What Is To Be Done?

So sometimes, a song for the unsung; some days, the underdog has its day: Bradford trounce Chelsea in the Cup, or the anti-austerity movement win at the polls in Greece. In the ancient times on this island, Blue Moons were institutionalised in the great festivals: at May Day, Halloween, and January’s orchard-based Wassailings, the World was Turned Upside Down: men became women, women men; the rich gave to the poor and the Mob, fleetingly, ruled.

Relics of these traditions remain, and utopias are still on the map, though even in the levelled land of the community market garden, there are those that graft quietly and never perhaps get full recognition. Ian, for example, who fills a vital niche here as groundsman and greenkeeper; and Roger, who goes around repairing everything that hasn’t got roots on, from volunteers’ bicycles to the plant label machine. And then there’s our inanimate oracle, on whose metaphorical shoulders the daily workings of the garden rest.
What Is To Be Done? is the name of the battered old lever arch file in which the day’s tasks are scribed at the morning meeting, before being etched “in best” on the chalkboard in time for the official eleven o’clock start of the work day. For some time, the file was homeless, left to squat various nooks of the warehouse until, after one too many delayed meetings spent hunting for it, we gave it a permanent residency directly above one of the site’s grottiest spots, my In Tray. Time and again, the meeting’s flow has been stemmed with the announcement that What Is To Be Done?’s high street bank-style burglar-proof pen-on-a-string has been picked: a further disrespect to what should, by rights, be a hallowed tome.

Latterly, the status of the file, its title sticker peeling antiquely off its dusty binder, has had a slight upturn. For two years running, its reams of seasonal horticultural tasks have been shredded and reassembled to form a poem to summate, and mark the end of, the OrganicLea trainees’ year; and last week a small circle of us ritualistically emptied the contents of the 2014 folder on to the compost heap: out with the old, that it may live forever.
What Is To Be Done? takes its title, of course, from Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s eponymous 1902 pamphlet. He, in turn, named his work after an influential 1863 utopian novel by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. In between them, Leo Tolstoy penned a book of the same name. All we can conclude here is that it is a question that will keep being asked, much like “will it snow?”

I’ve been feeling a great nostalgia for snow and hard frosts lately, whetted by these nearly days of light frosts and slushy rain. Some of us dream of a White Christmas but gardeners aren’t too fussy so long as it happens at some point in that three-month period that traditionalists still insist on continuing to call “Winter”. A decent cold snap is said to knock back pests; shatter clay clods to a fine tilth; sweeten brassicas; usher in a better currant and rhubarb crop; hold off premature flowering; break the dormancy of some native tree and wildflower seed; and herald a hot summer. I believe in all of this, but more religiously still is the deeply-held superstition that, if my fingers are freezing at the start of February, for all the pain, in a mad messed-up world there is an uncrackable kernel of Truth: things are as they should be. Aimee and I ran out to twirl around in Thursday’s three-minute snow shower.

“Nothing but ditching and fencing” is how my grandfather describes his winter work on the land in the 1940s. At Hawkwood in winter 02015, it’s more ditching and mulching, and both activities bring up the ultimate forgotten heroes of the piece, Lumbricus terrestris, the common earthworm. For their role in building soil structure and fertility, they are truly the Gardeners’ Best Friend, though that title has, to add insult to injury, been bestowed upon their prettier predator, Robin Red Breast. As the season progresses, our Hawkwood Robins are getting friendlier and friendlier – with us, and each other, challenging the notion that the males are intensely territorial. Leave your post for a minute and they’re sitting atop your spade handle, chirruping sweetly, like a Yuletide card that seems fantastic.

The literalists say they’re driven purely by the urge for food and reproduction, whilst romantics think they may enjoy their music as much as we do. We’ll probably never know for sure, so the right theory to pick is surely the one that warms your cockles when you’re digging a wet trench on a cold day under a leaden sky. I reckon they sing for the unsung.

Back to the Future

The Hawkwood midwinter feast took place in the new conservatory – a space in the glasshouse set aside and being developed for species Homo sapiens. One revelation of the event was that Ed, one of the longest-standing of the team here, keeps a diary, which he abridged to recite an eloquent an account of the gardening year as any grafted. Arriving at September he mused, “I think all my life I’ve regretted the passing of summer”, giving voice to a wistfulness I well know. And though I realise it will disqualify me from that illustrious league of people who have few regrets in life, I mourn the passing of winter’s festive period with equal fervour.

