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.

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 as 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.

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…



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