Death, the Universe and Parsnips

“It is so hard/ And it’s cold here/ And I’m tired of taking orders
And I miss old Rockford town/ Up by the Wisconsin border
What I miss you won’t believe:
Shovellin’ snow, and rakin’ leaves”

               – Tom Waits, The Day After Tomorrow

You can say what you like about frittering away your hours messing about in the garden, but it’s nothing if not grounding. There aren’t many moments out there when you are not confronting the fundamentals: the earth; the web of life; the trophic pyramid; growth and decay; mortality and eternity.  All before lunch.

December is all about death and decay. The last of the summer – the skeleton towers of tomatoes and peppers – are put out of their misery and consigned to the Great Recycler Beneath the Sky – the compost heap, replaced with long dark blanks of sleeping soil, in a gothic glasshouse where time stands still. Outside, we mulch paths, we rake up leaves and yes, this year we have been shovelling snow. There is nothing more satisfying than grim satisfaction, and there are few things in life more grimly satisfying than these, THE winter gardening tasks to try before you die.

Snow has a habit of gently tittering at all our best endeavours, and food growing is no exception. Whilst picking outdoor salad was a write off, harvesting Jerusalem Artichokes was merely comically time consuming…and also a bit festive. Having located the plant stems protruding from the field of white, I had to go ahead raking off the worst of the drift, while Rod, Terry, Kate and Giovanni followed, turning the soil over to what looked like scattered slices of marzipanned Christmas Cake, making the artichokes appear as alarmingly nobbly sultanas.

Now is also the time for reflecting on the year passed. As climate change renders our already unpredictable island weather patterns even more chaotic, so every good, balanced growing season we experience requires us to bow deeper in gratitude and reverence: 2017 was one such – for us in South East England,  at least – whilst growers in the North West are packing up after another year of deluge-induced debt.

Last year our Hawkwood “product range” increased to 60 key crops. Of these, 33 saw increased (kg/m) yields this year; 17 saw drops in yield; 26 products (43%) recorded their best ever yields, amongst these 9 new crops. Importantly, most of our “flagship” crops – tomatoes, salad, cucumbers – showed increased and record yields, as did our “long term investments” of perennial fruit and vegetables. Box scheme members and stall customers may not feel they have seen more Hawkwood produce than previously: this is because everything else – including sales of veg bags; at street markets and to “ethical eateries” is growing steadily too. Reasons to be cheerful all round.

These facts and figures also don’t manage to capture some of the other triumphs of our market garden last year. How the site has been a teacher to increasing numbers of young people through our Alternative Educational Provision and Special Educational Needs programmes; and how our volunteer and traineeship programmes never cease to surprise and inspire all those involved.

 

Apprentice Grower Giovanni celebrates the Year of the Parsnip, in the shelter of the glasshouse

Every year at Hawkwood is flavoured by that season’s One Big Crop that is planted, in the “Open Field” system, in the Old Kitchen Garden. 2017 was our Year of the Parsnip. Whilst we have never avoided winter vegetables, the dormant season has always had a characteristically lean, austere feel about it. Not so this year, as every Tuesday and Friday the harvesters haul back crateloads of gleaming white chunky roots to the packing house. The cultivar is Halblange White: “Halblange” meaning “half-long”. So vegetable breeders in Germany have developed a stumpy-rooted specimen that makes growing this quintessentially English root crop on our otherwise impenetrable London clay, a viable option. In the Year of Brexit (as, perhaps unfortunately, it will be better remembered as than Year of the Parsnip) this is the kind of participative, transnational cooperation worth celebrating.

Happy New Year: for the merry, not the few.

 

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First, Last, Everything.

By a curious quirk of nomenclative determinism, the first organic grower I ever knew was called Jack First. He ran a shop which stocked the whole range of wholefoods, but was basically a front organisation for flogging his veg: any intelligence would have spotted that his muscular frame behind the till was that of a farm labourer not a retail assistant. It was on farms, rather than through screen or print, that he had come to his conclusions about agro-ecology. As a result, when called to explain organics, in his shop or at some event, his approach was refreshingly un-text book. I remember him opening a talk once by asking his audience to look out for tree leaves in their groceries, as these indicated the produce was raised close to hedgerows, and thus an indicator of environmental quality.

