Autumn Leaves

So much seasonal excitement that it’s easy to take some things, like your heart and your breath, for granted. That’s what this time is for: Autumn Equinox. Harvestide. A time of thanksgiving for the many wonderful people and plants that have appeared at the nursery and given their all. This equinox, I choose a perch above the West Bank salad terrace as my “sit spot” to reflect on the fading growing season.

It’s not the most picturesque location. Tucked at the lower end of the site, it doesn’t command the sweeping forest and cityscape views of the vineyard or Poets Corner above the Entrance Field. There’s still a lot of dirty black plastic keeping the horsetail down. And the concrete paths that define the terraces, a legacy of the council bedding bays, lend the space a harder, more artificial flavour than the curving swards of the Orchard or Old Kitchen Garden.

But it’s those same cement slabs and level terra firma that made the West Bank the obvious choice for intensively managed,  garden scale,  raised beds of leaves.

Here, on Tuesday mornings, come rain – or, more often – shine, you will find many of the aforementioned wonderful people , carrying out all the planting, weeding, picking and troubleshooting that goes into our signature product – mixed salad leaves.

This year, our mix has featured 37 different leaves; 48 different plant cultivars; and seven different edible flowers. Not all have been triumphs, and still, more often than not, the blend, or the quality, is imperfect. But no excuses or complaints: I can’t imagine a better growing season for salad.

That hot, dry April and May brought out glorious swansongs in the winter lettuce and rocket, whilst getting the spring-sown freshers to maturity, quickly and slug-free. Then, in the ensuing warmth and moisture, they just got on with it. The shade cloths and seep hose barely called into action: all the hard graft Huf, Ed and Sonny put into overhauling the irrigation systemwas repaid elsewhere: under glass, and on thirsty apple maidens.

We’ll be getting salad off the terraces and, even at sub-zero, out of the glasshouse, almost every week of the year. So, as we ponder the dark times ahead, we can console ourselves with the thought that the young chicories, mizunas, endives, winter purslanes et al will be a constant source of freshness through the winter; a bridge between the lost summer and the distant horizon of spring; colour in the absence of broadleaves and flowers.

Cold snaps will make their texture tougher, but also convert some of their starches into sugars. Autumn and winter: I’ll take them hard, sweet, dependable: and be thankful.

Interesting Times

When talking of his formative years, through the Second World War, my grandfather – the one-time tomato farmer – likes to quote Dickens: “they were the best of times, and the worst of times”. The Chinese proverb throws yin-yang light on the matter: “may you live in interesting times”.

These are interesting times. We are hurtling into an age of “climate chaos”, huge environmental and social upheavals. One hope is that the worst of climate change will be arrested by peak oil, the not-unsettling prospect of the fossils that fuel our economy running low. And yet, these are great days we’re living in right now: autumn’s golden aura crowds our peripheral, whilst in our brighter moments we  are Indian summer. As above, so below: the pumpkin leaves are withering to reveal the fiery glow of the “Uchiki Kuri” squash; the chicory leaves turn green to red with each colder bite of night.

Walking Tractor Attachment Of The Month this September is the Potato Lifter. In the Old Kitchen Garden,  Sean and I, with cameo appearances from apprentices Jo and Naomi, creep up front, manhandling four horsepower to unfold the ridges of Isle of Jura, whilst a fairly chirpy gang follows in the furrows, gathering vegetable gold in hessian sacks, grading out the holey and blighty.

It’s just like the tattie harvest as described to me by one lady brought up in 1950s Ireland. And it’s what a sensible “low carbon” future will look like: oil-powered machinery summoned up for occasional, high impact jobs, whilst the more sophisticated tools – human hands and eyes – are relied on for the finer detail. The oil our tractors run off is recycled chip fat. On combustion, the exhaust fumes do indeed smell of chip shops: a most auspicious incense to accompany the sacred potato picking ritual.

A few bright leaves drop on us as we cart our heavy haul into the warehouse, passing Nicole and her team, manually pressing “scrumped” apples into juice, and for cider vinegar.

In the good times; in the bad times; in the interesting times: there will be chips and vinegar.

Corn Again

We’ve just had our annual “Design Fusion” event, where the Hawkwood core team look at the growing site and set priorities for developments over the coming year. As is the tradition, the process began with a “visioning” excercise, where we each imagined the Nursery in five years’ time. When the utopian visions were relayed , it was striking that only one vegetable was specifically singled out for mention, not once, but twice. That vegetable was sweetcorn: for a relatively minor and recent addition to our planting plan, this was no mean achievement.

I could offer a few explanations as to why Zea mays is “straight in at number one” amongst the growers here at Hawkwood. They’r e an impact plant: as you enter Free London through the Community Nursery gates, they raise their fists to you from the Entrance Field, rising up above the low-lying vegetables. At over six foot, we sense that, somewhere in our primordial souls, our spirits seek a vertical range in the landscape, a dimension sadly lacking in most annual crops.

For me, corn will forever echo the Mayan milpa plantings I witnessed in January, incredibly gardened in sheer scree in the mountains of Chiapas. Lento pero avanzo – [slowly, but we advance] as the “people of the maize”, the Zapatista indigenous communities, say.

Maybe it’s this local growing of a global plant that we like: at the Hornbeam Cafe Ryan,  a great advocate of food as a bridge across cultures, was allegedly moved to tears on experiencing “Caribbean” corn coming down from Chingford; whilst a couple of weeks ago I was in the field when an African man pulled up in his car, got his child out of the back, walked up to the towering plant and proceeded to demonstrate, in energetic gesticulations, how corn-on-the-cob is borne.

Maybe these are reasons why we want to see this golden grain growing more prolifically here into the future. But somehow I feel these are all secondary: the crux of the matter is that corn-on-the-cob, with a smattering of butter or oil, salt or pepper if you will, is up there with the best of all culinary experiences. And, like asparagus, globe artichokes and strawberries, its season – its true, local season – is so short, so sweet.