Short of Water

The beetroot, salads, parsley and basil continue to crop apace, as do now the outdoor french beans “Borlotto di Fuoco”, and the tomatoes, from seed sown in the chilly depths of early March. The cucumbers, after their woodlice-induced false start, have been going to market for the last couple of weeks and are of notably firmer texture and stronger flavour – some might even say cucumbery – than the watery supermarket specimens.

One of the many reasons that small-scale organic produce is often regarded as tasting better is because its flesh is not drowned in water in an attempt to add weight to increase slim profit margins. It’s not that irrigation rates are set by organic standards: it’s just a spin-off of having in place a grower for whom sustainability, ecology and quality are the raisons d’etre. People are often surprised at how little we water at Hawkwood. But, provided the soil is given a thorough soaking once a week (and provided you have a medium to heavy soil with good levels of organic matter) it seems this is usually enough and, as the old adage goes, “enough is as good as a feast”. Water too much and you might spoil the plant, or at least the flavour.

That said, ecology is so much fine balances on swings and roundabouts. I am delighted, nay smug, to report the squash and beans swell lusciously despite no watering since they were planted out, bar the measly 95 millimetres the heavens have tossed their way in the last three months. But I must also confess that that unwelcome guest of hot dry glasshouses, the red spider mite, is starting to make a meal of the tasty cucumbers, and the delicious “Berner Rose” tomatoes are yet to make an appearance at our outlets due to the disfiguring blossom end rot. The latter is an ugly symptom of calcium deficiency, which in turn is a symptom of water shortage, UK soils being virtually never short of calcium.

We control water in the glasshouse, so can begin to remedy these: not so the first early potatoes, left Spartan-like to fend for themselves high and dry at the top of the Entrance Field. the foliage is dying back yet the tubers stunted by lack of moisture. they’ll be fiddly and time-consuming to harvest, likewise to prepare , but I’ll bet all the sea round China they’re as tasty as any spud on a London plate next week.

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On Inspection

OrganicLea’s Hawkwood Nursery had its first organic inspection a couple of weeks ago. Subject to a little bit of extra paperwork, we are pleased to announce that, as of this time next year, Hawkwood produce will be classed as “in conversion to organic”, and the following year can be labelled as Organic. Our actual techniques will change very little – as our name suggests, we have always promoted and practiced organic gardening. We are WFA affiliated, sell within 6 miles of our site and our gates are open for people to come and have a look at how we attempt to produce food by working with nature. So why go to the bother and expense of getting regularly inspected by the Soil Association?

Well, for one thing, organic certification is an independent guarantee to the customer, and as we are beginning to feed people who may not have a long-term relationship with us, for example people who happen to grab a bite at Table 7 restaurant in Chingford, this may be important.  Secondly, our partners in East Anglia, Hughes Organics, is certified organic, and it is good for us to be on a “level playing field” with them, and fully understand the trials and triumphs of having to pass annual inspection and scrutiny.

Third, and relatedly, we become producer members of the Soil Association, who remain an important national voice for sanity in the food system. Important but not imperfect: small growers and community retailers like us, who ultimately are our only hope of really tackling the social-environmental crises facing us, are the pioneers and backbone of the organic movement, but have not always been well served by the leadership in their desire to court big players such as supermarkets and large landowners. OrganicLea are now, amongst other things, fully paid up members of a network of organic producers, on whom any hope for a “future-proof” food system rests heavily. This is what we have to remind ourselves when we next have to send off for permission to use dried seaweed!

The previous day, OrganicLea members Clare and Brian took on the role of inspectors – of Mrs. Begum’s allotment plot in Leyton. Mrs. B is one of our decentralised Cropshare growers who markets her surplus produce through our box scheme and stall, growing in accordance with Wholesome Food Association principles.

Then there are the really valuable “inspections” by volunteers and visitors returning after an absence from Hawkwood. Working day by day, you notice the seasons steadily ringing the changes, but not the “time lapse” perspective of sporadic encounters. When others are moved to remark how on how good the Entrance Field is looking, or how the cucumbers have grown, it’s a Wages Day.

Of course, self-inspection is paramount but easily overlooked in the hustle and bustle of daily industry. I try to walk the site and commune with the flora and fauna once a week. This week I can report that the peppers and celery are well on their way. It feels like we’ve passed most inspections with the flying colours of high summer.

To The Beet

When I first came (back) to growing, there were some vegetables I took to immediately, with an instinctive passion borne of the superb experience of eating, and harvesting, them. Parsnips were one such leading light. Then there were the slow burners, crops I didn’t get too excited about but which steadily wormed their way into my affections, by dint of being dependable stand-bys with hidden qualities. There are few more loyal side-kicks in the vegetable garden than beetroot.

Beta vulgaris is, in its wild state, a coastal plant, so hard-wired for survival in tough conditions. When OrganicLea first started out nine years ago on reclaimed allotments down the road from Hawkwood Nursery, I remember sowing beet seed, in a similar summer dry spell to that we have now,  into the cracks between hard bricks of sun-baked clay, more in hope than expectation that some red root would find sustenance in such “soil”. But thrive they did, proving themselves to be a good choice for any first year of organic production, whilst soil fertility and structure are just beginning to be built up.

So it was that beets were the first seedlings to go out into the newly tilled Entrance Field, and soon these unsung heroes will have their day as the first harvest to be pulled off it. We’ll start though by pulling the ornamental cultivar “Bulls Blood”, which we’ve so far been cropping as a salad leaf but despite this has swelled well at the root. Soon we’ll be out in the field forking out “Storuman”, an early cultivar which are now golf ball size (golf balls are a popular unit of measurement out here in the suburbs). New beetroot isn’t greeted with the same widespread salivation as Jersey Royals, but like them they cook quickly, need no peeling and have a sweet, melt-in-the-mouth quality. The leaves of the bunches can be eaten too, which wouldn’t be advisable in the case of potatoes.

We’ll then carry on working our way down the bed, to “Bulls Blood” when they resemble unseasonal Christmas bawbels in late summer. Then, as the leaves die back on both the trees and the herbaceous roots, the “Golden Detroit” maincrops should be the size of tennis balls when Wimbledon is but a distant memory. All things being equal, then, this week marks the start of a beet rhythm that will carry us through the rest of the growing season and into the dark times.