As a child, not wishing to return to school was reason enough; this has been compounded by my subsequent outdoor life. The garden in January is bleak and austere, in dark contrast to Yule’s light, rest, warmth and indulgence. With the right choice of ornamental perennials, it is possible to grow a good looking winter garden, but vegetable beds are bound to look ragged and hungry at best, and sometimes downright apocalyptic. The best we can hope for is a perfect snowstorm to wrap the land in a white flag of truce. That hasn’t happened yet this year. But, as Gary, now our Food Production Worker, commented: “you never know, it might do next week – this time of year, anything can happen”.

Gary, Vi, Sarah and I inspected the site on our return last week, our feet tapping out a squelchy soundtrack. The odd rots are setting in to some of the salad crops, which in any case we’ve picked virtually bare, as we have the mighty kale plants. Relatively mild the days may be, but cold enough and short enough that nothing wants to get up and grow.

Yet even in these darkest of times there remain, as any Blockhead would maintain, Reasons to to be Cheerful. The Jerusalem Artichoke stems may be hollow shells of their summer selves, but underneath them lies a rich seam of ruby gems which we’ve been mining for weeks, the best they’ve ever done here by a long chalk. Just pushing up from the underworld are the garlic shoots. They are the snowdrops of the vegetable plot: pale drawn candles barely illuminating our way to the new dawn. In the old Kitchen Garden, the champagne rhubarb starts to flow as the New Years Eve fizz runs flat: the pink buds are beginning to shoot, more foolhardy than frosty hardy, but spirit-lifting all the same.

Things are emerging. It could be a great year. More than any other time of the year, in all the desolation January says, anything can happen.

New For November

Rob, Production Trainee, recently remarked on the notable change in rhythm now, compared to his start in the horticultural deep end of April. In the Long Play of the year, late October begins that drawn, chilled out final track after a sequence of banging tunes: a slow fade into the white noise of winter…
As far as the task list goes, there’s still plenty to be getting on with. The pressure’s off, except Harvest Tuesday continues to be, happily, frantic. We aim to finish all the Entrance Field plantings and amendments by Zapatista Day, 17th November. That’s eleven beds in four weeks, not unambitious at any time of year. The garlic and fava could be planted later, only from now on in the soil is on a one way trudge to sodden, so the sooner we sod off of it the better.
I love this time. Every veg bed gets its final weeding, whether they need it or not: it’s about grasping, at the death, last-gasp winners after trailing behind the horsetail, groundsel and couch all year. For all its renewal, Spring, with its rampant growth, never allows for this wiping of the slate. In this gardening respect at least, Hallowe’en’s status as the Celtic New Year seems to make sense and, lest we forget, the Festival of Remembrance.
Our Open Day at the end of October remembered the recent past of this growing season, with the hard-won fruits of squash and chillies on plentiful display, as the plants that gave of them fade fast. And a chance to glance back at the last – our first – five years at Hawkwood Community Plant Nursery, with the launch of the book, “Seedlings From The Smoke”, an “idiosyncratic narrative” of our time here, bringing in over one hundred people, and perhaps one or three curious ancestral spirits.
At the same time as savouring the last sweet fruits of the summer – the tomatoes are holding up well, thanks to the bouts of surprise warmth; the apples gone to market or cider vinegar, every one – we also enter the dark shrine of the Ambient House. The beetroot, “the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon” according to Tom Robbins, was brought in en masse from the Entrance Field last week, cleaned, separation of the quick and the dead, and laid to rest in the suspension of our “urban clamps”, for some future resurrection into the gilt light of the produce delivery crate.
I’m slightly disappointed with the beetroot this year. Human error set us back: the early sowings were recorded as done but never visible on this plane of earthly existence. Subsequently, we sowed dense, but this bid to slim down last year’s super fat beets went too far. Many of the roots have gotten to October, and in the all-important sports ball comparison stakes, are not much larger than a marble. This may be the right side of last year’s handball sized monstrosities, but a few crucial putts away from the ideal cricket/ golf ball park. Yet such mistakes are par for the course: every year a new journey down the Old Ways.
My latest personal new journey down old ways began in earnest on Monday night, returning from the OrganicLea AGM to the confirmation that my partner Hannah’s waters had broken, three days in advance of the Frosty Full Moon, and thus my paternity leave had begun, in ironic contrast to most of my gardening work, ahead of schedule, by a clear two weeks. I’ve always upheld the common sense tradition of long winter, as opposed to summer, breaks for growers, be these in the form of staycations or vegetable pilgrimages: this new arrival heralds an extraordinary journey in nurture and growth, that I trust will also reflect back on the gardens.
So, all may be soft and still on these pages until after Midwinter. Meanwhile, Gary, Aimee, Vi, Hannah guide the rest of the team through the slow fade and into the new year; into the white heat; the wonderland of the winter garden.

