the final answer seems to be yes. People love them, they always go.

 
Equally loved, picked less frenziedly through a longer, glasshouse, window, are the fruits of Lycopersicon esculentum, the tomato. For the first time, we have these ripe by the solstice. Just a few, and just one cultivar – “Darby Striped Yellow/ Green” – but that’s enough to set the rest of them off, like a pack of howling wolves. This year the howls I’m most looking forward to hearing from are our new varieties, and one in particular, the black tomato “Paul Robeson”.

 
As a human, Paul Robeson, born in 1898, achieved international renown as a singer and actor. His outspoken support for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, against racism at home in the States, and his interest in the Soviet Union, led to his blacklisting during the McCarthy era, the revoking of his passport and continued harassment by the FBI. Such persecution by the authorities contributed to the demise of his career and health. He died in Philadelphia in 1976.

 
Gone but not forgotten. By their fruits shall ye know them. Like so many black tomatoes, “Paul Robeson” hails from the east, bred by Soviet horticulturalists and named in his honour, a tribute to his anti-imperialist stance and his full-bodied baritone. We eat these always in remembrance. His unique relationship with Welsh coal miners, who he sang, worked and marched alongside in the 1920s, resurfaced this century in the Manic Street Preachers track “Let Paul Robeson Sing”. His signature tune “Ol’ Man River” is still known and sung across the world: “He don’ plant tater/ He don’ plant cotton/ An‘ dem dat plants ‘em/ Is soon forgotten/But Ol’ Man River/ He jes’ keeps rollin’ along”.

 
Most importantly, his unfashionable challenging of his home country’s apartheid sowed some of the seeds of the civil rights movement, and the rest is history: full political rights, and a level of racial equality and dignity that could only have been dreamt of in Robeson’s time.

 
Some of the seeds sown are producing ripe fruits, but there is still a long way to go.

 
Summer in this green-grey valley, the River Lea rollin’ along.

 

One of the key principles of ecology, and thus ecological food growing, is that of relationships: it’s not just what’s there, it’s how what’s there interacts with each other and their habitat, that creates an ecosystem. Unfortunately, relationships are harder than things to “show and tell” on site tours: the intricate web of microbial life in the soil, and the web of connections between the people and land that produce the food, and those that eat it, can only be gesticulated at in a dramatic but slightly vague manner.

This is one reason why reductive science – science that looks at stuff, but not how stuff connects with other stuff – has held so much sway in agriculture and other areas. The times are-a changing, though it’s not clear what into: even the Big Boys like Tesco and McDonalds are starting to respond to customers’ need to feel a sense of connection with the source of their food, and now assault us with phoney “meet our farm” images on their billboards and juggernauts.

Real relationships are not only often invisible, they’re also complex, volatile, take time and are held in trust: all things that don’t show up too well on the balance sheet, and are, it has to be said, a pretty inconvenient way of running things, though it’s hard to work out who to file that particular complaint with. In our work with London restaurants, we try to build up a partnership deeper than a mere buyer/ seller encounter, through means such as weekly conversations, reciprocal visits and direct delivery or “short supply chains”.

What we find is that our relationship “with a restaurant” can often be very personal, and rest on a relationship with a key chef. The “Camden bicycle run”, which spearheaded our external distribution strategy when we started out, has gone the way of lemonade, Coca cola and Newcastle Brown Ale: despite the name, it now has no Camden whatsoever left in it. Our cooks have slung their hooks and recipe books to other nooks and pantries, and our trade with their old kitchen hasn’t stayed. The bicycle delivery route, now performed by our friends Bike Box with our Christiania trailers, goes on strong, but Kings Cross, Euston and Islington Run doesn’t sound half as cool.

On the ground, one of the team formations we use for managing the vegetable beds is the “pincer movement” or “working towards each other”. It’s an especially useful manouvre when it comes to light weeding or ripe-pick harvesting. Strawberry season is now upon us. It always appears that way, ambushing from above. Summer still surprises. Nicely: strawberries have always never looked, smelt, tasted, so fresh.

Anyway, as a tactic the pincer is simple and elegant. The beds in the Entrance Field are mostly sixty metres, those in the Old Kitchen Garden thirty-four, subdivided by the Middle Way path, that runs either up it or down it, depending on whether you take the side of the hawthorn or the lime tree. One pair starts either side of the far end of the bed, the other from the near end. Working towards each other. When we meet, the bed is complete, prompting a greeting, sometimes a hand shake, a hugless embrace. What I call a “Channel Tunnel Moment”.

Those of my generation may remember the scene. French workers drilled a hole from Calais, British ones from the white cliffs, all the way deep under twenty-one miles of Big Blue. By some improbable feat the drillings met up, in good time, somewhere round the middle, and TV footage showed the miners shaking hands though the little joining. It was a unifying image: whilst the primary motivation for the building of the Chunnel was business, there could be no denying the haunting hope for humanity in this interracial meeting and greeting. It showed that people were capable of tearing down obstacles between them, like the Berlin Wall, and also of building – bridges and tunnels – across divides, physical and cultural.

