Carrot Gold

“If you assume there’s no hope, you guarentee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, there’s a chance you may contribute to making a better world. that’s your choice”. – Noam Chomsky

The realm of possibilities is a shrinking territory unless you periodically push back the boundaries, by doing what you suspect you can’t do. Ten years ago, OrganicLea was shakily founded on the basis of some half-baked idea of nurturing a local food economy in Northeast London. Now, the dream has been called into being: only through reflecting on such transformations from fiction to fact,  can we find it in ourselves to dream new, equally wet-behind-the-ears, dreams.

On a different, literally fundamental, scale, this year we’ve grown carrots. The carrot family are the awkward squad of the veg pack. Som people claim they can’t grow parsnips. In lore, only witches can grow parsley, and during the witch hunts, to do so brought charges of witchcraft.

As for me, for some time I’ve maintained that carrots are my bogey crop. My first few enthusiastic attempts failed, due to the poor and slow germination characteristic of them and their aforementioned cousins.  And, whether in Yorkshire or London, I’ve always gardened on heavy clay, which for root crops must feel something like wading through treacle, with consequently stunted results. There’s a reason most commercial carrots are raised in sandy areas.

But one interesting outcome of crop rotations is that, every year, you end up growing things that wouldn’t be your first choice, because you have to somehow fill that allocated space in the planting plan. Like painting with a limited palette, this apparent restriction can in fact open doors we would otherwise keep shut: for example, some of our weirdest salad leaf discoveries have arisen from the constant quest to find leaves to grow, that are not in the three key salad families.

I find it a peculiar fact, but a fact it is, that the good folk of Waltham Forest will only eat so much celery. So this year, with intrepidation, we sowed our first roots – carrots – into the second Apiaceae bed in the Entrance Field. In mitigation, we went for “Chantenay Red Cored”, a thick, short-rooted cultivar.

It’s not been a great year for the orange pointy things: the drought of April/May has wrecked a whole generation’s germination in their East Anglian heartland. Our sowings have had a battle too, but last week, when we pulled for them, they rose up:  chunky, glowing, earthy and bunchworthy; a triumph of hope.

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Magic Beans and Tragic Beans

For all the exotic pungency of roses or jasmine, it’s the subtle, elusive nature of the scents of plants like gorse and peas, that make them more bewitching. And a field of beans is to the nose what a woodland floor of bluebells is to the eyes: a glowing, cumulative aroma that wafts immeasurably in the wind.

Our row of broad beans issued a mere suggestion of this when in flower, and now the plants are in pod gloriously bulbous. They conjure more besides: the humble allotment gardener’s broad bean, Vicia faba, when dried yields the Classical “fava” pulse so vital to Egyptian, Greek and Roman diets. To this day fava beans are poplar in the Middle East, in, amongst other dishes, authentic falafel, but largely confined to animal food on these shores. This winter we plan to make the kitchen garden  a small “beanfield” to change this state of affairs in a few kitchens.

In recent times, the beanfield has also become emblematic not of ancient civilisations, but of modern civilisation’ s thin facade of liberty.

On Saturday 1st June 1985, a “peace convoy” of  80 – 120 vehicles carrying “New Age” travellers, were prevented from getting to Stonehenge to prepare summer solstice celebrations, by a police blockade. Wiltshire police then went down the line of vehicles systematically smashing windows, dragging out inhabitants and battering them with truncheons.  Many of the convoy attempted to escape, within and without their vans, via the adjacent field of ripening fava beans. Police were quick to respond, and travellers’ blood fertilised the Salisbury Plain soil in an unprovoked carnage that became known as “The Battle of The Beanfield”.

The miners’ strike had just ended: a dispute in which the government granted the police new powers and carte blanche to use any repressive means at their disposal in the war against what Thatcher termed “the enemy within”. First, the trade unionists, then the travellers. Both movements may indeed have been enemies of the Thatcher project; both, in different ways, proffered a practical vision of an alternative, fairer society; neither have fully recovered from the intense campaign against them in the 1980s.

The Battle of the Beanfield, like the Battle of Orgreave, was a sad day for human beans, and the utopian whiff  of broad beans is there to remind us of it.

A New Balance

The rains have finally come in buckets, or spades, to use a gardening term. They seem to have ushered in a new order, a restored equilibrium. And the frenetic weeks of street-level plant stalls are closing, so the focus is on the trickle of direct plant orders, and the world within our garden fence.

The Entrance Field, though not fully planted up, is receiving complements as it rises to meet the midsummer sun. “Bull’s Blood” beetroot, maize and companion flowers phacelia and escholtzia are employed in ornamental gardens, so it should be no surprise that they provide an aesthetic foil to the curves of  functional potato leaves and meshed cauliflower.

The salad beds on the West Bank are as close as they ever get to full production: of the spring sown, only red orache is flagging, signalling the “relay” with winter leaves is soon to commence. Yes, winter already in the peripheral vision! We await the ravages of the lettuce root aphid, which have been sighted in Kent, from where they can access metropolitan transport connections.  But pestilence has not reached the hair-tearing threshold this year: Stefan, the Salad Czar, has overseen a regime of regular inspection and control, whilst on the Field the “beneficials”  seem to be literally working their way down the bean bed: the north end is totally “clean”, the south end crawling with blackfly; and ladybirds and their larvae.

The kitchen garden is weeded and being ridged; the apples and vines sheltered from further losses by the storms; even the delicate melons are showing signs of growing away from the pesky glasshouse woodlice. And there are strawberries galore. As my old mentor at Growing Communities, Brian Holden, used to say, “by June, the garden has righted itself”.

Summer Returns

I’ve just returned from five days away in the Scottish Highlands. There, the season is some six weeks “behind” ours, and the sight of bluebells and hawthorn in full bloom was a delightful encore as the South hurtles from flowers to fruitlets. Apparently, the spring moves up the country at walking pace. It’d be a great adventure to join the walk one year, but I doubt I’d get far before itching to get back to the domesticated plants in the nursery and garden…

 

This week I got back to meet these plants’ deep generosity of nature: there is more salad and strawberries here than our team can pick; the rhubarb is rising again after spending May complaining graphically of thirst; the beetroot “Bull’s Blood” and broad beans swelling with London pride. There was also the generosity of human spirit, in the care and attention taken by the Hawkwood collective to ensure the little jobs I do around the place were seen to.

 

So, summer’s here, and whilst it works us hard “making hay”, all’s well in this world of grassroots community food. The contrast with the bullying, mean-spirited world of high finance and high politics could not be more sharp.