I often think back to this at this time of year, the time when we have to prise out the crispy yellow-brown fallen bodies from our harvest of salad leaves. Like a slug in a salad bag, these may well be “nature’s own organic certification symbol”, yet they are considered unwelcome. Perhaps the moment will come when they won’t be: as surely as the age we are living in become more unreal, surreal and virtual-real, so the thirst for the authentic grows. I think it’s this that interests people in OrganicLea, among many other initiatives, as much as ecology, community or flavour.

In the garden, we are beginning to face up to a new reality, the dwindling of days. In the glasshouse, each week another screen of green is raised to the ground: the unpromising stubs of winter salad plugs laid low, where just before rested the feet of the mighty cucumber vines. This week we planted the first of the broad beans in the Entrance Field; the Winter Work Plan of maintenance, repair and development has been drawn up and circulated; the Produce Review is underway. Daniel the Salad Starter has begun the cloaking of the salad beds in ghostly horticultural fleece. There is no going back. The October Revolution.

The October Open Day will feature, as is traditional, the World of Chillies workshop. This year a quartet of hotheads: Giovanni, Sara, Rod and myself, will showcase our living library of now over sixty cultivars. It’ll be a great event, but I’m looking to it with some trepidation as, it has to be said, the pepper plants are looking as terrible as I’ve ever seen them – all wan leaves and sooty moulds. In fact, all of the crops that have been with us through the summer now resemble how we feel: wrung out and older. This is no ornamental display – if it was, we’d be out on our ears by now – but it’s great when its looking good.

Matt, with beautiful chillies and their fading mother plants

Still, the chillies themselves, once picked from the dying limbs, are zinging bright and punchy. So in the Field, under the withering stems, the golden beetroot. Peel back the decaying leaves of chicory and there in your hands is a salmon sunset painted in salad. Even amongst all this rot, especially amongst it, here it is, burning bright: the real deal. Doubtless Jack would be the first to tell us that.

The Fall & The Wild

What would the world be, once bereft

Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,

O let them be left, wildness and wet;

Long live the weeds and the wildness yet

                Gerard Manley Hopkins, Inversnaid

 

September, we suck on the pips of the last-surrendering of the summer’s soft fruits. A few blackberries, shockingly early this year, are left in the shadiest spots for the observant to browse on. But gone, from London’s wet and wildness, are their main consumers: the peasant army who descend on the marshes and the strips and patches of “waste” with their plastic bags and Tupperware and wicker baskets. Over, the mass annual reiteration of the right to gather from what is left of the commons.

For its mass appeal the bramble harvest remains unrivalled, but foraging through the seasons is experiencing something of a renaissance in these parts. Our friend John the Poacher has been transformed from a marginal outlaw figure to a now celebrated wild food tour guide, and artisan enterprises are employing wild hops, ransoms and alexanders in their brews and menus. Mushroom hunters continue to pop up all over the place.

Similarly, here at Hawkwood the blackberries and damsons are merely the purple patch in a Constant Non-Gardeners’ Calendar. We boast of a twelve-acre market garden but, to come clean, only one third of it is cultivated in any meaningful sense. The dandelion’s share consists of verges, meadows, hedges, scrub and woodland: our Biodiversity Areas that we spend but a few hours a year maintaining.

Biodiversity, the philosophy goes, is important in its own right, the more so in our extincting times. On our courses we advise even those with the smallest garden space to keep a portion of it undisturbed, so as to live out the sort of “stewardship” role that the human species might – and in their brighter moments, do – undertake on this planet.  This is a matter of self-interest, not denial, as  encouraging the sustained existence of a complex, balanced ecosystem in the garden allows us to sit back and let the native fauna do so much of the work of pest management and nutrient cycling.

Moreover our Biodiversity Areas provide shelter and pollinators for our crops; help make the Nursery therapeutic for volunteers and visitors alike; preserve a space for activities like our Forest School to grow into; and, to meanderingly return to the original point, they provide a small but very satisfying harvest for very little input. Indeed, there are times when, bringing back a bushel of nettles or a boxful of rosehips to the packing station, it’s tempting to wonder whether we shouldn’t all just sod this gardening lark for a game of hunter-gatherers. Just then a thundering voice booms, “In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat thy bread!” That’s us told then.

