Kings of Spring

There has been a lot of action in the glasshouses lately: pots and labels have been sorted, potting benches swept so clean you could sow your dinner on them. Ed and Sonny have done their time breaking the stone floor, to let some more earth shine through. It’s looking ship-shape, I thought to myself, but a little, I don’t know, bare. Like something was missing. Then I realised what: plants.

Not everyone’s first choice for the conservatory, I admit, but when I fetched in a trolley of potted rhubarb, they really lifted the place. The stems are already a few inches tall, with the blush vividity of only youth, and the wee leaves unclenching as prettily as a flower bud. THIS is what makes perennials – especially herbaceous perennials – great: they are ahead of the game. We will be picking rhubarb outside while the courgette seeds are still snoring in their tins.

I didn’t just bring the crowns in to make the place look elegant, though. Next week’s Open Day at Hawkwood is our unilaterally-declared Rhubarb Day, a celebration of this fine spring fruit. Our answer to the famous forcing sheds of Yorkshire is the Cockney Blanching Bender in the kitchen garden, from under which we will pluck choice pink “champagne” stalks for sale and tastings. The latter will be in the form of “sherbet dips”, that confectionary product apparently being inspired by rhubarb stems dabbed in sugar.

Elsewhere, we planted half an orchard last week, and got the post and wire ready for the espaliered pears and cooking apples. We live in the faith that someone, somewhere, is growing us some oats: the economic future is crumble.

On Plants and People

Sometimes plants and soil are but a peripheral part of what’s going on here. On Friday,  it was almost a surprise to find myself planting the second wave of raspberries on Raspberry Row. Over the last week I’ve been immersed in all manner of admin, meetings, teaching and recruitment. But this is what it means to be a grower on an urban community market garden, managed by a workers’ cooperative, worked by volunteers. Not for nothing is Hawkwood Nursery’s strap line “for plants and people”.

On balance, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Without people, communities, along the road back to nature, we’d all get lost. Sure, as a result the land won’t be as productive in crops as a purely commercial venture. But the age of  maximum productivity is, as we are seeing, terminal. The task now is surely to approach the optimum. And this entails some sort of fine balance between the social, the economical, and the ecological.

The raspberries are another autumn cultivar, the classic “Autumn Bliss”. Nothing against summer raspberries, but we’re hoping that strawberries will become our “summer fruit”. I like the idea of the “fruit of the season” title being graciously passed on, uncontested, through the year, as well as the practicalities of focused attention and harvesting. Fruit isn’t too much work, except when it’s fruiting. This is not as much an example of Sod’s Law as it sounds, because work isn’t as hard as it sounds.

Last year’s raspberries are showing swelling green buds already, so we’re late pruning: the growing season hasn’t started, and we’re already behind! It’s time to delay some admin and get out there…

Letter From Americas

There’s been over a month’s lull since the last posting, reflecting a rest in my horticultural activity. Much as we all love summer holidays, late December/ January is for many growers the ideal time to kick back or disappear: after all, that is what the plants are doing. Usually, I take this time to make local, and inner, journeys. This year, though, I lit the carbon bullet and went transatlantic.

In the high density of New York I witnessed the unstoppable human urge to cultivate:  micro-allotments on rescued strips of land, market gardens (or “urban farms” as they like to call them) on roof tops, reclaimed ball courts, and an unoccupied island! Urban agriculture is fairly advanced in the US in general, buoyed by the popularity of farmers’ markets. Good news, but with it, inevitably, come challenges. For instance, how to respond when a pioneering urban farmer is elevated to celebrity status, and does a deal with Wal-Mart, who surely represent everything community food production isn’t? An early warning for local and organic food citizens here in Blighty.

In Mexico I’ve seen, for the first time with adult eyes, the sheer fecundity of rainforest: how plants there jostle for every conceivable, and inconceivable, bit of space and light. In the highlands of Chiapas there was Extreme Farming – maize fields  rotating through mountain banks I would think too steep to  set foot on, let alone garden. Fittingly, some of these “milpas” also displayed good examples of the renowned Mayan “Three Sisters” polyculture of corn, squash and beans.

In the Mexican cities, it was back yard fruit trees that flew the flag for “productive” plants, whilst the food culture – always underscored by one or more of the numerous types of chilli pepper – is scintillating.

Some of these chilli types, recipes and growing techniques I will attempt to introduce and adapt to our cool island setting; some will simply not make sense here, but will live on as a memory, a dream. Ultimately, I defer to Proust: “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes”.  This is the best reason for going away: to return with a refreshed perspective on this island, this patch of earth. I can report that it is fertile; green; lush; and, if you look closely, you can see it is just stirring into life.