No Has-Bean

“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.

Lost And Found

“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race” – HG Wells

There is something uniquely wonderful about bicycles, and Hawkwood Community Nursery depends on them for transportation of many of its workers and produce. Yet I believe this sense of redemption expressed by HG can be experienced by gazing at any well made, human powered tool. Secateurs, for instance.

I pretty much always have a pair about my person when on site. To the casual observer, wearing a blade in a holster whilst performing admin tasks may seem like an affectation. But if I were to disarm, invariably I would soon find myself in the garden or glasshouse, naked: in nature, there’s always something in need of a passing prune.

I use Felco No.8s. There’s a pair I’ve had for eight years or so. They are mainly used for harvesting cut-and-come-again salads. Some folk use scissors for this task, but then you can’t also use scissors for fruit tree pruning, clearing paths of bramble runners, severing cabbage heads, executing slugs, slicing cucumbers, opening parcels, cutting wire, scoring benchmarks, tightening jubilee clips, shortening irrigation pipe AND hammering in metal stakes. To be fair, you can’t really use secateurs for the latter either, though a brave attempt to do so has lent my pair its distinctive appearance. Such scarring has, as in all human-tool romances, deepened our bond. The point comes when a piece of equipment feels akin to an extension, if not a part, of one’s own body. Some might say that’s a good point to try making do without.

This summer, I lost my Felcos. I’ve dropped them, and misplaced them, many times before, but this time they never came back when they were called. It may be foolish to grieve over inert material objects but, to lose something you are –literally – attached to, can only be a loss. And with it, I lost my sense of place in the garden. For, after my senses, almost equal to my hands, by-pass pruners are my main instrument of interaction.

I had to buy another pair of No.8s. Brilliant, but they felt like an expensive, glitzy parody of the Old Faithfuls. Still, they cut lambs lettuce keen enough, and began to warm to my hand as the sun lowered into the October mist.

This Thursday in the Entrance Field, sowing field beans, performing a final weed and tidy, picking through the old squash bed. Whose leaves, once so broad and green, now dry and shriveled, shrunk to reveal three missed orange  fruit, and the exposed red and silver – and new rusty mottling – of my original gardeners’ best friend, back from the dead.

Mourn not for the end of summer! here, at least,  it took a bit of death to retrieve something precious.

A Light Chilli

The season’s gone out in a blaze of glory: thirty degrees of roasting October. Across the country, folk seized the summer swansong by the throat, getting out to light barbeques, jump into water, or just do a spot of beer gardening. Thankfully, the mutterings of a tiny minority of misery gutses, moaning about their winter salads bolting prematurely, were not able to dampen the festivities.

I’m not proud to be that guy, though I’m now pleased to report that, whilst the heat has not been typically autumnal, the misty dews have: keeping the soil moisture levels up and helping to stem the feared splitting of leaves to the flowering side.

Plus, as any other New Town boy could tell you, it’s all roundabouts. And swings. The tomatoes keep rolling out of the glasshouse like spilt drops of sun, and the Indian summer has coloured the cheeks of many of the pot-grown chillies. The latter are a sideline that have taken up far more of my attention this year than sidelines are really entitled to. But after the January trip to Mexico, I returned a hot head, determined to make Hawkwood a Centre of Chilli Excellence.

The Mexican “Jalapeno”, the “Hungarian Hot Wax” and “Ring of Fire” (a feisty little number, weighing in at 80,000 “Scoville Heat Units” (SHUs)), are expected to do well, under protection, in Southern England, and so they have. This week they were abundant and red-ripe, as Jazz and I picked to fulfill the box scheme’s annual spice allowance. But now, the more marginal cultivars are starting to ignite, like “Serrano”, brought back from the highlands around Puebla, now close to cropping in our little London valley. At 8,000 SHUs, it’s mild enough to have room to pack some flavour with its punch, and  some Mexicans eat it raw as you or I would an apple.

Rising up the scale is  Scotch Bonnet “Safi”, and Shazida’s Bengali variety, a birds eye type. Ready, but we haven’t yet dared to. Only the “Chocolate Habanero” looks in danger of failing to provide any decent fruit whatsoever. Our headline act, “Bhut Jolokia”, officially the world’s hottest pepper at over one million SHUs (about half the strength of pepper spray), are rising by the day. Still green, but it’s only a matter of time…

From being pots in the corner, dwarfed to insignificance by the summer beans and cucurbits, the glassshouse is now all about these bright little capsicums. There’s something about sliding into the year’s dusk with flames in our eyes and fires in our bellies. And, to misquote the Dalai Lama, if you think you’re too small to make a difference, try eating a raw chilli.