High Summer

When, in 2003, we brought out our Fruits of the Forest report, proposing a local food scheme for the London Borough of Waltham Forest, it might have been filed, close to News From Nowhere, under “Local Interest/ Utopian Fiction”. Some time ago it was relocated to Non-Fiction, the space it vacated providing a brief resting point, on the same journey, for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Leadership Bid. I still have to pinch my sideshoots when I see the unfolding of food growing enterprises in the city: our campaneros at Forty Hall, Sutton Community Farm, Growing Communities’ Patchwork Farm, and closer to home, Brandon & Michael’s Cheney Row site; and our nascent Farm Start programme.

 
Commercially speaking, we’re all just scraping by, but that counts as a commercial success in a sector, indeed a global economy, where producers are squeezed to within an inch of their lives, sometimes beyond.
The real growth businesses are not to be found out in town gardens, but indoors, cultivating the illegal herb Cannabis sativa for vast informal markets here. The illegality of the many weed growers presents something of a barrier to cross-fertilisation with their struggling vegetable counterparts. I assume the majority of operations eschew ecological approaches such as mixed plantings and rotations; and have an unhealthy reliance on glow lamps and hydroponics. But, peering through the closed curtains, there are a couple of lessons we could learn from them:

 
Firstly, drugs often work. Our weekly fruit & veg stall outside the Hornbeam Centre justifies its existence on various grounds, but its financial viability is quite possibly as dependent on its proximity to over-the-counter strong caffeine inside the Centre’s café as many of its customers. When folk describe our salad as “addictive”, I regard it as a complement: perversely perhaps, when you consider the lengths drink & tobacco manufacturers have gone to, to deny such accusations about their products.

 
Second, herbs are, by definition, powerful. We’ve harnessed the power by including culinary herbs in our salad mix and restaurant menu; last year Aimee developed our herbal tea range, based on herbs we were cultivating, or were growing wild on site. The launch of this year’s “Nourishing Nettle” blend took place with a herb walk and tasting on our last Open Day, to be followed into the cockle-warming season by our Calming and Strengthening blends. “Obtain A Yield” runs the permaculture principle. Biodiversity should be regarded as a yield in its own right, but there is great satisfaction to be had from our biodiversity areas also giving us a valuable crop from a light forage. Culture and wildness can be closer allies than we are led to believe.

Tree and our "Nourishing Nettle" Tea. Photo: Martin Slavin

Tree and our “Nourishing Nettle” Tea. Photo: Martin Slavin

If you’ll allow me to class garlic as a vegetable rather than an herb – and millions wouldn’t, but now’s hardly the time to get into an argument about it – then the cultivated herbs we grow and crop most of are sorrel and basil. Broadleaved Sorrel, in taste and appearance is only one small step for humankind removed from the wild form that you might stumble or munch on, hopefully both, on any stroll across acid grassland anywhere in Northern Europe. Yet our seasonal panel of Level 2 graduands awarded it Winter Salad Leaf of the Year 2014, and runner-up in the summer category. with its sharp citric twang, a mixed salad bag without sorrel is like a G & T without lemon.

 
Basil’s cultivation may be as old as culture itself. Native to India and the Middle East, it continues to be considered holy in Hindu, Buddhist and Greek Orthodox traditions. Our packing warehouse doesn’t resemble a temple, but there is something transcendental about the incense of basil that pervades the air there on summer harvest days. High on herbs and hope: Paradise on Earth.

The Holy Herb of Hawkwood, August 2015. Photo: Martin Slavin

The Holy Herb of Hawkwood, August 2015. Photo: Martin Slavin

A Rare Vintage

“It is a curious fact that men shaped by poor soils, like vines in similar conditions, have a more stimulating, finer “flavour” than the members of rich soil communities” – Edward Hyams, Soil & Civilisation

The entrance to Hawkwood Nursery could be described as grand: you take a turning off Hawkwood Crescent, E4, and the shadow of the forest begins to darken the petering road. You pass through the plain grey gates and suddenly it opens up, the Entrance Field to the right, where rows of multi-hued vegetables rise up the hill in a kind of acknowledgement; to your left, the artichokes tower above you and the shrubbery at their backs. Ahead, the great glasshouse gleams and glitters.
It’s a curious fact, though somehow fitting, that to get in to the building you have to go round the back, whereupon your first impressions of impressiveness are immediately diminished as you come face-to-face with our compost heaps. You may pause to ask yourself which looks less inviting – the open pile of rotting vegetation, or the adjacent maturing mountains, covered as they are in tatty tarpaulin weighed down with car tyres. But all that’s gold doesn’t glitter: on garden tours I’ve announced that these are the most important part of the whole site, for this is where we grow our soil. And growing soil, more than growing plants, is the gardeners’ precious gift to the world.

Good plants come from good soil. A seedling is planted into one of our raised beds. May 2015 Photo: Martin Slavin

Good plants come from good soil. A seedling is planted into one of our raised beds. May 2015 Photo: Martin Slavin

In cooler times, turning our mountainous compost heaps provides a great opportunity to ponder such profundities – or perhaps not – for a big group of cheerful volunteers with pitch forks. Nowadays, when all hands are needed to plant and maintain the leagues of veg beds, it becomes a solitary task for one man and his tractor, who makes the most of this moment to ponder how our produce comes, not just from London bolder clay, but also from a rich unique blend of organic matter from a range of sacred sources. The neighbouring forest makes its contribution; as do the remains of the particular choice of crops we grow here; the weeds and wildflowers that happen to grow here; the shredded trees of parks and gardens in our vicinity; and the waste, or rather left-overs, from our vegebox scheme. In other words, the recipe for our growing media becomes progressively more peculiar to us, our way of doing things, our web of connections. This is the development of what the French call “terroir”. A slow, steady process, I think, as tractor shifts the hundredth bucketful of semi-decomposed plant material a few feet to the left.

The same people that gave us terroir also gave us vintage. Different years are, funnily enough, different, and a truly earthed society should embrace, even celebrate their different flavours. Up to a point.
Our totem early summer crop are strawberries. We are proud to grow terroir strawberries in an age when so much of this fruit are grown in bought-in compost from no-place, with a shelf life of one year. Similarly against the tide, we grow them out in the elements, and are proud to have, thus far, always had a decent show in time for Wimbledon. Unlike our players, they usually keep going into the final, but not this year. Neither this year, the craziness of “Peak Strawberry”, when they ripen faster than we can pick them, and we roam the streets pushing punnets on the unsuspecting. This year, I think we harvested as many fruit as ever, but mostly a quarter of the size. The lack of water in the soil at the critical time left them with good flavour but unswollen. I suppose we should have watered them, or accept that this was this year’s vintage: not a great year, but one with character. Short and sweet.

Just picked. 26 June 2015. Photo: Martin Slavin

Just picked. 26 June 2015. Photo: Martin Slavin

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.