Sooner or later, events confirm that, however much we try to regiment our affairs, we are ultimately subject to the laws, or rather patterns, of nature. The course of human history is one of steady evolution – or degeneration, depending on where you view it from – punctuated by short , sharp, dramatic shifts – revolutions. And so it is here in the garden.
Since Jack Frost overstayed his welcome in December, I have been pessimistic about the prospects for the spring salads. But last week, Naomi, Kate, Rosie, Brian and I set out to pick seven kilos of leaves, and couldn’t avoid picking ten. It happens like that: abruptly, the green leaf is back. And, by some cosmic serendipity, the good people of East London are, all of a sudden, hungry for it again. Our little farm stall recorded record salad bag sales; on the Saturday market demand is up; and Table 7 restaurant, who cancelled their subscription last month because “people weren’t eating it”, were last week demanding a special delivery.
In Lancashire, the tradition still persists, of striding out to the south-facing slopes to pick the first spring greens to emerge, to make “dock pudding”; whilst in these parts nettle soup remains a cult classic. It would seem that our bodies and souls are ravenous for any bit of new spring growth to feed on. And the eyes too: the green at this time is of a uniquely light, almost luminescent, quality: the staging in the glasshouse is positively glowing with lettuce and rocket seedlings. There’s another natural pattern: it does get better.
Perhaps the defining principle of organic gardening is “work with nature, not against it”. The extreme opposite of this might be seen to be agro-industry’s genetic modification and vast monocultures: gimungous resources – human, environmental , economic – poured into fighting against the nature of things, with inevitably toxic results all round. At the other end of the spectrum: wildlife gardening, foraging, and forest gardens, demonstrate that letting things be, with a few timely interventions, can generate riches beyond the dreams of the maximisers.
For the organic grower, attempting to produce for the wider community, there is the question of how far we can stray from the latter ideal of beautiful simplicity, before we lose our way and stray into the barren mindscape.
Last week I was tying in fan-trained peaches, whilst inside the trickle irrigation ran and I tried to trick tomatoes, by means of an electric cable, into germinating before time. These are the kind of things that disappoint visitors hoping to find a state-of-nature permaculture project.
On the other hand, peering through the glass I could see the newly established lacewing hotels built by Whitehall schoolchildren; the calendula flowers rising from the predator strips; as the woodpeckers, tits and the rest of the chorus whooped and chattered around me. Masanabu Fukuoka talked of his “natural farming” not as an end point, an Eden, but as a “road back to nature”: as I cycle out of the nursery, the solar lamps flickering on, peach flowers winking pink like the early tint of salmon sunset, it feels like we’re on the road.
We’ve had a good month of mild weather now, temperatures not dropping below freezing, and plenty of hours above the magic six degree threshold. The first timid suggestion of new leaf from the crops and wild things here at Hawkwood are now turning towards confident renewal, and this is reflected faithfully in the Nursery turning its mind and sights to the growing season ahead.
The latest stage of the glasshouse reorganisation is not quite complete, but like so much in life it will never reach full completion: it has made it to the next base, and that’s enough. Now the seed sowing can begin in earnest: as is the custom in these parts, tomatoes were given pole position, to test out the new plug trays.
This year we’ll be growing a plethora of tomato cultivars for sale as plants to local gardeners, but for produce we will focus on medium-sized “salad” tomatoes – the English classic, if you will. By way of a twist, these will come in three different colours: striped red/ yellow, in the form of “Tiger Tom”; the yellow “Golden Queen”; and the red “Essex Wonder”. We will concentrate our heritage efforts on the latter whilst giving “Kondine Red” a year’s well deserved rest.
Essex Wonder may well have been bred in the Lea Valley bioregion: it was certainly widely grown here in the area’s Tomato Age 1930 – 1950s, before London looked further afield for its vegetables, causing the decline of market gardens here. So sharp was this little tomato’s fall from popularity that it, like the Kondine, became virtually extinct. It only exists now after some eagle-eyed person found three seeds in a tobacco tin in an old allotment shed. From these, with the help of the Heritage Seed Library, the Essex has been brought back to life.
“From small seeds big trees grow”, goes the saying. In the metaphorical sense, it is a good time to be thinking about the small things we can do to effect wider change in the world around us; in the literal sense, I’m hoping these small seeds grow modest sized tomatoes, not a bloody forest, in the glasshouse.