Chilli This Autumn

In Italy, there are the sagre: local fairs celebrating a particular food item: for instance, the Sagra Della Cipolla (onions) in Cannara, or the Fiesta del Radicchio Rossa di Treviso, honouring that town’s specific variety of chicory. Whilst a whole calendar of such food festivals may, to the English mind, come across as geeky and maybe not even in a good way, there is also something endearing and hopeful in this reverence for the holy communion between humans and plants. At Hawkwood, we try to sprinkle a little of that spirit about: every Wednesday morning, Caroline and her team get busy in the kitchen. They prepare the weekly volunteer lunch, built around a particular, seasonal item plucked from the garden: this week Sarpo Mira potatoes; last week scrumped apples, next week our kaleidoscope of beetroots.

Apple Day has become a national institution, a mere couple of decades after the charity Common Ground launched it in a ditch effort to halt the receding of our pome richness. So when, this Saturday, OrganicLea set up its fruit stall and juice press at the Vestry House Museum in Walthamstow, we were part of a celebration echoing through hundreds of halls across the country.

If you keep your mince pies peeled, you’ll stumble across other noble endeavours: Garlic Festivals and Potato Days , alongside the more enduring and generalist Harvest Festivals at churches, to where Leslie has taken representatives of our newly stocked pumpkin store for blessing. Curiously enough though, in recent years the crop that has fired the public imagination and launched an industry around public gatherings in its honour, is that little foreign devil, the chilli pepper.

One such event is the Festival of Heat at Spitalfields City Farm, where, a couple of weeks ago, Hawkwood’s “World of Chillies” arrived on tour. It sat smouldering amidst a gazillion spicey sauce stalls, and thousands peered in on our world map bedecked with regional chillies, lovingly laid out by the travelling company of Iva, Rob, Martin, Elizabeth, Ximena, Hannah, Ru K and myself.

The collection has come on a bit since 2009, its embryonic year. It was then, in Hawkwood’s first growing season since rising from the composted ashes of its municipal glory days, that the self-same Ru K and I realised our very seasonal plant sales operation left in its wake a summer desert on the benches in the Glasshouse. For us, containerised chilli plants offered, counter-intuitively, the prospect of oases. We tried out a few exotics like “Chocolate Habanero” and “Bhut Jolokia” amongst the “industry standard” cultivars led by the dependable “Ring Of Fire”. Little did we dream, though, that five years hence, our journey, via the Bennington Chilli Festival and moments of epiphany in Mexico, would arrive at forty three cultivars covering every continent in the world except Antarctica, incorporating four Capsicum species; the hottest chilli in the world (“Carolilna Reaper”); the biggest chilli in the world (“Big Jim”); the most pornographic chilli in the world (“Peter Pepper”) and a rainbow of nations in between.

More importantly than all the record breaking is that the World of Chillies is becoming a library not just of plants, but of stories, as increasingly people heed the call to bring back from their travels peppers that have prominence in gardens, kitchens and markets along the way. So this year’s additions include the lovely round Croatian “Lobrasan” and bulleted “Italliano Picante” carried back by Aimee from her winter work-break in Andalucia: both further proof that mixed heritage is as much a feature of the chilli world as our own. Aimee is also behind the introduction of “Kudz”, harvested on the PEDAL ride to Palestine (see September 2, 2014) and has done more than anyone to grow the collection in every way, as a key propagator and carer for the plants.

