Sometimes we seem to speak of the growing season as if it were like the football season: a defined term of set fixtures with a fixed start and end date. But plants’ life and death is not a matter of football: whilst we can comfortably generalise that plants stop growing once ground temperatures fail to score six celsius, each year is, like a snowflake, a person or a radicchio, unique. That said, I’m sure League games never used to start as early as this, the first weekends of August. But perhaps they did, and believing otherwise is just one of those signs of getting older, like thinking the police are getting younger, or that shop-bought tomatoes are tasting blander.

Of less irrelevance to a gardening column is the further point that one of the many stunning beauties of a diverse farm or garden is that, like Russian dolls, there are growing seasons within growing seasons, and beyond, like Ukrainian ones. Turn, turn, turn. At Hawkwood, it is summer: our twelve heritage varieties of tomatoes, which I swear blind are less bland than ever this year, are flooding out of the glasshouse; the french beans are in their pompe; and life is, at last, a peach. At the very same time, this week the air is smelling fairly autumnal, and the garlic’s long trail reached the winter stores.

In terms of land area, little garlic is our biggest vegetable this year, occupying the whole of the Old Kitchen Garden’s soul, or, to be precise, going twos-up on it with a spring undersowing of white clover and yellow trefoil. It’s a risky business this undersowing: timing is of the essence. Sow too early and the green manure will compete with, and therefore dwarf, the garlic; too late and it barely establishes, rendering the whole exercise somewhat pointless. Time it to perfection, and you’re a liar or a show-off. This year, nice, plump bulbs stood firm amongst exquisite drifts of flowering shamrocks, something the gardeners here kept drawing my attention to: in particular, how the latter made finding and harvesting the former a bloody nightmare. Romance might be on the ropes, then, in this corner of the garden, but in practical terms, the soil here now has a vital emerald carpet of protection going into the off-season. There’s a fulfilment in reaping the fruits of your labours, and not having to look back and contemplate the emptiness that follows.
Spread out all over the glasshouse for their final cure, the garlic looked and smelt glorious, but I was fearful we’d never manage to crowbar it all in to the cool safety of the Ambient House. This Thursday though, Aimee and I wedged the cloves in there tidily enough. Doing so turned out to be one of the great sensual gardening tasks: the reassuringly bone-dry, papery rub of the pale pungent skins a real contrast to the glossy, yielding ripeness that is August’s dominant meter: the gages, nectarines, damsons, courgettes, toms, peppers, raspberries, all looked slightly askance.

They’re still a rough, unready five o’clock shadow of the white garlic you see on stalls and shelves around the whole globe. The finishing touch before market is the topping, tailing, and stroking off the outer flakes of soiled epidermis, to call forth that lighter peel. This takes time rather than timing, and I’m sure on a big scale it’s mechanised in some way, but really, if you have to employ machines, for pity’s sake don’t give them all the best jobs. Garlic sorting becomes a warming, convivial indoor option on the rainy and blizzardy days to come.

Shedding skin: it’s not just for reptiles then. Buddhists speak of the “Onion Game”: the process of peeling away layer after layer of self: somewhere deep down is the egoless void, the Eternal Season. Geologists refer to “Onion Skin” weathering, the flaking off of the outer crusts of rocks. This is one of the first stages of the forming of soil, and with this the emergence of life herself, and the levelling of mountains into fertile plains. This too takes time, time that precious, slippery wisp of a thing which, however much the capitalists try to enclose and privatise every aspect of human and natural life, they seem unable to control and commodify the raw materials of.

Having just spent a timeful week’s break in France, I am touched again by their institution of “Appelation d’origin controlee”. This certification, covering Puy lentils, Nyons olives, Provencal lavender, Basque paprika and animal products as well as, most famously, wine, recognises specific time-honoured production processes as well as the associated origin of production. The origin is the terroir, which translates into English as both “region” and “soil”. In food terms, then, terroir refers to particular quality that the wedding of a particular soil, to a particular climate, to a particular cultivation method lend to the foods that arise from them. Terroir can’t be outsourced; trucked or flown in; continually expanded; or relocated to areas of cheaper labour. As such, it provides one alternative discourse to the homogenisation of the neoliberal market. A market whose peddlers in government are seeking to push into insane areas with the latest proposed trade agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Savour the flavour of our garlic, from the legume-enriched Palaeogene marine mudstone clay of the Upper Lea Valley: 2014 is truly a vintage year. Resist the TTIP. Fight back against the War On Terroir.

Sunshine And Pain

I entered into food politics when I began to get an inkling of the crashing waves of hurt involved in feeding people. Now, as a food producer, I believe more than ever that there can be no justification for the suffering inherent in factory farming. I also accept that, for farmer and farmed, there has to be some pain in this game, even in the most compassionate of growing systems.

The worcesterberry thicket fruited well this year, and for those of us sent from the scorching fields to scrape our arms along the thorns for the small claret-blooded berries, the scratches have only just mellowed into the sunburn. In fairness, we were warned: every Rosacece has its thorn. To look at, you wouldn’t imagine that cucumbers were an equally uncomfortable plant to work with. Yet they are, and work with them we must: so much pruning and training do the crawling gourds require. The bristly leaves and stems are a real irritant, especially in the already prickly heat of the close glasshouse. The cool, soothing fruit are the antidote and the reward of course, but I wonder, if I was working full-time in the cucumber houses of the Lea Valley rather than cultivating a couple of beds here, whether I might look on them more like Benjamin the donkey regards his tail in “Animal Farm”: “he would say that God had given him a tail to keep the flies off, but that he would sooner have had no tail and no flies.”

The gargantuan garlic haul happened gloriously last week. Our key crop this year, having their time in the Lime light of the Old Kitchen Garden rotation, eight thousand pale bulbs now repose, curing, in the glasshouse, exhaling potently. Like all the grand harvests – olives, apples, corn – the “bringing in” of the Kitchen Garden’s bulk crop is a beautiful, communal event, culminating in a splendid harvest display. But it doesn’t happen at the click of a mouse: many hands laboured to prise the withering stems out from the tangle of undersown clover and trefoil, poised amongst which were the sharp traps of young nettle seedlings. Those who work the land well know the blood, sweat and tears that translate into its pleasing produce; and the joy, laughter, conversation and dreams.

I’ve noticed that the more sensible people wear sleeves, gloves, hats, against nature’s more abrasive side. I generally don’t. I have a wasteful habit of sleepwalking through the day, and prickles serve to wake me up, remind me of the thrills and shrills of living. Further up the path, the lingering worcesterberry piercings and stinging nettle tattoos keep alive the pick of the week. The senses sometimes need a hand to match the intensity of activity. The plants we’ve coddled and cuddled and planted carefully in puddles are all grown up now, and in control: they give out leaf, stem and fruit as they see fit. We follow behind: picking, pruning, feigning to keep up. Every season is awe and fascination but in the temperate world, Summer, I think of you as my mountain top. The peak of the growing season, so much crescends on this. We are of mountains once again.

Sure as night follows day, at this moment of unbridled solar power we set to sowing and planting of the winter salads, and summer joy casts its own shadows of sadness. Jo, Clare and Sarah fought hard in defence of one of our volunteers, a refugee, who has been moved out to distant Devon: partial victory, a partial defeat. We should be glad that, alongside the work of growing people and plants, there are those amongst us willing and able to take on such battles beyond. Each little bit adds up, to the taking away of a world of pain.


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.




Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 36 other followers