Across the year someone from the Tuesday harvest team is sent across the fields to gather nettles, daffodils, fritillaries, cob nuts, crab apples, mistletoe. The development of our herbal tea range has broadened our horizons further: an additional ten  species of self-willed plants are clipped, dried, processed and married to our cultivated herbs, to bring such blends as Spring Clean and Cold & Flu Buster to our stalls.

Teresa, better known as Tree, our Herb Worker who bottom-lines this operation, is tasked this year with answering the formidable question How Much Is Enough? How much yarrow can we wrest from our wild without causing a population decline? This should then set limits on our tea production, or we commence propagating, planting, and weeding around yarrow plants in order to increase available yield. This is what we’ve already begun doing with nettles and damsons. So, in one small garden in one short space of time, history’s terribly great step from nomadic grazer to settled farmer is experienced.

Too much experience can be wearying: our wild foraging terrains allow us that time and a space to return to childlike innocence. A good garden should, I think, dance between innocence and experience: be both magical and solid. Long live the weeds and the winter crops yet.

 

 

 

The bramble patch that was cleared for OrganicLea’s first vegetable garden.

 

 

 

Parsnip Caring

What a summer it has been! If you read a past tense here, it’s not entirely unintentional: June and July’s heatwaves have condensed into an August that feels autumnal. Top volunteer, Terry, reckons its due to the latest large mass of ice in the Arctic melting, pushing warm air back to the Med. It’s common to hear such global interconnectedness termed “the butterfly effect”, but this term makes me a bit jumpy as at Hawkwood we are right now killing off many a moth and butterfly in the first stage of their life – caterpillars – as they’ve overtaken aphids to claim Pest No. 1 spot in the glasshouse.

The seasons have I suppose always been as much about archetypes as chronological facts. Climate change, the ultimate unlearnt lesson in the interconnectedness of all things, only makes this truth more so. But growing wise, these are great times we’re living in. The year has delivered us light, warmth and moisture in regular rhythmic updates, and the plants have done the rest. The fan-trained peaches have just been relieved of the fruit – two hundred or so per tree, thirty-five or so per branch – that has been almost a painful burden on them these last weeks; whilst those superpowers of the glasshouse, the tomatoes, decorate the place relentlessly in gaudy hot colours; and it all tastes great. Most of the year is spent recalling these days of bright, overexciting abundance as if some delirious utopian dream.

“A map of the world that doesn’t include utopia or parsnips isn’t worth glancing at”, quipped Oscar Wilde, although in the final draft I believe he left out the bit about parsnips. Whilst the whole world has embraced the lovable, huggable potato, it seems a peculiarly British thing to regard parsnips as their consistent counterparts in the roasting dish. Their sweet crunch more readily recalls special times: Sunday lunches and Christmas dinners, than the omnipresent, workaday spud. The sweetness is famously enhanced by ground frosts, so you can always tell a true parsnip fancier by the twinkle on their tongue the morning after the first frost of winter. But that first frost is something many of the world’s veg growers cannot even hope for, let alone rely on.

There are further reasons why parsnips have not spread their pale roots across the world food map. They are notoriously tricky blighters to grow, which is an unwise move if you’re trying to convince a load of slightly harassed peasants and gardeners to grow you. I mean, we all like a challenge, but weather and our own failings provide that in spades for all but the most brilliant or foolish of us. Their seed is shockingly short-lived, remaining viable for only a year, less if poorly stored. As with all root crops, there is little option but to sow direct, yet germination is horribly slow. Especially if you sow in the dead cold of February as recommended, to get the longest season and therefore the broadest shoulders out of these shrinking violets. Where seeds and seedlings dilly-dally, pests and weeds don’t. Therefore success rates can be quite low.

Even those plants that survive to maturity, if sown into a “closed” soil structure, run the risk of being stunted, highly forked or developing canker as the weather wettens. So the only sensible option is to have someone in the peaty Fens to grow them for you or, the option most of the world has opted for, forget they existed in the first place.

