“An old man is setting a row of broad beans. So small a row, so shakily, dibbing a hole for each by jiggling a twig in the ground until it has made a space large enough. His allotment runs to the narrow verge between the cliff of chalk and the sunk road; right on the edge of an arm of the cove where the lorrries enter. Balanced up there he sets his broad beans, while many shovels eat away at the ground below him. In three months they have taken this huge bite out of the hill: it will take three months from now for his beans just to be in bloom. Once he was a ploughman driving a team over a hill. Now, shakily on this little remnant of allotment, he sets a few beans. Because it is the time of year: it is time to sow beans”.
– Adrian Bell, Men Of The Fields, 1936
I mean to enrich, rather than make light of, the above quotation, when I say that, whilst the myriad of diverse gardening philosophies and techniques can appear bewildering, one basic line in the loam can be drawn: there are those that sow their broad beans before winter, and those that set them after it. My old man is of the latter school, whereas I have since gone over to the dark side.
This week, the focus of energy at Hawkwood makes one of those decisive seasonal shifts, from nurturing annual plants to maintaining and developing the woody plant stock and garden infrastructure. Good timing, if I say so myself, for a punctuation mark in the form of a week’s leave. So I return to the family home, and a concerted attack on the ivy choking the old Prunus hedges. Somehow, though, I couldn’t clock out without getting a first sowing of “SuperAquadulce” beans into the Old Kitchen Garden.
When I was growing up, I spent most of my time in the front garden, where ball sports were permitted. The back garden, in contrast, was put down to vegetables, fruit and herbs. Every main meal would have some homegrown component: perpetual spinach fresh from the ground, or summer fruits back from the freezer. There was no fanfare, this was just something you did. If you had a bit of ground, it was – and remains – simple common sense to utilise a portion of it for the kitchen.
Now us kids have flown, my mum continues to rise to the challenge of ensuring the bounty of plums, apples and goosegogs are picked, stewed, frozen and consumed just in time for the next annual round of picking. The old man, on the other hand, has in recent times made into a New Years’ ritual, the declaration, “well, I’m giving up on the garden this year”. Each year, given his waning health, it seems a reasonable decision. Each year, as spring peers closer in, a packet of bean seed appears from nowhere on the sideboard, then you’ll spot a few pots in a makeshift cold frame or a string line erected out the back, annotated with the label “BBEAN FEB”. No fanfare, no U-Turn, it’s just what you do.
What unites the two sides in the Great Bean Divide is that they both regard the sowing of these Vicia faba as a rite of passage. It’s either the very end, or the very start, of the season. And either way, when it’s time, it’s time. Seize the day.