The Year Of The Blossom

They’re calling it “The Year Of The Blossom”, in hyperbolic fashion typical of the media makers. To be fair though, if anything on this earth has proven itself worthy of headline-grabbing hyperbole, it has to be the Spring Show. This April, the perfect match of dry warm days and cold nights has given us living bouquets both immaculate and long-lived. This in turn has meant that, for example, rather than cherry, pear and apple succeeding each other in a riotous relay, they are all out together, a blooming whole.

Theo and Nina with this moment's flowers.  Photograph: Martin Slavin

Theo and Nina with this moment’s flowers. Photo: Martin Slavin

It’s made me think about the Hanami – Japan’s “blossom festivals”. The population, having followed the sakura-zensen, or blossom forecasts, for weeks, flock to local cherry trees to picnic and party under their erupting canopies. My home county of Hertfordshire was once noted for its orchards of huge cherry standards of which the indigenous cultivars “Early Rivers” and “Archduke” we have at Hawkwood are a fluttering whispered echo. And I wonder if, had the Hanami custom appeared in the Home Counties as a result of some highly improbable nineteenth century cultural exchange, would these trees have been grubbed up so sharply in a sacrifice at the altar of Economic Margins, but perhaps this is fanciful. In any case, whilst our public holidays honour Banks not Blossom, Melvyn, one of our new Fruit & Vine Trainees, tells me that “Blossom Tours” of cider apples and perry pears out West are flourishing; and surely these are only the most modern manifestation of what we human have always done since the Dawn of Orchards: that is, hung around in them at the best of times.

Yet just as oranges, or indeed perry pears, are not the only fruit (and thank goodness). so fruit are not the only flowers. The site here is now awash horizontally as well as vertically, with the bright yellow swan songs of the winter brassicas. To say nothing of the colour kaleidoscope of our intentionally planted flowers – the blue borage, old gold calendula and tricolour pansies; or the unintentional drifts of weeds which we delight at in a rather conflicted way.

What nature gives with one hand, it often takes with the other. This colour crescendo is directly proportionate to the dulling of some of salad leaves: the chicories, red mustards and kale are being steadily drained of the vibrant tone and sweet notes lent them by cold snaps. Two of three Tom’s Diner restaurants we supply pulled their salad orders last week as the mix has become visually dominated by greens.

Edible pansy enters the salad bag, 24 April. Photo: Martin Slavin

Edible pansy enters the salad bag, 24 April. Photo: Martin Slavin

It’s unlikely that the upcoming general election will be dominated by Greens, though the colour is the perfect backdrop to most landscapes – cultural, political and physical – all of which we are, broadly and minutely, trying to effect. For example, the resurgence of edible flowers here should go some way to providing a dash of definition to our salads, that bring in much needed green stuff to keep us afloat; our bouquets of edible, and non-edible flowers, if bought, will see a tiny drop in demand for pesticide-soaked displays flown in from seized African lands; and they may start conversations about the price of beauty, the nature of beauty, the beauty of nature. All fitting tributes to the Year Of The Blossom.

The Perennial Issue

At the close of Wednesday, Gary strode into the glasshouse, after an afternoon spent fixing the irrigation on the Hardening Bay, and exclaimed, “this glasshouse is starting to look like it’s meant to”. This summed up the mood with precision. There is a base, minimalist comfort in seeing the stretches of staging stripped to bare sharp sand, like a deconstructed Zen Garden; a sense of space that comes when the climbers are raised to the ground, the winter leaves cut back to within an inch of soil life, the beans and garlic overwintering but barely emerged. But greenhouses are made to be green. Made to be, but not built so: the greening is the creation of the gardeners and plants here, re-embarked on every year. A patient, hard, tender process; small steps forwards and backwards, and in a great leap, we’re here.   The balance has been tipped decisively: after the steady weeks of sowing seeds, and this week’s first episode of Potting Up the World of Chillies, there is now more area on the benches occupied by seedlings than by desert. All the beds, too, are alive: the green manures – phacelia, mustard, clovers – rising tall and floating into flower; the once-poorly endives and rockets pushing out new leaves as fast as our hands can keep pulling them.   These are the days of Lady Bird Spotting, as we will these fierce and pretty predators to appear in the protected growing space, just as the booming aphid population begins to cause plant health problems. With a yelp of joy I spotted a procession of the dragon-like ladybird larvae emerging from the dead, dead wood of an old sunflower stem. Witnessing the principles of a “systems approach” to natural pest management manifested, first hand, doesn’t often happen: for one, wildlife tends to shake off our surveillance before carrying out its business; for another, the same wildlife “doesn’t always read the books”, as Jonny once remarked.

