Potato Dreaming

I have a fond memory, a memory I fondle like a childhood, of sowing tomato seeds in a glasshouse whilst it snowed outside. We haven’t got any toms in yet, which is a sore point I won’t pick at, but on Monday I arrived, having cycled up the River Lea against a northerly blizzard, to find Clare’s gardening class setting out potatoes to chit.

You feel slightly foolish doing it: it feels like an act of faith rather than experience: in fact it’s both.

The weather – not the occasional pretty snow, but the relentless gloom and damp, is getting me down, so let’s turn to potatoes. At one point in my life, I thought I’d never grow them again: too much of a ‘farmers’ crop’: cheap and cheerful, economically viable only if you work in fields and tractors, not with gardens and trowels. But now, with twelve acres…well, they won’t keep us in jobs, but they will vigorously break up the ground in the fresh field, and suppress opportunist weeds. So, spuds have returned, and it’s a wonderful world.

This year we have Pentland Javelin as a disease resistant first early; Milva as the second early, which has triumphed in organic taste and yield tests; and Arran Victory, an old (1918) blue-skinned late maincrop from the great Isle of Arran stable. They chit now, and soon they will look outstanding with their tall broad leaves, dainty yellow-beaked flowers, and their cool firm tubers drawn from the earth like nuggets of gold. Except for the blue ones.

There is a pleasure to be had from growing, harvesting, eating potatoes that feels almost primordial, which is deceptive given that on this island we’ve only cultivated them with any enthusiasm for the last couple of centuries or so.

There’s something very, very primordial about algae and moss though: they are the pioneers in the conversion of water and rock to soil, the very foundation of life. Truly awesome, but sometimes you want to slow down even that slow process for a bit, like when they are starting to nibble away at the 1/2 acre of glasshouse  you’ve just inherited.

My Top Tip for moss and algae removal from glasshouses is to hold out for a really miserable, chilling wet winter’s day, when the only sensible place to be is inside the glasshouse, then borrow a pressure washer and spray it around until you’re quite shivering from the ‘great outdoors’ experience. Then console yourself with the thought that what you’re doing is not so much an act of faith as one of denial: ultimately these simple organisms will take the glasshouse, ‘paving’ the way for scrubby succession. Better enjoy those potato moments while we still can.

Hard Play

It has been a bitter, sun-scarce winter: fortunately there’s been plenty of physical graft here to keep the circulation pumping. Somewhere amidst all the shovelling, trenching, digging, posting and lifting I’ve developed a nagging muscle strain. I’m not sure if it’s  a bicep or tricep, as it’s never been conspicuous enough to be positively identified. Whichever, it meant that this week I was made to assume the unsung ‘holding’ role whilst Annie and Little Ru (one of two Rus at Hawkwood, an above average demographic) had the pain/pleasure of driving ‘rustic’ poles three foot into the solid clay, the last post in a long hard sweet chestnut journey.

It began with an innocent enquiry to Adrian Leaman at Wholewoods Environmental Arts. Wholewoods – Adrian and his erstwhile sidekick Kath – have done with wood what OrganicLea have done with vegetables: that is, taken wood, woodlands and related issues (sustainable building, timber, tools) back into the desert of London with determination, flair and a little lunacy. By the time of the conversation, they had felled a little bit of London and pulled it into the Ashdown Forest, from where they run courses and events that reconnect people and trees.

At OrganicLea we’ve spent years helping reconnect people and food, by disconnecting, in various ways, from the destructive industrial system of food production and distribution. But much of a garden’s ‘hard landscape’ is dependent on equally destructive industrial processes, such as tree plantations, wood treating and cement making. With this in mind, I asked Adrian if he could suggest a source of local, sustainably produced hardwood for fence posts for the St. Pauli garden in Hackney.

The next thing I know, I’m in darkest Sussex sawing down trees in our ‘Adopt-a-Coppice’. It’s a profoundly simple scheme whereby we manage a portion of woodland in return for its product. So the chestnut poles have been sawn, pulled up a muddy slope, bundled in and out of a van, pointed and shaved, and now driven into the entrance field, all by our own fair hands, where they will fulfil their purpose of:

a)      Supporting espaliered fruit trees;

b)      Supporting a wire mesh fence in the event of deer or even rabbits proving a problem for vegetable cultivation on the field.

After all that, you begin to have a relationship with these odd bits of wood stuck in the ground. They promise to stay true and I have promised to adorn them with pear blossom. Mind, you can never be sure how relationships are going to pan out.

First Fruit

On the one hand, spring comes silently, like snow. Bulbs begin to peer over the parapet and buds seem slightly plumper, but there’s no visible growth in the garden, even under glass. The end of winter is played in slow motion.

On the other hand, the birds are going bananas.

February is not many peoples’ favourite month. Maybe I see it differently because it contains my birthday, or maybe it’s because February is, on a good day, the last chance to experience the heart-aching winter light, and to see it more, teased out with the lengthening days.

Friday was the first “Fruity Friday”: from now on, every Friday here at Hawkwood will be devoted to work around fruit. After the flailing, mowing and slashing of bramble to make way for the beginnings of the vineyard, I leant on the scythe and looked out over wooded Yardley Hill, drinking the range of understated hues displayed by naked trees.

The vineyard is in a good spot. It is in “zone 2” of the site, further away from base camp (the tool shed and kitchen) than the vegetables which require more regular attention. Marko, the viticulturalist, reckons that it might even be the warmest spot on the site: it’s more sheltered than most , whilst still being open. He’s noticed that the deer – with whom we hope to strike an entente cordial with regard to which plants they eat – sit just down the slope, in what is to be the “traditional orchard” for late season apples.

These are long-term projects: it’ll be five years before we get a decent crop off either vines or apple trees: they are as twinkles in our eyes. The promise of fruit for this year came in an unpromising brown package at the end of the day: fifty autumn raspberry canes: small, weedy, muddied and snoozing, oblivious to the great expectations placed on them,  the anticipated first fruits of our labours.