We’ve gone for the former option, until this year, the Old Kitchen Garden rotation shifted to the Apiaceae – Carrot – family. See above for some very good reasons why parsnips shouldn’t have been chosen as the key representatives of this crop group. There are a few counter-reasons put forward as to why they could, even should, be, and ultimately Oscar had the casting vote. If you’re the sort of person that gets that tongue-twinkle on the morning after the first frost of winter, then the idea of a whole field of them – a winter store for every one of the three hundred and twenty households on our box scheme – this is the Field of Dreams.

Last year we trialled the cultivar “Halblange White”, a very broad-shouldered, short and stubby variety, and the limited root penetration it demanded from our heavy clay soil seemed to do the trick. Into the Field of Dreams we sowed 17,000 seed over three weeks. This may sound like a lot, but this would amount to the seed production of 6.5 average plants. Nature, as I like to say when planting out potato or artichoke tubers, gives a far higher interest rate than any bank.

Of these, around 5,000 now live to tell the tale, and what a tale. A tale of emerging where others fail to; weathering the droughts and deluges; surviving pest attack and wees competition. In this way the Parsnip Field connects with the mood of the moment: everywhere you look around the garden now, perfection is lacking but there is everything to show for all the mud sweat and tears invested from Day One.

There’s no business like show business, and there’s no show business like growing. And over the next few weeks across the land, whether it’s the Open Garden, the Allotment Competition, the Country Fair, or the Festival, it’s action, not fine words, that will butter the parsnips. It’s Show Time.

East And Eden

“Still there’s a light I hold before me,
You’re the measure of my dreams”
The Pogues, Rainy Night In Soho

“There seems to be a lot about measurement at the moment, said Rod, one of this year’s crop of trainees, and now Salad Secretary, on the West Bank terrace this Friday. He was referring to more than his numerically-challenging duties as “Weigh Master”, which entails keeping a fast track of the recipe-versus-actual weights of the multitude of different salad leaves as they pour in to the weighing station. We had just celebrated Midsummers Day in the blazing sunshine, this year with a Ceilidh: a hoe-down, or downing of the hoes, to observe the high-light of the year.

With religious discipline, we always cease harvesting rhubarb and asparagus by Midsummers Eve. Perennial plants like these need time to grow, flourish and feed their roots, if they are not to be overworked and exhausted. The solstice provides a natural landmark for this.
Elsewhere in the garden, the longest day is a yardstick not a boundary. To be bunching up beetroot in the same week as the annual Guess the Weight [of the Marrow/ Wet Garlic] contest is very early for us, one welcome result of the annual weighing up and tweaking of the planting plans. Tomatoes are ripening on the vines at the same time: this is becoming the new normal. This week it’s been the clammy heat, not aphids or slugs, that has lost us sleep at nights. Pausing to see where we stand, after the roll and tumble of spring, I think we are facing the right direction: we have orientated ourselves.

It is a curious fact that orientation, “the ascertainment of one’s true position”, derives from the Latin “orient”, meaning East. To face the rising sun. Whilst our local Orient FC seem to now be heading for safety, at least off the pitch, on the ground it is one East Anglian woman, and her journeys East, that has done as much as anyone to ensure the survival of small-scale organic growing in this country.
Joy Larkcom took a sabbatical from journalism in 1976 to take her family into Europe, in a caravan, for a year of vegetable spotting. Eight years later she headed easter to China, Japan, Taiwan on an identical mission. In the 1980s she wrote, in gardening magazines, about the plants and techniques she encountered. Above all, it was her reporting on “exotic” salads – endive, French sorrel, purslane in Europe; mizuna, mustards, shungiku, mibuna, and all those others that are still listed as “Oriental Vegetables” in seed catalogues, from Asia – that intrigued and excited gardeners and organic growers alike. At the time organic growers were struggling to find alternatives to wholesaling, and the low returns that entailed. The concept of the “salad bag”, enlivened by the kind of little-known, diverse, interesting and yummy leaves that Joy had chronicled, unlocked the potential for direct, good-value sales. It was a product supermarkets couldn’t really do, a product so special people would seek it out. Without the combination of the salad bag, and the Box Scheme, with which it co-evolved, most organic growers, ourselves included, probably wouldn’t be here today.

