Magic and Lab Lab Beans

It never rains but it pours, it never shines but it scorches. For gardeners, perfect weather, like perfect soil, is something of a utopia, an ideal scenario by which to gauge the prevailing limitations. Perhaps we could be less phlegmatic and more content with what the skies send our way, but honestly, three weeks of drought: whatever happened to April Showers? They were a fine tradition, introduced to help young transplants put out healthy growth whilst their roots settle in. I don’t understand why they’ve been scrapped this year: we’ve missed them.

That said, the dry heat provided the perfect backdrop for our “I Never Knew You Could Grow That Here!” skill share at Hawkwood Last week. Forty people gathered, from London and beyond, to exchange information and experience on cultivating unusual sub-tropical vegetables in the UK. It was an inspiring day, with Robbie, a grower for OrganicLea’s Cropshare scheme, stealing the show by turning up with his vigorous chow chow plant.

As a project aiming to reconnect people and food, growing, and facilitating the growing, of produce special to the different ethnic communities in East London, has to be something of a priority. The annoying beauty of such produce is not merely that it is adapted to a different climatic zone, but that  seed is not widely available commercially, rather passed on through the informal and gift economies of the various communities. After the workshop though, Clare decided to use the gardening connections she has built up with London Bangladeshis, and scored some kudu and lab lab seed. On Thursday they were duly sowed, and we’ll try to squeeze them into tha glasshouse beds, by way of a trial, this year.

This entails a revision of the 2010 Planting Plan, something that is generally discouraged. The Rotations and Planting Plans have been agreed by consensus at a quorate  OrganicLea co-op Hawkwood Project Meeting, after being handed up to me, etched on birch bark, by the goddess Hel, from the old well at the top of the site which drops into the underworld, at dusk on the winter solstice.

Our community gardening work attempts to thoughtfully and compassionately apply the natural and social sciences, but a bit of magic always helps. We’ll certainly need it if we’re going to be growing Asian vegetables in dark damp England.

Growing Out Of The Nursery

We’ve had a glorious, warm, bright couple of weeks, so the plants are really moving now. Six weeks ago, they were as unsteady toddlers, and I the concerned parent/ guardian, coaxing and encouraging them onto their two feet. Now they are running away, and I struggle to keep up with them, and their incessantly spiralling demands for food, drink, space. ‘Can’t wait until they leave the nursery nest and start making their own way, in our ground once conditions are right,or other peoples’ once the main plant stalls kick off in May.

The first generation of salad beds on the west Bank terrace are built and planted up with sorrel, beetroot leaf, wild rocket, “Red Oakleaf” lettuce and green manures. We’ve pressed the first early potatoes into the mound that the swale displaced, at the top of the Entrance Field, the highest point of the site. You plant spuds “eyes up”, so from up there they can watch over the blue sea of the Lea Valley reservoirs that meet the misty grey rocks of London Town jutting and leaning back into the vanishing point.

Roger disappeared into a crevice amongst those crags on Tuesday with the first of our plant deliveries: beans and corn to the wonderful Somerford Grove gardening club in Dalston, a stones’ throw from where the Angry Brigade once seethed, dreamed and plotted.

In the glasshouse beds the young cucumbers “Marketmore” and melons “Hales Best Jumbo” have been planted, each with  their own climbing frame of polypropylene string, which they can run up to their hearts’ content in gleeful pursuit of the big blue sky. Well, until they get to six feet anyway, then we’ll have to pinch out their tips.  Even libertarian guardians have to draw the line somewhere.

Good Times

“An old man is setting a row of broad beans. So small a row, so shakily, dibbing a hole for each by jiggling a twig in the ground until it has made a space large enough. His allotment runs to the narrow verge between the cliff of chalk and the sunk road; right on the edge of an arm of the cove where the lorries enter. Balanced up there he sets his broad beans, while many shovels eat away at the ground below him. In three months they have taken this huge bite out of the hill: it will take three months from now for his beans just to be in bloom. Once he was a ploughman driving a team over a hill. Now, shakily on this little remnant of allotment, he sets a few beans. Because it is that time of year: it is time to sow beans.”  – Adrian Bell, Men Of The Fields, 1936

I like this passage. It can be interpreted at various levels. At one level it resonates with the maxim “if I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant a tree today”.

This Easter (or Eostre) weekend, I was back at the family home. when I grew up, my old man reserved the back garden for fruit and vegetable production, and most meals, cooked by my mum, featured some produce from it. No great fanfare, it was just what you did.

I never took much interest, but for me as for most people I meet who are part of the food growing renaissance, there is this direct ancestral connection with the act of cultivation, and the concurrent sense of returning. Though my stepfather would be glad to know that he is by no means solely responsible for my life of literally mucking around, at the expense of a respectable career.

For many years he has ben threatening to give up raising vegetables, as it becomes harder work, yet each year he seems unable to resist at least setting a few rows of beans, as he has this year. On Sunday, in the face of  a threat to turf over the old veg patch, I emptied a couple of compost bins onto it, and my five-year-old niece planted pumpkin seed into the mounds, whilst her grandfather watched.

I returned to Hawkwood to continue the epic task of potting up five hundred asparagus plants into 2′ pots and bags. The asparagus bed awaits the meticulous preparation of perennial weed clearance, digging and raising. But you have to allow asparagus a year or two to establish before you can start cropping. So I thought it would be a grand idea to “steal a march” by growing them on for a season in containers. Four days into the job, I am probably not alone in questioning my judgement on this one. But questionable choices like this are a feature of gardening, as the garden simultaneously exists in many times: in the garden, time stands still, yet is of the essence. Plant a tree,  bean, or asparagus plant now. Good times.

Transglobal Underground

Last week we scrubbed up the warehouse into a “rustic” lecture theatre, to host a visit from Capital Growth groups and University College London’s Development Planning Unit , who now run a module on Urban  (UA – being the vogue term for all forms of urban food growing).

Student presentations of various case studies reveal how UA, in the Two-Thirds World/ Global South (or whichever moniker you choose to give to what we once called the underdeveloped nations) as well as here in Blighty, are increasingly regarding UA not as an unsightly, embarrassing symptom of backwardness to be controlled, but rather a feature of the landscape to be accepted. Even, where food security issues are really starting to bite, to be encouraged.

The point was made that we would benefit from a kind of counter-colonial knowledge transfer of more developed UA models and techniques.  It is in a similar spirit that permaculturalists and organic gardeners seek to reverse the dominant approach to the land – that of dominating it – by instead attempting to listen to nature and work with ecological processes and systems.

Our half-acre of glasshouse may be a fairly hard, synthetic micro-climate, but we have begun the work of inviting the outside environment back in, by sowing nectar-rich flowering strips, potting up nettle planters, and installing a promenade of ladybird and lacewing hotels now touting for trade, all in a bid to strike a balance between aphid pests and their insect predators.

Amidst all the worries and denials about the environmental and social crises crashing around us, it is the realisation that we are, after all, capable of forming mutually beneficial relationships with each other, and with the natural world, that can cause you to sigh out loud. It’s the same sigh I’ve let out this week on seeing the blackthorn blossom burst, and will be repeated with the flowering of the peaches, apples, squash…

Sighs, like yawns, have a certain infectious quality.