Adam gave us “Cabe Rawih” and “Cabe Merah Keriting”, from indigenous attendees of last year’s quarternal gathering of Via Campesina, the international peasants’ union, in Indonesia;  and from Italian farmers resisting a high speed rail line the “Soverato”, which boasts its own sagra, the Festival del Pepperoncini a Soverato. Kate returned from South Africa with “Telica” and “Long Slim Cayenne”; Jeannie a rouge C. chinense from Tanzania, which the stall holder, under repeated questioning from her

as to what sort of chilli it was, insisted was a “chill-ie”. Fortunately, the World Development Movement sponsored a speaking tour to the UK by Tanzanian farmer Janet Marrow in April, who was able to identify it more precisely and prosaically as “Pili Pili Mbuzi”. Then there are the “Pimientos de Padron”, which Jess was going to get from Spain, didn’t manage to, and then appeared weirdly as seedlings in the Glasshouse in February, no one claiming responsibility. After a month of mystery we worked out that Maria’s Adults with Learning Difficulties class were the fairy Godfathers. Our World is starting to become magical.

As the tragic beauty of autumn is set to engulf us, I wonder that magic plays as much a part in sagre and festivals as any other force. Knowing scarcity chases abundance, offerings are held to the spirits, in gratitude and in the faith that what is about to disappear can be made to reappear. This is the weave beneath the ancient harvest celebrations and wassailings, that in turn foreshadow the cosmetically lighter modern incarnations such as Chilli Festivals. At Hawkwood though, the chillies are a blaze of glory in the Glasshouse, fruits combusting in every shade of yellow orange red that’s ever been bled. There’s no need, for now, for ritual or spells. Fire works.

Kale of Scotland

Despite threats to the contrary, we didn’t plant kale for summer harvesting this year. This may indeed represent a trick missed: the super-nutritious green stuff is in high demand all year round now. Quite a change of fortune for the hardy old crop that a couple of decades ago was most popular amongst those who’d never tried it; those who had disparraged it as “animal fodder”. Well, looks like the animals had a point after all.

The point I have is that the apperance and disappearance of kale, like leeks, in the packhouse, is as sure a reassuring marker of the seasons’ switching tide as the turning and returning of leaves in trees. And the seasons are having a confusing enough time as it is lately, without our sticking the boot in with kale in summertime.

Last week the big moment slipped by almost unnoticed: Vi, Kate and Iva came quietly from the Entrance Field with crates frilled with the debut pickings of our Scottish kales “Pentland Brig” and “Westland Winter”, for the following day’s vegebags. There was the added poignancy, of course, that the next day would be Scotland’s big moment: the referendum on national independence. The week of the equinox, and everything in the balance.

Across the spectrum, it’s been agreed that the plebiscite opened up the gates to that rare and precious thing: a spell of genuine popular engagement in politics, as ordinary people began to dig out and excercise their latent power. It’s the same mood that becomes heightened to tangibility in times of revolt and insurrection: the “orgasms of history”, as Yves Frmion memorably termed them.

Yet in the aftermath of the narrow night of No, what is striking is the psychological sparring, between the desire for change, and the fear of it. For me that tussle climaxes, more than at any other time, at the autumn equinox. Whilst all the seasons have their splendid flavours, like many I start to flinch at the thought of the effort required to brace against the cold to come.

Kale can help here: its high Vitamin K content helps thicken the blood, and its anti-bacterial properties keep the cold germs at bay. It’s a cockle-warming consolation as we face up to a future without cucumber.

O Kale of Scotland, we see your like again…


About The Size Of It

We seem to be coming to an end: leaves are turning to glow in the cucumber cool of morning, and at the day’s close that pure gold light passes through us, heading for the other side. Even looking back, it is hard to get the measure of summer. It comes in all sorts of sizes: short and long, mid and high, and, following the latter, at Hawkwood there is Tall Summer, when the Helianthus in and around the Entrance Field and Old Kitchen Garden reach their British City Limits, as the gardeners’ shadows (“the best fertiliser”, according to one Chinese proverb) lengthen across the beds.