Honeybee on Gage Blossom, Outside Hawkwood Glasshouse, 11 April 02015 Photo: Martin Sla

Honeybee on Gage Blossom, Outside Hawkwood Glasshouse, 11 April 02015 Photo: Martin Slavin

Even the garden outside is starting to look not too shabby. The gage flowers have succeeded the peach blossoms to perfection – they, too, must have got the memo this time – and the Rhubarb, Three Cornered Leek, Ice Plant, Chives and Fennel are full of colour and vigour. All of these plants are perennials, and already being harvested twice weekly, well before the first flush of weeds or the planting out of our annual crops. April brings to sharp focus the importance, for body and soul, of combining annuals and perennials in the garden. This is a theme that has emerged with the latest crop of City & Guilds Level Two graduands, as we reach the finale of the academic horticultural calendar.   And this week, we finally, after much caution, introduce perennial plantings into our inner realm, the glasshouse: kiwis, clematis, chow chow, figs, lemon grass, lemon and licorice, are being brought in as “specimen exotics”. They will hopefully soften the firm functionality of the new seating area, transforming it from “conservatory” to “Kiwi Corridor” as Jen, our “in-house designer” is dubbing it. And they’ll provide a living structure, a skeleton of our protected garden that otherwise all but vanishes, come winter time. The picked bones of a huge pulsing organism that is just now bursting into being.

Blackthorn Winter & Damson Spring

This week, we’ll be planting damson trees, one of them in the name of our son, Blake, now five months old.

 
Our main fruit areas at Hawkwood: the Vineyard, Orchard, Cherry Bank, Raspberry Row, Quince Orchard, Entrance Field Espaliers and Mediterranean Fans: are all established, but need all the care and netting we can spare them if they are to progress to cropping well for us. For that reason, the once-touted notion of veg and fruit steadily bleeding into each other, spiralling in to a polycultural paradise, remains in its infancy. But last year, yields of feral fruit were as impressive as many of our cultivated kinds, and we’re accordingly developing the foraging potential of our extensive zones.

 
Damsons and cherry plums are at the rough, tough end of the stone fruit family, and should tolerate, better than most, being left to their own devices in the scrubby waste land we’ve upcycled into our wildlife corridor. Indeed, damsons were favoured plants for inclusion in hedgerows and orchards in Shropshire and Kent. Only, curiously, in the other great damson growing county, Westmorland, is this custom reversed: damsons are planted, free-standing and spaced in prime production locations, and sheltered, around the town of Appleby, by apple windbreaks.

 
We know that damsons barely feature in growing and cooking beyond Britain, yet the lineage of the fruit is shrouded in mystery. Botanically it was named Prunus damasccena as it was believed to have originated in the antique town of Damascus in what is now Syria. But this doesn’t necessarily prove anything: Cape Gooseberries are, like Paddington, Peruvian; if Capsicum chinense are from China then so am I; and our London Plane is, botanically speaking, Platanus x hispanica: maybe its not a Londoner. The Romans or the Crusaders are variously said to have brought back the small dark plum from the Middle East, yet archaeological excavations show it was enjoyed by people in the Alps 4000 years ago, as well as by York’s diaspora of marauding Vikings. It may well be that damsons are in fact native, like their cousin Prunus spinosa, the blackthorn, a plant most celebrated for sloe fruits of gin fame. Perhaps, like “England’s mountains green” in Blake’s Jerusalem, the claiming of a biblical connection serves to sanctify that which might otherwise be belittled.

 
The difficulty in nailing down the damascena lies in the sheer abundance and diversity of sloes, bullaces and other wild plums that populate the gardens, hedges and woodland edges of this island: species, varieties and cultivars have crossed and backcrossed over so many generations that we now barely know who’s who anymore. But we do know that this provides us with the annual gifts of iconic early spring flower, and a deep, wide, resilient gene pool that should ensure these feral stone fruit survive longer than humans do.

 
A couple of weeks ago, the white marzipan froth of the Lea Valley’s sloe flowers burst forth with the first brave notes of Spring warmth. In folklore, and more often than not in our material world, this heralds the “blackthorn winter”, a bitter cold spell before the true Spring flows. This year has been no exception, the northerly winds blowing us back a season. But our peaches and apricots will open up soon, then the plums, then pears then apples, the whole blooming roll call, and winter will surrender, save for its last gasp spasms of late frosts. These can visit as late as the end of May in these parts, wreaking ruin for tender vegetables and hardy fruit crops alike.

