I’m So Excited

I spent most of the weekend in and around the glasshouse. On Saturday morning I cut five budding daffodils and placed them in a Hackney Wine Vase (beer glass), and from the corner of my eye watched their smiles broaden to beaming grins as we met the spring equinox.

Our early tender friends – tomatoes, peppers, french beans – are germinating well and laying out their leaves with some confidence. The peas have taken everything winter has thrown at them and are coming up snow white flowers. the first salad seedlings – lettuce, beetroot, sorrel, wild rocket – are rooting through their containers into the gravel: time to get out there. Will have them hardening off next week, note to self:  sort out hardening bay irrigation. A big push on Tuesday saw us dig and build the first phase of raised beds on the West bank terrace, so we’re just about on schedule.

There is this nervous excitement everywhere, oozing up from the ground. Everything – buds, bulbs, birds, bees and bumbling gardeners – is striking out and taking risks. Butterflies in my stomach are sleepless. Yet the things I normally do to divert myself from becoming too obsessed with growing plants – Stevenage Borough FC, road cycling, relationships – all seem similarly teetering on the terrifying brink between glory and, well, glorious failure.

Once the butterflies can be seen fluttering in abundance about the fields here, they will no longer be in my tummy: the anticipation will be becoming actualised. The plants will be out of the nursery and growing up, or at least surviving, in the school of soil life, Mother Earth willing; and everything else in the garden, and in life, will unfold in its own sweet way: it’d be greedy to ask for much more than that.

Springs and Spirals

Nine years ago last month, a bunch of people came together, calling themselves OrganicLea, to “sustainably rehabilitate the food growing heritage of the Lea Valley”. Their first step on this mission were communal work days to clear overgrown plots at Hawkwood allotments, Chingford, for cultivation of organic fruit and vegetables, for themselves and the wider community.

I think back to those pioneering days now, as myself and Nicole, both of us present “at the birth”, once again embark on clearing an almost infinite swathe of tenacious bramble. Nine years on, we’ve inched five minutes up the road to this old council nursery site, in order to start again. Life does indeed go in spirals: gladly this is an upward and outward one.

in 2001, we started work with a few begged and borrowed tools, a small pot of cash raised from a benefit, on a site with no infrastructure but running water. We had a few enthusiastic friends and volunteers, and a world to win.

To paraphrase Durutti , the new world is [still] in our hearts, and it is growing this minute. The last decade has witnessed a surge of interest in organic and local food production, and community gardens have mushroomed. OrganicLea are now an established workers co-operative with staff and firm roots in this corner of East London, based on a range of past and present projects and activities, including the market stall and box scheme, and the renowned “scrumping project”. On the strength of all the above, the council offered us a ten year lease on Hawkwood Plant Nursery (or Hawkwood Nursery for Plants and People, to give it its full title), a 12 acre site bordering Epping Forest, with purpose-built glasshouses and buildings, in which to scale up local production of food, food plants, and training.

Given all this, it is suitably grounding to be back to bashing scrub. And even the bashing has an upward spiral to it: back in the day, not knowing or affording any better, we used loppers, secateurs and sickles; Nicole claims she even resorted to scissors to attack the great blackberry trunks! Today, we have equipment specifically engineered for the job: Sean loves the Irish slasher whilst I lean towards the Austrian scythe with the “Fux” bramble blade. Then we go in with the flail mower, and the roots are finally dug out with a mattock, which (as the rest of the world has known for some time)  makes relatively light work of such a task compared to the spade, which we and every other English gardener persisted in using at the start of this century.

So, as we approach the spring equinox and its brief perfect balance between light and dark, let’s drink to spirals: onwards and outwards.

You Say Tomato

We’ve made it.

The season has started. In one week, we have witnessed a fundamental change of gear and perspective, from the broad strokes of the climate and landscape, to tiny seeds sown into three centimetre modules. In one week we have a twenty-four metre propagation bench lined, wired and gravelled up, and sown with subtropical “fruiting vegetables”. Most importantly, we have embarked on the next chapter of the Kondine Red story.

The story begins with my grandad. Grandad Fred is one of the heroes in my life, someone who, in my own way, I’ve drawn much inspiration from: someone who is not afraid of holding unconventional views and sticking by them, and someone who loved to work on the land. For him, as for me, these two things came together at one point in his life: as a conscientious objector during the Second World War, he was put onto land service, and spent the war working in the fields of Essex.

During the war effort, tomatoes were regarded as an important vegetable crop in terms of nutritional value per area, so much so that they were grown on a field scale. Fred recalls spending days on end going up and down rows pinching out, and going to bed seeing tomato row after tomato row as he shut his eyelids. “The best times of my life”, he’d later say.

As my horticultural interest developed, I asked my grandad if he could remember which varieties of tomato he used to work with. “Kondine Red” he answered without hesitation: “[the farmer] said it was the only tomato that would grow well in the Essex soil”. By this time I was gardening in Hackney, not too far from ‘the Essex soil’, and I quite fancied the idea of growing ‘my Grandad’s tomato’ in our glasshouses.

So I flicked through a few seed catalogues without success. The ever-reliable Google Search found few references to Kondine Red, and these referred to a past scientific trial: no one was offering to sell me any. I visited the Heritage Seed Library, who coordinate the living seed bank of old and threatened vegetable varieties, but to no avail: even their thousands-strong database did not list this once important cultivar.

The last hope was the self-same Heritage Seed Library’s Annual Catalogue, where they not only list seeds available to members (a large gene pool of seed is now illegal to sell, so such schemes, and the gift economy, are the only guarantor of our rich vegetable biodiversity), but also host a  Seed Swap page, where members list what seeds they have spare, and which they’re searching for.

Not long after the Catalogue came out, I received a small package from one Del Marcangelo of Ruislip, containing two small batches of the legendary tomato seed. We’ve made it. According to Del, the variety originated in 1931: Mr. Cuthbert’s Guide to Growing Tomatoes (1953) declared it “a short-jointed variety and a heavy cropper. One of the best-known and most popular types”, whilst in 1962 Carters Tested Seeds Blue Book described it as “a prolific cropper of good quality fruit”. Yet by the end of the century Kondine had become, apparently, all but extinct. The world of vegetables is as fast-moving and fickle as any other, so it appears.

The seeds germinated, and by August we were cropping Grandad Fred’s conscientious love apple in our Springfield Garden. This would almost qualify as a horticultural fairy tale, but for one final twist: These ‘Dig For Victory’ heroes didn’t grow that well in our sub-Essex soil, and didn’t taste of much.

But such considerations can’t be allowed to get in the way of a good story: in the intervening years I’ve carried on growing Kondine Red and saving seed: the plant has adapted better to our soil now, and I do believe we’ve started to breed more flavour back into it: quite unprompted, a friend of mine who bought a number of tomato plants from us a couple of years ago voted KR as his number one for yield and flavour.

As I write, they are starting to stir in our hand-mixed seed compost, on our fresh gravel bench, in our brave new glasshouses. There is still a peace to be won. I have a feeling this will be their year.