Saint Celery’s

“Everything the power of the world does is done in a circle” – Black Elk

Going round in circles may be considered futile activity in what is still the age of straight lines and boxes. Yet even now, some cycles of nature are widely observed and celebrated, notably in the way calendar dates mark the spinning of the years.

For growers, every day is an anniversary, a festival, a saints day. The seasonal tasks are ritualistically performed once again. And every plant has its time to shine. In the last few weeks we’ve had Strawberry Fayre, Plant Sale Eve, The Feast of Spring Garlic, Lettuce Day, and this week came Saint Celery’s.

A controversial beatification for a plant commonly called the “devil’s vegetable”. Why this is the case we can but speculate: It’s an ingredient strongly loved and hated in equal measure, like Marmite, or celery’s close cousins fennel, coriander and caraway. In fact, all the aforementioned are delicious except for caraway, which is genuinely and profoundly disgusting, but some people just won’t be told.  All are in the carrot family (well, perhaps not Marmite), which also boasts notoriously poisonous specimens including hemlock water dropwort, a ringer for wild celery.

A further explanation is that, as foodstuffs go, celery is up there with peanuts in the allergen stakes, and for people with celery allergy, exposure can be fatal. However, I suspect a hint of Roman Catholic repression behind its demonisation, perhaps linked to the notion that celery is our only native aphrodisiac.

Is this notion, I wonder, in some way connected to the “Celery Song”, a sexually explicit chant sung by Chelsea fans in the 1980s, with accompanying brandished stalks, and which still occasionally breaks out in football grounds today? my feelings towards this particular anthem are ambivalent: it is invariably voiced in a sexist context, yet any hymn to a vegetable has to have something going for it.

There are areas of the Hawkwood site that have poor drainage, and are prone to water logging: the bottom dip in the Entrance Field in particular. Celery being, in origin, a bog plant, it was the ideal candidate for this spot, and last year the vigour displayed by the “Tall Utah” cultivar there was extraordinary. However, the rotation, like all cycles, revolves. This week Naomi, Ed, Keith and I set to tickling the new seedlings out, half way up the hill, in bone dry soil in the heat of this drought.

I can’t be the first gardener to note that the act of kneeling to plant out is akin to praying in more than just its physical resemblance. A prayer for a new Eden. And on this Saint Celery’s, a sacrifice to the rain clouds.

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London Strawberry Fields

“Within a quiet life passed leisurely and tranquilly according to the cycles of nature lies hidden all the grandeur of the human drama” – Masanobu Fukuoka

Working the land on the London fringe, a beetroot’s toss from the A112, is, I’m not sad to say, a far cry from any rural idyll. Yet there are pockets and moments of leisure and tranquility here, and indeed some intense highs and lows.

Jack Frost made a late, unexpected visit at the start of the month, nipping at all the plants we had put out to harden for our first big weekend of plant stalls, after two months of fussing and tending, along with the squash in the fields. I spent much of the next day on the verge of tears, but a life of riding a bike has taught me two things: firstly, padded inserts are highly advisable on any ride in excess of two hours; and secondly, after a knock, get straight back in the saddle. Fortunately one of those valuable lessons has a wider application in life: the next day I was out planting more squash, and by Friday we had somehow manage to pull together enough plants, more or less ready for market, to stuff the van full. Rarely has a white van seemed such a graceful sight to me

We are in a bit of a frost pocket here, and these shocks are part of finding out what “rules” we should follow to ensure plant protection. Other lessons are more fun to learn: we are starting to know some of the other inhabitants on site: I am seeing more ground beetles and lacewings, and hoping this is a result of our deliberate habitat construction programme.

A lesson you learn and relearn is that of patience. The strawberry plants, since their arrival thirteen months ago, have been such a labour of love from so many people here, that after a long year of weeding, deflowering, managing runners, watering and mulching, I’d come to regard them as beautiful, but not especially useful, members of the Hawkwood family. Then as Nicole and I were weeding last week, we saw the ghostly bawbels begin blushing rouge, and I remembered with a start that these plants were brought in to strew their much-loved berries across Walthamstow. And beyond: for the offspring of these fruiters have been in demand from the nursery, potted runners running as far a Green Lanes, Holborn  and Brixton. London’s exploding strawberry fields. I think it’s not too bad.

Despite No Rain

Everything is go. An exceptionally warm, dry April equals action, leaving little time for the reflection required for such musings as these. However, this weekend being May Day, there is an imperative to find some space for celebration.

The Entrance Field, a sad-looking, boggy and therefore neglected space for so many months, perks up and our attentions turn to it. Or vice versa: this is a virtuous circle to follow winter’s downward spiral. [Note to self: more year -round interest might mean more regular attention and weeding, thus less resorting to the rotavator]. A lot of the root crops are in, and the strawberries are exuberant: they will bear splendid fruits come summer, if we get some rain.

The Old Kitchen Garden, after months of digging out bramble, couch and bindweed by hand, is now down to maincrop potatoes. The soil there is the best this site has to offer, a gift to us from past generations of Victorian gardeners, to whom a bounty of good honest spuds will be a fitting tribute. If we get some rain.

I’m pleased, almost to the point of smugness, that we’ve more or less dodged the spring salad gap: last week we began picking the spring sown lettuce, rocket and orache alongside their wintry counterparts, which have still yet to run to seed. So we can look forward to an uninterupted flow of summer salads, though a little rain would help.

There’s been a lot of watering going on out here lately, with lots of young plants – seedlings, annual veg, and freshly planted fruit trees and vines – to establish. Right now Brian is even out watering the compost heap. All the ingredients were thoroughly mixed a month ago, now Just Add Water. I have lost patience with the sky.

So far, the growing season is going quite well. A bit of rain and it’ll be going swimmingly.