 
So in many ways the growing season seems stalled and short, though in childhood summer seemed a never-ending flow. I have a sense that the wisdom of a garden lover has something to do with managing to unify these apparently opposing realities. And that the expression of this wisdom is to eat fruit, and plant fruit trees: for now, and for ever.

Another Season Is Possible

Standing astride two seasons. Two worlds. Never before and never again will the difference between our protected growing space and our al fresco areas be so fully stark. Not until the next time the winter light is thrown widest. Under the glass glorious glass we slice at the tall rocket, cress, Texsel greens: all soft and verdant, and look no further for our winter salad mix: the official Salad Terrace still suspended in winter, hard and bare. Only the Lambs’ Lettuce there resembles something that’s not terminally ill (organic writer & researcher Pauline Pears once wrote that this plant “will grow on ice bergs”, a titanic claim but one I have yet to have grounds to challenge). But what is not dead will grow stronger with the spring. The spring, unimaginably close at hand…
…We smelt it and felt it on the terrace on Friday. The southerly wind of change was charged with long-lost plant perfumes from the nearaway farby. Quite by chance we timed it to perfection: myself, Marlene, Roya and Vince were completing the last leg of the winter fruit pruning & mulching marathon on the first sighting of spring. Just south of us, Gary and team kept at another of the ongoing “big winter projects”, the salad bed renovation. Meanwhile Sandra and Pierre performed a definitively spring-like task, that of pruning back the dead stems of the re-emerging herbaceous perennials. Standing astride the seasons.
The said overhaul of raised beds on the West Bank merely notches up the latest model in an area that has hosted the largest range of beds in Chingford outside of the Furnitureland. The 2015 Winter/ Spring selection are constructed of shining aluminium panels, looking, as Aimee observed, somewhat Space Age next to what has become the classic urban community garden construction – the veg bed boarded by reclaimed scaffold boards. Similar-but-different concrete boards lie awaiting their retrofit; whilst this year saw us abandon our pleasing-yet-ultimately-impractical efforts at homegrown edging, both the “dead hedge” and woven willow versions. These have been replaced by keyhole beds unshuttered, demarcated by either stepping stones or hopping logs. Also unshuttered are examples of the simplest and most ancient of raised bed methods: those Long Mounds where we  ritualistically buried the rhubarb crowns, on the terrace heights.
Finally, we come full circle to where we stand: the final fruit to be treated are the worcesterberries, raised in between two retaining dry stone walls of stacked concrete rubble, the latter by-product of opening up the ground in the glasshouse. These beds are not the prettiest nor the most stable, and there’s no evidence yet of their providing a specific snake habitat – one of their original design justifications. But they’ve held up reasonably well for the last five years. And I like them, they remind me of the Cuban Organiponicos.

 

For those unfamiliar with the tale of “Cuba’s Green revolution”, here goes something: In 1989, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost its key trading partner. Coupled with the ongoing US blockade on exports to the country, many commodities became desperately scarce overnight, and the “Special period” began. One feature of this was a government drive to encourage and facilitate citizens to grow more vegetables locally, as one response to food and oil shortages. In Havana, organic market gardens rose first from the rubble of high-input hydroponic facilities: the original Organiponicos. With compost in vogue and the soil rising to meet it, the people, in the photos I’ve seen, grabbed the nearest things to hand: cement tiles, building rubble: pieces of the decaying modern to scaffold the return to paradise.

 

Few would deny that the Cuban system, or even its attempts to grow a low carbon food system, are imperfect. Fewer can deny that its social development indicators since the 1959 revolution are impressive: in relative terms it spends more on education than any other state; and its health care is universal and free, meaning it ranks above the USA when it comes to key health stats like infant mortality and life expectancy. It is a “Third World country with First World welfare”. Yet the winds of change blow: having pursued an alternative, self-reliant “path to development” in the face of almighty hostility from its neighbouring superpower for the best part of sixty years, Cuba is now attempting the fine balancing act of withdrawing some state control whilst still pursuing social welfare and equality. Straddling the Worlds.

 

The venerable Leon Rosselson sang, “Cuba’s not a place…It’s an idea in the mind/ it’s a fragment of far seeing/ It’s the hope we keep alive in the corner of our being”. In the mind of the guerrilla gardener and the barefoot horticulturalist, Cuba’s organiponicos, and other food growing efforts, from street level to farm scale, are woven into a story that is more about dignity and possibility than it is about ideology. It’s a story heartening and necessary as we stand on the precipice and wonder what to do, now, with the garden, with the climate, with the modern decay. I like our raised beds.

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.