The latest addition to our 100-plus varieties of salad leaves is an Eastern mystic via the Heritage Seed Library network. A kindly man arrived one day last year seeking out our seed of Climbing French Bean “Cherokee Trail of Tears” (see July 24, 2010), and gave us some seed of Tulsi, or Holy Basil, in return. He told us that the woman who gave him the seed, approaching him randomly in a Tooting street, told him the plant was sacred and neither it nor its seed should be sold for money. Thus, our plan is to include it in the salad bags with the edible flowers – which go in after the bag is weighed – making them, and the Tulsi an “extra free”. Hayley, one of the stars of the Friday team, returned from the gardens of the Bhaktivedanta Manor Krishna temple in Hertfordshire with tales of Tulsi growing throughout their glasshouses. As a herb, It seems to be regarded as a panaceae: anti-depressant, anti-ageing, anti-anti-immunity, who knows maybe even anti-austerity: but Hayley told me “they don’t seem to use it much, they mainly pray to it”.

Holy Basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum: On Your Knees Now.

This all makes perfect sense. I’ve often thought of gardening as akin to prayer: we spend much of our time on our knees, orientating ourselves, mutter an occasional Ode to Joy, sometimes measuring our dreams.

 

Land of Hope and Dreams

Great bodies of water have passed under the Lea Bridge since lines last lapped onto this blog page. Some troubled, some tides of comfort. Still we garden, we re-create. As Tomas Remiarz, the permaculture teacher-activist whose life and work forms part of the rich rhizosphere at OrganicLea, put it last year: “The conditions change, but the task remains the same”.

That task – the reawakening of community and the transplanting of it back into natural substrate, continues, at the slight rate of our oak trees, even as the salads and asparagus now grow before our eyes. It’s been a good start to the growing season: April was suspiciously warm and dry, allowing us easy access to the land for clearing and weeding. Just as drought impended, the pendulum swung and May’s welcome rainfall inched the needed moisture back in to the clay.

This weather pattern has been kind to the garden as a whole, then, and the Spring Field in particular. The Spring Field is named not for its workability in that eponymous season, but rather, for the gurgling influence of what clinical agronomists would term poor drainage (and also for a little place down the river that has served as a spring board for many OrganicLea folk). This makes our decision to place our latest growing development, the Demo Farm, there, all the more deliciously risky. The idea is to provide a comparative area where the emphasis is on mechanisation rather than human power. But tractors, being heavy, can be detrimental to wet soils. Danny, Theo and Ximena – the Spring Field team, can now look over sweet rows of beetroot on beds of decent tilth, with relatively few headaches and delays en route.

Just next door is the Old Kitchen Garden, with its Ten Year Cycle. This year is Year of the Parsnips. They said we couldn’t grow root crops on this heavy ground and, after a couple of unhappy attempts with carrots, we grudgingly conceded. But last year’s trials of the squat, stumpy-rooted Halblange White cultivar of parsnips showed promise. And anyway, Gary, Vi and I love roasted parsnips. So caution is now somewhere downwind, whilst we complete the sowing of 17,000 pasrnip seeds this week.

I suppose from the outset, this project has been a bit of a stab in the dark with a garden fork. There was little apparent appetite for localised food production, or trend for cooperative organisation, when we started out, but we planted up, set out our stalls and set off in hope. As Gary Younge wrote after last Thursday’s election night: “Hope, when given the encouragement and space, can be a force more poptent then despair. The leap of faith it demands, in imagining a future that does not yet exist…necessitates risk”.

Every season, every week, the community market garden goes forward with new hope, new risks. With an alliance of the young, the veteran, the people-who-haven’t-done-this-sort-of-thing before, the marginal; and with a bit of good weather, here we grow.

Near Wild Haven

“Come all you at home with freedom,

Whatever the land that gave you birth,

There’s room for you, root and branch,

As long as you love the English earth”

– Maggie Holland, A Place Called England

It’s July already! The season has seemed a muddled blur of weather and temperature. Yet the dandelion clock is never slow, and often the plants are less confused than we are. Here at Hawkwood, everything about us sings “Summertime”, from the swelling tree fruit to the blushing tomatoes, the stretching beans to the bolting rocket.