Last week, UKIP’s xenophobic message of despair polled well in the European elections, and the spirit of that Channel Tunnel Moment may seem more distant. But pitching despair against despair will yield one certain result. Better still, in all we do, to keep working towards each other. Making the most of the strawberries along the way.

Very few gardeners are not also garden visitors: to a point, the converse is also true. In this way gardening, more than, say, Formula One Racing or the Opera, offers numerous fertile pathways between democratic participation and the Spectacle. As with any broadly creative pursuit, garden creators can be too immersed in the subject to see it in its entirety, in the moment, as the outside observer can. For the latter, the land can be still, a snap shot, whereas for the site worker it is all process, never a finished piece. I enjoy regular recreational walks round our little cultivated clearing in the Forest, but don’t always capture an unobstructed view of the wood for the trees, the garden for the weeds, the field for its soil needs.

 
I make it my business, then, not to mind my own business now and then throughout the season: visits to farms and gardens form part of my work plan: this year, Shillingford and Chagford in Devon; in London Town, Sutton Community Farm, St. Matts and Kynaston Patchwork sites, have had to suffer pokes from my big nose. It’s not just the odd new plant or new trick I’m sniffing around for, but to experience a growing space as it is, naked of to-do lists.

 
This is not to say satori moments don’t happen to me of the other gardeners here at Hawkwood, only, the stars have to be aligned and the plant combinations have to reach their moment of supreme poise. A moment in a million, just a few times a season. After a few years on the land though, you start to sense it coming. And any minute now, I know I’m going to blunder into the glasshouse and be stopped in my tracks by a picture of perfection.
Here, the flowering strips, and the cordon tomatoes intercropped with mixed lettuces and herbs, are on the verge of greatness. It’s noteworthy that these early beds were sown and planted by the Level 2 Gardening course: a fact I take great pleasure from. When I formally studied horticulture, much of my class’ practical assignments were rotavated back into the ground the following day, whilst others were tucked out of sight of the public garden, receiving little ongoing maintenance between sessions. We learnt, the hard way, the value of regular irrigation, and that plant pests didn’t actually take Easter breaks.

 
At Hawkwood, we wanted to do things a little differently: to fully integrate course participants into the garden work schedule. Sure it takes some coordination, but we wanted the garden and the learners to get the most out of each other. And, after many terms of extra-curriculur work by Clare, our Training & Outreach Worker, I think we have symbiosis. Last year, fifty six people completed the Level One Practical Gardening Skills course here, graduating back to the land in myriad ways whilst making a real contribution to the local food economy through their structured practical sessions.

 
In nature news, we appear to have pied wagtails nesting in the glasshouse, alongside the two magpies, who I’m still not sure are one hundred percent welcome. The rare Nathusius’ pipistrelle bat is one of five species recently monitored flashing across our fields after sunset, and last week I opened the warehouse door to find myself face to beak with a tiny blue tit, nesting material still wrapped around its tiny feet. This year, the tits nested in the tool shed: a source of intense squeaks and wonder. Then, after another fledgling was spotted in the glasshouse, peering in on the coursework, on Friday, it all went quiet.

 
End of May, 2014. Learning to fly.

Next week’s full moon is, in the Native American lunar lexicon, the “Planting Moon” or “Flower Moon”, denoting the time when, for overwintered plants, there is a seismic shift in balance: from spring’s leafy lush energy rush, to May days’ more power to the flower.
Indeed, it’s cheers and cheerio to the last of the bolting winter salads, and, out in the Entrance Field, to the spinach.

 
Adam lobbied hard last year for more spinach to fill the Hungry Gap, so we’ve held back on the following beetroot crop, and are still picking hard for the box scheme, and it’s still giving, generous plant that it is. Brandon, the newest and youngest member of the production team, has probably picked more of the stuff in the last month than he’s ever eaten. But everything has its limits: the stems are lengthening with the days, so flowers will surely follow: I think this full moon may ceremoniously mark their total eclipse on the Produce List.

 
The town of Alma, Arkansas, self-declared “Spinach Capital of the World”, has at its centre a bronze statue of Popeye the Sailor Man, in honour of his unparalleled contribution to the growth in popularity of this green goosefoot. And rightly so: there can be few characters, fictional or otherwise, who have so raised the profile of any particular vegetable to such an extent. Jack sparked considerable curiosity in climbing beans; Bugs Bunny unashamedly and unstintingly product-placed carrots; Bodger and Badger waxed lyrical of their love for mashed potatoes. Charlie Brown and friends pushed pumpkins at Hallowe’en; sports scientists’ latest performance enhancing’s dug beetroot; and recent advice from nutritionists has seen kale sales through the roof in the last year. But since the 1930s, we’ve all grown up knowing that spinach gives good guys the strength to overcome brute evil, with Olive Oil at the side.

