The Coming Age of the Fruit Trees

It was a glorious kitchen garden this high summer, but, standing in it trying to mark out garlic rows in the pressed clay, we see that the Entrance Field is once more just that: a field. And a muddy field at that: stand there for too long and I’d lose my wellies. What plants remain, whether here or under glass, have slowed to standstill: there is no more to be done. Now I have to confront the annual bout of existential puzzlement: what does it mean to be a Grower when it’s not the growing season? Is it to be basically the less amusing equivalent of a pantomime horse outside of the panto season? Do I exist? Is there really more to life than vegetables?

I was pleased to resolve the latter philosophical question at the weekend. The answer is of course: “yes, fruit”. I re-learnt this at the “Fruit Growing Essentials” course we hosted at Hawkwood. Of course, fruit is no longer dripping from trees in gardens and waysides across the land. But in one of nature’s many serendipities, down time in the vegetable gardening calendar corresponds to a spike in activity when it comes to tree and shrub care.

On the course we pruned apples, worcesterberries, blackcurrants; we dug planting pits for cherries. My thoughts began to turn to the cherry orchard, Entrance Field espaliers, Raspberrry Row, and the late apple orchard we will be planting in the winter. These features could last a century or more, making them pretty important and worrisome projects in the planning: so as a collective we’ve delegated it to  Sean to have most of the sleepless nights over them this year  – albeit backed up by the considerable might of the Fruity Friday gang and their arsenal of slashers,  spades and mattocks.

As tree planting season comes into view though, these projects will come into sharp focus for us, so it’s good to feel in a position to give them a bit more attention, and Sean a bit more support. Alas, a pantomime horse does not a cavalry make.

Forcing The Issue

I’ve long been fascinated by the practices of forcing and blanching in the garden. Over the years,  I’ve stuck pots on top of various plants – chicory, endive, sea kale and dandelion – in an attempt to sweeten, tenderise and weirdly beautify them, with wonderfully mixed results . If that were not peculiar enough, to celebrate my birthday last year I dragged some London friends up to a shed in West Yorkshire to watch rhubarb grow. In the dark. Better than watching paint dry in the dark any day.

This inspired me to greater forcing efforts, so this year we agreed to attempt chicory inside in the winter. The plants have been let to grow big and bold out in the field  all summer, flummoxing visitors who nervously asked what we were doing growing giant dandelions. Last week, we dug them up and brought them in. On Thursday, we set to heading back the luxuriant leaf and elephantine roots, until they fit snuggly into nine-inch pots of sand, to be perched on trollies and wheeled into a dark and conspicuously godforsaken corner of the garage.

There are the Belgians (“Dura Whitloof”) and the Italians (“Rossa di Treviso”) , and both sets will be steadily brought into a warmer location: the glasshouse, or the classroom, or kitchen. Exactly where will largely depend on when and how Huf gets the wood-fuelled boiler running. A few weeks of coziness will prompt them into producing the pale “chicons” so valued as a winter salad on the continent.

There felt something unexpectedly timely about all this: the discarding of the green; the impositions of new, indoor circumstances; and the casting into the deep unfathomable darkness, with the hope that some alchemic transformation would bring sooner supernatural sweetness.

These chicons glimmer bright beyond us, something bright to anticipate, like the festive season itself.

Changing Clocks and Calendars

In the ecocentric Celtic calendar, Halloween marks the New Year. And I reckon that if, by some bureaucratic howler, gardeners were put in charge of  redesigning the nation’s wall planners, you’d find many of them starting in November.

It’s by this point that crops from the growing season past should have been lifted, and in many cases the crop rotation enters its next annual cycle. As the afternoons darken, the season can be reflected upon, analysed , and plans and projects for future growth drawn up.

Here at Hawkwood, it is reassuring that we seem to be in step with this rhythm. We’ve just had our project workers’ annual evaluation, and Roger has been feeding this year’s crop yields into a spreadsheet, so we now know exactly how much beet we’ve successionally cropped from the end of June from our 55 metre bed (the answer is, of course, 150.5 kilos).

These red roots, and the spuds, are out of the ground, and we are just pulling the last of the celery. Only those exceptional stalwarts, the leeks and winter brassicas, remain out-standing in the field. We have planted out all the winter salads. Despite their billing, they yield heaviest in April and May, although the light cuttings through the dormant season are most welcome. Last week we began to wrestle with the build up of weeds in the Entrance Field, in preparation for the moving on of the rotation heralded by the imminent appearance of broad beans, garlic and green manures.

It’s all over for the tomatoes, that vegetable totemic of summer and the Lea Valley. The bittersweet  smell of Marlene’s vats of bubbling green tomato chutney gusting out of the kitchen seemed almost as seasonal as the fungal incense of leaves burning gold to brown. Out toms carried the hopes of the whole season when they were sown amongst the frosts of early March. They have yielded well, and might have gone through to midwinter, but the blight and rats both found their way to them, and there are times when you have to cut your losses and make a clean start. Now seems like a fine time.