This year’s mild winter and damp summer has made it another great year for molluscs, and I can only wish courage and fortitude visit those new gardeners confronting the grim reality of a full onslaught of slugs for the first time. I’m often asked how to deal with them and, whilst I can suggest plenty of measures that will make marginal differences, under fierce interogation I usually break down and admit that there are few quick fixes in organic gardening, only slow and steady solutions.Snail-like, some might say. The Zapatastas of Mexico in fact revers the snail and “Lento, Pero Avanzo” is  key maxim. There is much we can learn from these people, and  there is at least something to be learned from even the most infuriating of pests.

Snail as guerilla icon, Zapatista mural

Snail as guerilla icon, Zapatista mural

So, it’s rare to see things happening right before your eyes. But the arrival of ladybirds in their droves – or whatever the collective noun for ladybirds might be – to feast on blackfly in the glasshouse here is has become one such event. Another is the Case of the Disappearing Aphid: this May, one entire bed of lettuce lost a literal infestation of peach-potato aphid overnight (quite what they think they’re doing eating lettuce, and not just peaches and potatoes as advertised, in the first place is something I intend to take up with someone upstairs at the next available opportunity). I can only put this down to the number of hoverfly larvae that were apparent on the leaves in the days prior, and this in turn I can only put down to the amount of coriander flowering in the adjacent bed. Coriander, probably the best hoverfly attractant in the country, according to Garden Organic.

Hoverfly larvae were, in this case, the most visible of predator species. But the “systems approach” to pest management entails a broad insurance policy, of providing food, drink and shelter for a wide range of species. Even those gardens and allotments that are not consciously following this approach will be encouraging biodiversity through basic elements such as ponds, hedges, compost heaps, flowering plants and untidy – or, less perjoratively – “naturalistic” patches. In so doing, we ensure that even the London sprawl is not made concrete desert, but a diverse patchwork of safe havens for creatures great and small: more friendly, in fact, than many of the more monocultural expanses of our isle, be they upland grazing or lowland prairie.

Ladybird and larvae on bean blackfly, in the glasshouse July 2016

Ladybird and larvae on bean blackfly, in the glasshouse July 2016

These animals don’t necessarily care whether a plant they associate with is “native” or not, as Coriander, that Eastern delight, proves. Our native flora – having only had since the Ice Age to go forth and multiply – is relatively meagre in numbers, which is why Brits have been such (sometimes violently) exuberant plant collectors, stocking our landscape with imports. Here at Hawkwood, for example, we grow over three hundred species of fruit, vegetables and herbs, and I can count on my grubby hands those which are considered “indigenous”. The UK is the world’s leader in apple cultivation, breeding over 2,000 cultivars, but we have Kazakstan to thank for the creation of the species, Malus domestica. Last week’s plantings were Lettuce, which came over here from Asia Minor via the Mediterranean; and from the Americas, Sweetcorn and Climbing French Beans. The specific varieties of the latter two being “Aztec Rainbow” and “Kew Blue”, both heritage cultivars – unregistered, illegal to sell, outcasts from the enclosures of the seed industry.

In the book Wild Swans by Jung Chang, the author tells how going fishing represents, in some Chinese cultures, a symbolic act: a gesture of disaffection with social affairs. For the British, the garden is often held to represent something similar; a withdrawal from “the world”. George McKay’s book, Radical Gardening, presents a very different narrative, more in line with OrganicLea’s long-held view of urban plots as social places. Places were we meet others: other organisms, other people, other cultures; and where we meet ourselves, our own nature. And meeting places are rarely end points. They are bridges, stepping stones, somewhere to move on from, bases from which we can transcend barriers and overcome obstacles.

Perhaps the meeting point for the two conflicting concepts of the garden – garden as retreat and garden as catalyst – would be that of the garden as refuge. Over the last month, after Brexit and its fallout, and the fallout from its fallout, the therapeutic value of Hawkwood as a space within a worried wider world has once more been keenly felt.

In the garden, whoever and whatever you are – human, animal, plant – refugees are welcome.