 
It’s no mere comic fable either: the leaves are phenomenally rich in potassium, calcium, iron, sodium, carotene and folic acid, so can certainly “contribute to physical health and fitness as part of a balanced diet”, as a modern remake of a Popeye cartoon might be required to disclaim. For a naval officer, spinach in the tinned form makes an ideal nutrient source for long voyages with limited cooking fuel. Note also how sea beet, the mother of our perpetual spinach, grows most profusely in coastal areas, including on this island, where its wind-resistant glossy shields throw themselves gleefully around in the strong salty winds. Here, it has surely been utilised as a vegetable since the dawn of the human age, and certainly way before cultivated forms emerged in the first century AD.

 
Yet here and beyond lies confusion. The hardy, reliable perpetual spinach, or leaf beet, favoured by so many gardeners and growers for its ease of cultivation, is in the same family, but a totally different storm-kettle of fish to the mild, tender, baby leaves of “true spinach”, Spinacea oleracea, so beloved of chefs. The latter is a fussy plant, prone to bolting without regard to what the moon might be, and yellowing without regard to Adam’s box scheme requirements.

 
On the other hand, true spinach is soft, buttery, sweet and delicious raw, where leaf beet is a tad metallic and coarse, and certainly, in my view, better off cooked. So the debate rages back and forth between the cultivators and the cooks as to which is the “best” type to grow. In recent years, us organic growers have probably not helped matters by marketing both ubiquitously as “spinach”, causing crushed expectations in kitchens around the country. In mitigation, this is a time-honoured, cross-cultural conflation. I’ve talked to Bengali allotment gardeners to whom “saag” is spinach or, when it comes to it, any old green leaf that cooks down quickly. Carribeans sometimes toss the term “callalloo” about just as freely, bewildering those of us who have learnt from our “World In Your Kitchen” cook books that the term refers simply to leaf amaranth. And us Limeys are on no moral cliff-top here: for years we’ve lumped a cornucopia of wonderfully distinct edible flora into the sloppy serving of “greens”.

 
Perhaps then, we should not worry unduly about getting ourselves into a spinach spin, and make a virtue of the ambiguity. After all, both versions have a similar vitamin and mineral make-up, and I’ll bet Popeye would chuck either down his throat when called once again to leap to the defence of Olive Oil. Like yer mum said, just eat your greens. True story.


 

 

And Another Spring

“Daniels and Morgan [two Forest of Dean free miners] reminded me of the hill farmers up on the moor where I live, clinging to an economically marginal way of life, because they experience physically its dignity and tradition. It is their heritage and their right, and they, perhaps unconsciously, create a deep and ancient freedom”
Sara Maitland, Gossip From the Forest
Blessed are the land workers, for they inherit the earth. And nothing but the earth. In the UK we scrape a living, or just drift into debt, pursuing a vocation which, though vital, is rendered barely viable by international capital. Those who turn their hands to the garden, the field and the forest, are fuelled only by the sense that this isn’t the daftest thing we could be doing with our short spell on the planet; that, and the solidarity of those who share this sense.
This was brought home powerfully at the recent Land Workers’ Alliance Farm Walks in Devon. Chagfood CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is a five acre, horse-powered market garden on the edge of Dartmoor, whilst Shillingford Organics is a well-capitalised, forty-three acre holding employing eight people, bathed in the English Riviera sun. Both balance the books thanks to the voluntary time put in by CSA members and WWOOFers respectively. At OrganicLea, this gifting of time and effort is at the foundation and heart of what we do. The gardens at Hawkwood are largely managed by volunteers: their design and layout geared to this input. Thus, in town and country alike, the “action of a few thoughtful citizens” on the site of production as well as in the market place, keeps organic vegetable growers growing, just as the mega-farms and super-markets rely on their subsidies and tax breaks from the powers that be.
This was one of the points made, alongside that time-honoured point that the point is to change it, on Thursday, as the same LWA marked International Peasants Day [a day which itself marks the anniversary of the 1996 massacre of nineteen landless peasants in Brazil] with a demonstration outside the offices of the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). As demonstrations go, it was very much a pagan-festival-meets-Saturday-fruit-and-veg-market-meets-larger-than-life-scarecrows-dressed-as-government-ministers-meets-international-peasant-chants-and-flags sort of affair. Between the lines of the songs and speeches, you could spot a certain swelling.
Periodically, Springs break out. In recent times, we’ve had the Arab Spring, before that the Prague Spring of 1968, back to the “Springtime of the Peoples” revolutions of 1848. Often, the liberating openings of a Spring dries; always a Fall. But to say, as I’ve heard it said, “it ends badly” is like drawing a full stop on the seasons: there is no ending, happy or bad: we have to keep going.
An English Spring is an outpouring to behold, worth all the withering, false starts and split ends that precede and follow it. At Hawkwood, the whole scene runs green, a naïve backdrop to the riot of colour, from the fruit blossom, ancient bluebells and ended kale; all giving their everything to the love of worker bees. Asparagus and rhubarb grow before our eyes, drawn up by some higher calling. Here, and every elsewhere, we – land workers all – weed and mow, redefine the Old Ways; and reunite sweat and soil. That “deep and ancient freedom” rises again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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