Of Brassicas And Kings

June has been all sweat and dust. The rains passed over our heads, and the skies barely spat until the 20th, when the heavens opened, giving us veg growers at Forty Hall’s summer solstice celebration two good reasons to party hard. Our very soils – so longingly crafted into a rich stitchwork of life through seams of organic matter and careful cultivation – revert to dust or baked rock, primordial states. It’s hard to establish crops in these conditions, even with the wonderful warmth. The planting is slowed down and we have to speed up to redress the balance. When God evicted Adam and Eve from Eden with the memorable line, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat thy bread”, it wasn’t a mere quip: he meant it, man.

 
Don’t take this the wrong way though: these are great days on the community market garden, classic midsummer. It’s a buzz being part of a team that succeeds in clearing, weeding, forking over, mulching, levelling, planting out and covering a long bed of Black Kale, in time for tea, as we did on Wednesday. Perhaps it’s one of the ancient buzzes, that those of us who nowadays run half marathons or set off on epic journeys are out to recreate. Whatever, the tea tastes good afterward. Needing it gives it the flavour.

A few weeks ago on the radio I heard the Francophile reporter Graeme Fife reporting from the Transhumance in the Pyrenees. It’s the day in the year when the shepherds and goat farmers agree that the warmth has arrived, and begin, as one, their great summer migration from the deep valleys up up up the steep mountainside to the lush pastures in the clouds:

 
“When did you set out?” he asks one shepherd.
“Seven this morning”
“A long day, you must be tired”
“Toujours fatigue, jamais fatigue”.

 
Always tired, never tired. Having a baby this year has only accentuated that sensation of spending the lighter months feeling totally knackered and fully alive. Like Clare says, it’s because we don’t tire of it. Not the gentle breeze on our faces nor the spinning kaleidoscope of leaves; nor the cameraderie that comes with sowing seeds alongside someone; nor the exquisite produce that pours forth from our sweat and dust mixed with muck and magic. If you’re tired of London’s finest food, you’re tired of life.

 

 

Asparagus spears green and tender picked not a day ago; the unique salad bag with twenty plus varieties of leaf sprinkled with edible flower petals; broad beans popped from the pod and strawberries raised outdoors solely on soil and rainwater like so few are nowadays. You could say that though we’re poor we eat like kings, though this would be an understatement: our fayre is much richer than the rich’s. For, like peasants, gardeners and those who are on a level with their grower the world over, our solidaristic relationship with the land, its plants, animals and people, gives our simple vegetables a significance, a wholeness, that can neither be bought nor seized. A significance, a wholeness, the lack of which leaves a gnawing hunger in the gut, that can neither be named nor sated.
Glutinous and gnawed, they come at us for more, yet more, with their cuts, their austerity measures, their enclosures. They come on many fronts, but there are many ways to resist. Remembering that we have a wealth and power and dignity that cannot be taken is one way.

Namenia and Mizuna. Photo: Martin Slavin

Namenia and Mizuna. Photo: Martin Slavin

Last balmy Wednesday, in one of those accidental perfect circles, Reece and Martin began planting out the Black Kale “Nero di Milano” on the Entrance Field, at the precise moment that Ed, Grace, Jacqui and Nava started pulling up the skeleton frames of last year’s, to make way for the next course of the rotation. In the One Big Rotation, this week we start covering the Old Kitchen Garden in Cavallo Nero, Kohl Rabi, Winter Radish, for this is the Year of the Brassica, once only this decade. Brassicas, the Cabbage family, those vital, mineral-rich leafy greens grown and known the world over as “the medicine of the poor”. This is the year we get better.

Working last week in the Entrance Field. Photo: Martin Slavin

Working last week in the Entrance Field. Under the white mesh, the Black Kale. Photo: Martin Slavin

Plants In The Way

And they’re off! The garden has updated its status to “In Full Swing”. On the days our watering cans and compost bays are half empty, this means our beds lie a mess of winning weeds; when they’re half full, the crops advance to the foreground, brimming with vitality and the promise of imminent abundance: this is the best place to be.
For the last six weeks on Tuesdays and Fridays, salads, fresh herbs, rhubarb and asparagus have filled the crates that have filled the crater that is the Harvest Dispatch zone of the warehouse. The tomatoes have green fruits already; the squash have gone out, their crazy tendril-driven aventure launched; and red-ripe strawberries will arrive in a few more hours of pure bright sunlight. In the Old Kitchen Garden, it will be the Year of the Brassicas: Martin and I spent the last day of the last dry spell rotavating out strips for these in the clover/ trefoil/ nettle sward. It leaves it looking like a land of green mohicans, an effect not expected but one I’m quite pleased with. Punk never died: its DIY ethos has had a lasting impact on alternative culture, I don’t believe OrganicLea would have happened without it…
…Which would have made my days in May quite a bit less blustering but irrevocably less beautiful. At this time, running alongside the garden’s fulsome To Do List of sowing, potting up, planting out, earthing up, weed crisis management, not panicking and reassuring each other, we have our season of plant sales, which account for roughly one-third of our propagation work. It’s an extra burden to be lifted lightly, for there’s something magic about plant stalls. On a couple of Wednesday afternoons I’ve glimpsed a great huddle around the plant sales trolley, bubble-wrapped in the kind of hushed reverence normally reserved for new-born babies or priceless antiques. Loading the fragile pots of life onto our electric float for delivery into the heart of the borough, I feel like something akin to a horticultural Securicor Man. Like the veg that joins them, only more so, these plants have an extraordinary journey ahead of them: They will be dispersed across gardens, allotments, grow-bags in yards and window boxes on balconies; many will become a symbolic totem of summer, many will make the hard cityscape practically yield.

The Plant Stall, Hawkwood Open Day April 02015

The Plant Stall, Hawkwood Open Day April 02015. Photo: Martin Slavin

And here’s the thing: in our late capitalist society, for the most part people are no longer being asked to produce anything, but rather seek precarious employment and housing at the whim of an inflated, nebulous financial “industry”. Yet, contrary to what the architects and preachers of this system dictate, the peasant mode of production is not extinct, but experiencing a renaissance, as Jojo Tulloh, author of The Modern Peasant, outlined in the annual Spring Lecture at our last Open Day. In London today, as many people are involved in subsistence or small-scale food growing and preparation as ever: the Way Back to The Garden remains well trod.
Our little tomato plants are Way Markers. Bless them.

Graduating from the Nursery - tomato plants off to a good home, 31st May  02015

Graduating from the Nursery – tomato plants off to a good home, 31st May 02015. Photo: Martin Slavin

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.