Blight On The Landscape

At first glance, it might seem that vegetable growing serves as a detachment from the grand narratives of humanity, compared with, say, commuting through London’s labyrinth of iconic streets; or working as a new part amongst the original engines of industrialisation: mills, mines or railways. In fact, plant biographies chronicle social history as well as any architecture or museum, and what’s more are living and breathing.
Last week I was in the Entrance Field, mowing green manures. Perched above the clover sat the plump beetroot, who contributed to the abolition of slavery when Europeans found they could process them into sucrose, thus reducing the dependency on slave-dependent cane sugar. Down the hill stood the evergreen cabbages and kales, which have served us well as the “paupers’ medicine” for millennia, from the pickled cabbage of the Far East across to the “kale yards” of the Scottish crofters. My blade slicing through clover, that fertility-building legume which formed the cornerstone of “Turnip” Townsend’s rotation, a prerequisite of the “Agricultural Revolution”. It is on clover and its Fabiaceae relatives that hopes for abundance in a post-oil future rest heavily.
And towering above these fresh mowings in the adjacent bed was the larger-than-life Solanum tuberosum: the potato; the Andean tuber that revolutionised diet and culture in Europe and beyond.
Spuds are, economically, the most important vegetable in the world, and the third most important plant crop. Their virtues are many, but in leaner times, impoverished peoples in temperate climates turned to them chiefly because: a) they are a complete food, containing all the major and minor nutrients in sufficient quantities to sustain human existence (bar the elusive vitamin B12);  and b) they produce more calorific energy per given area than any other crop.
Thus, for example, the Irish people, forced onto marginal land by the British colonists, were able to survive (or, perhaps, were able to be further exploited) thanks to their total conversion to the “earth apple”. Which brings us, terribly neatly, to what else I saw whilst scything: Phytophthora infestans, the dreaded potato blight. It’s a very small fungus, but can also lay claim to changing the course of global events: for it caused the Irish Potato Famine, 1845-47, and subsequent emigration of the Irish peoples across the Anglophone world.
Catching the blight early enough to save the spuds is, like so much, all about observation: this year I was slow off the mark, and whether we’ve stopped the disease reaching the tubers remains to be seen. It is an ugly mould that will cause some nervousness in these parts over the next few weeks. But this is as nothing when set against the plight of those Irish peasants, whose shadow loomed large as we went about our blight management work. During which I reflected on how the disease was brought to Europe in a crate of infected potatoes from the Americas, and how once great blight resistant cultivars like “Lady Eve Balfour” are now succumbing to it, as new strains of the fungus are moved efficiently around the world, in another symptom of the sicknesses caused by excessive  global food and plant supply chains. But that’s another story, perhaps one day another history.

Happy Endings

Keats had it that autumn is the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, but the growers’ tour of fruity duty extends from the solstice to the frosts, with now, late summer, at its most fulsome. Here at Hawkwood, the balance of power began to shift from the leaves to the fruit just after the longest day: the fruiting vegetables, that is: for, botanically speaking, fruit are seed-associated structures; horticulturally and cullinarily speaking, vegetables are any plant eaten fresh in savoury dishes. So our first fruits were June’s  indoor french beans, followed by the outdoor french beans, the rich and varied tomatoes in late July, and now the onset of peppers, hot and sweet, a living legacy of summer.

The summer squash “Vegetable Spaghetti” is an esoteric specimen, inspiring devotion from its small band of followers and puzzlement from everyone else. We’ve been steadily bringing in the winter squash for the last month, and gave the “Green Hokkaido” a satisfactory test ride at the Permaculture Design Course at the weekend, but these, like the winter brassicas, won’t be on general release until the air starts to smell of autumn proper, triggering that simple twist of palate from the “lighter” foodstuffs to the dense comforts of roots, tubers and stored fruits.

But it is the squashes’ cousins indoors that we pay tribute to at these times. Earlier on this year, as you will recall if you scroll back, there were all sorts of traumas associated with the Cucurbitaea bed in the glasshouse. But this story at least has a happy ending: the cucumbers, late-sown replacements, have been prolific, so much so that in the face of my ruthless pragmatism when it comes to such matters, I felt on the verge of raising a toast and making a speech in their honour as we pulled them up , still proffering gherkin-sized young, last Tuesday, to make way for the impatient winter rocket.

Divorced from their stalks, the last cucumber fruits were piled into crates with no particular place to go. It was Clare’s plan to take them to the Saturday stall and initiate a special Eid discount cucumber offer. This saw our weekly sales of the cool green things rocket from 10 to 70, and perhaps launch a brand new tradition.

Then there’s the melons. Thirty months of hurt never stopped be dreaming. For two years in a row, I and my team have tended these tender plants but failed to reap a ripe desert. They’re tricky but they seem worth it: they have the yum!/ wow!/ snack! factor that means they – especially if they’re local and organic – fly off the proverbial shelves, in a way that, say, celery and jerusalem artichokes, frankly, don’t.

Our melons are a tabloid gardening columnist’s dream: once victims of the Woodlice Fiasco Horror Shambles, they are now Bra-Busting Essex Beauties, after our realisation that second-hand underwear was an ideal supporting structure for them. This week, we picked. They are less sweet, but deeper flavoured, than their European counterparts, but that’s all academic: the point is, they are bloody melons, and we grew ‘em, and have eaten them. And you can never take that away from us.

I’m often amazed at how even novice gardeners can be so hopeful/ overambitious when it comes to growing things that are at the limit of their range: outdoor tomatoes are a classic example; and on a visit this week to the brilliant Grow Heathrow, in the first year of renovating a derelict market garden on the site of the shelved Third Runway, aubergine plants were more conspicuous than courgettes.

I prefer to stick with the tried and tested in the garden, well, at least 80% of the time. But there’s something about the novelty, the risky and the challenging. Perhaps it’s that 20% of new risky challenges that keeps us doing the rest, that keep us gardening, doing sports, loving, that keeps us alive. Hooray for melons.