Stature is an important consideration in a garden, even, or perhaps especially, productive ones. Trees, shrubs and hedges provide this for us, though mostly at the margins. Amongst the crops themselves, beyond the big top of trained climbers inside the hothouse, reaching for the sky has been a bit of a stretch for us. We’ve always grown (or rather tried, with varying but limited degrees of success, to grow) dwarf French beans outside: I consider the assembly and disassembly of all those strings and poles too much of a faff. Perhaps that’s a bit rich coming from someone who insists that we make all our own seed and potting compost from scratch, but with food prices so low, growers should embrace richness wherever they find it.

For a while, sweetcorn were the jolly giants of the field veg, but they’ve been grounded after 2012’s Squirrelgate fiasco. Since then, we have turned to those that turn to the sun.

The Helianthus in question are H. annuus, the sunflower; and H. tuberosus, or Jerusalem artichoke. The former are dappled about the Asteraceae beds, and only now bursting into flower: rising suns as the one in the sky wanes. Children sometimes remind us that this is one of the most cheerful sights, period. I’ve been equally cheered this year by Jerusalem Drive, our new row of artichokes that lines the approach road to the Nursery’s glasshouse and buildings, as if to a promised land.

They haven’t put out their mini-sunflower blooms yet, some years they never do. But they are taller even than their radiant ornamental cousins. A must for any ornamental vegetable garden, Jerusalems are a winter vegetable supreme, taken in moderation. Eaten to excess, or by the particularly prone, they inflict a flatulence verging on painful: you really can have too much of a good thing. People get wind of their windy reputation, so perhaps they will always be a delicious but marginal vegetable in polite society.

This probably explains the woeful lack of varietal choice. “Fuseau” is what everyone grows, as its tubers are large and smooth-skinned. But truth be told it’s a bit watery and we grow the red-skinned “Gerard”, whose stubby shape and firmer texture make them, I reckon, preferable but not more profitable. And they’re your only readily available options.

The planning of Jeruslaem Drive last winter presented an opportunity for exploring more obscure cultivars, something we generally have a good track record of. Helianthus tuberosus is native to North America, whose Native population cultivated it with gusto. You’ll find a colourful array of diverse looking artichoke roots on US websites such as that of Seed Savers International, but getting hold of exciting propositions like “Passumpsic” – a strain reputedly cultivated by the Abenaki people before Columbus and his followers brought a virtual stop to indigenous plant developments – proved to be unfeasible.

And quite right too. The acquiring of heritage varieties with a rich precious story should perhaps be something governed by the wide web of human relationships, not by the ability to pay in plastic over the internet. Jen, our Employment & Enterprise Worker, gladly agreed to add “artichoke mule” to her list of responsibilities when travelling love miles to the States at Christmas, but returned similarly empty-handed.

But it can’t end this way. Aimee, this year’s apprentice, had stopped off at Berlin’s Tempelhof community gardens during the 2012 PEDAL tour, a cycle ride from London to Palestine, sharing seeds and solidarity all the way. The gardens are set on West Berlin’s abandoned airport, and so have, at the very least, a symbolic vitality, as we try to combat climate change (towards which inappropriate air travel is a disproportionate contributor) through local food growing. She returned a year later, and recalls two Turkish, or perhaps Kurdish women, stuffing purple tubers into her hands. These were brought back and completely forgotten about, allowed to shrivel to within an inch of their lives until remembered like a distant dream and resuscitated in wet coir.

The Level 2 course planted out the four sunchoke “seed” in February, at the very entrance of Jerusalem Drive, and now the mauve stems tower above the Gerards, and pretty much everything else, at 3.9 metres, or 15’4” in old money. They’re every bit the distinct, enchanting new variety we were craving. More than that: they seem, in all their glory, to be touched by some weird magic.

If there’s a moral to this story, it’s mainly this: a good artichoke is hard to find. And also that, sometimes, not always but often, if you fix the intention sure enough, the universe provides. Often, from another direction than the one you were looking in. The winter’s evenings of wishing on a screen, and Jen’s mission impossible, maybe helped bring into being our new sky-tickling artichoke variety, not from the Wild West, but much, much closer to home, via a compassionate Journey to the East. All along, what I was searching for was squirreled away at the bottom of Aimee’s bag, and strangely enough this is simply beautiful thought.

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.


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