Cold At Bay

Last year a sharp snap, this year an easy gentleness in November’s setting. There will be no mad, doomed rush to hold back the tide of frost from sun worshipping crops. The peppers have been permitted to fully ripen, and will this week join their squash, tomato and sweetcorn sisters in the compost heap of rest, after fruitful lives well spent.

The borderline “winter” salads – “Lattuginho”, escarole, parsley – have already given of enough leaf this clement autumn to justify their selection, whatever happens from now on in. The outdoor sowings of beans, field and broad; garlic; and agricultural mustard, have all been permitted to lift their heads above the parapet, a reflection of their roots’ extension. This will allow them to protect soil structure and fertility from the coming cruel months.

Especially enlivening has been the rich river of glistening veg that has continued to flow from the Great Outdoors and settle in the packing station – the central reservoir between the classroom, kitchen, tool shed and office – before flowing out into the unnumbered kitchens beyond. Rainbow chard, perpetual spinach , Chioggia beetroot, kales black and curly, cabbage, jerusalem artichoke – it has been a delight.

Urban market gardening is but one element of the “alternative food system”, and the emphasis is naturally on “just in time” ultra-fresh produce. Consequently, the low season means lean pickings, and a welcome opportunity for rest, reflection and planning; the provision of winter supplies, from store or large field, has been the preserve of those hardened hands out in the sticks. But as I ponder the draft planting plans for 02012, I can see an emotional, as well as an economic, case for extending our cold menu range.

In doing so, we may rediscover again that there are degrees of hardiness. Last year the Red Russian kale froze to death at -10, whilst Pentland Brigg, from the Scottich uplands, stood as unruffled as curly kale can.

After a quiet year, the mild damp has brought the slug multitudes out from all over the terrace. A few hard frosts should see to them, soon. But not yet. Not. Just. Yet.


Field Day

At the “fag end of the year”(as one John Moore termed it), comes the light at the end of a long journey in the Entrance Field. This was the week the sheet mulch finally reached the swale.

The Entrance Field looms kindly down on everyone who passes through the nursery gates. It’s just shy of an acre, leans west-southwest, and is the fabled “open, sheltered site” of gardening text book mythology. It’s a far cry from the same literature’s “fertile, free draining, moisture retentive soil” though. Nonetheless, it has been selected as our main area of field vegetable production, due largely to its proximity to the glasshouse and warehouse – the centres of energy; but with some consideration for the pleasing sensation an acre of mixed vegetables might create in people who two seconds ago were in London town.

The standard method of converting pasture/ meadow to annual plants would be to get in a man with heavy machinery to plough it up. But this takes its toll on soil structure, plus we like to Do It Ourselves here. Instead, we opted for the permaculture method of sheet mulching. In this instance, this involves laying sheets of cardboard on top of the grass, laying a couple of inches of green waste compost over it; adding a layer of time – six to twelve months; then planting through the mulch into the dead and rotted lawn beneath.

Two other ingredients are essential: crazed cardboard collectors called Forest Recycling Project, and a small village worth of hands. It was one Open Day in summer 2009, when Growing Communities’ grower Sara Davies and her visiting cousin, Robyn, began clearing the field, covering one small corner of a vast expanse. It took a good few trips back and forth from the far-flung compost pile to achieve this drop in the ocean, in the same time one man and his machine might have taken to turn half the field under.

But gradually, each month in the quieter seasons has seen the dark band of soil improver bleed gently up the hill, ushering up more rife vegetables and green manures as each year heats up.

As well as associated techniques such as sheet mulching, permaculture has a set of principles, based on observation of natural systems. “Use small and slow solutions” is one; “Everything gardens” another. Over two years after Sara & Robyn’s first small step for vegetable kind, Stefan and Jo stood at the top corner, and rolled out the final strip of black carpet. The bit in between was done by dozens of people of all ages, nations, abilities, walks of life, boot sizes and wheelbarrow driving styles. Very few people have set foot in Hawkwood in the last three autumns, and managed to leave without being pressed into peeling parcel tape from cardboard boxes, or schlepping a barrowful of green waste up a slippery slope. All to a soundtrack of bird song, heavy breathing, and laughter.

The Entrance Field, its beautifully darkened skin streaked green with agricultural mustard and cavallo nero, now stands as a monument to People Power. Of all the powers that be, this one holds my hopes for the future.




Picking Patient Peppers

The changes have been ringing around the glasshouse this last couple of weeks. The sheer green curtains of tomatoes and beans – seasonal furniture – have been drawn away, and we are reduced to the slight carpet of winter salads.

The tomatoes have been a particular triumph of interior design this year, situated as they have been in the north bed of the West Wing, peering, directly and curiously, in on the organised chaos that is the nursery office. So throughout the season, as the workers have gone about their admin, the cordons have crept up the view, ultimately filling it and pressing their red cheeks against the glass, like out-of-time Christmas trees with bawbels across the room. The room that is barer now, no matter what screen saver we might load onto the computers.

From difficult beginnings, the “Kew Blue” climbing french beans (beans which, our Parisian volunteer Paco assures me, the French seldom eat) quickly screened off the potting benches from the rest of the glasshouse, had a fine year, and were received well wherever they went. As we unwound the crispening haulm from their string supports,  we were able to retrieve enough ripe seed for planting next year;  some for eating as a pulse – for ourselves if not the market; and a few for seed swaps, to get this rare and beautiful heritage cultivar disseminated wider.

The only  survivors from the sub-tropics are the peppers, which just keep on, slowly but surely, until the hard frosts come. The sweet peppers have been in the wars: rats gorged themselves on them for a while, and blossom end rot has been an ongoing problem, in spite of redoubling our efforts to get the irrigation levels right. So yields have been low and some time ago I largely wrote them off, deciding to focus time and attention on more promising candidates.

Then last week, on the last note of the tomatoes’ swan song, the peppers piped up with a good crateful of red fruit to brighten the farmers’ market stall on a chilly Sunday in November.

Autumn, or rather, every season in the garden brings such reminders of how fundamental  patience, alongside responsiveness, is in this game.  And this was one of the subtexts of OrganicLea’s tenth birthday party and awards ceremony last week. Introducing the awards , Clare likened the project’s growth to that of an apple tree: we are now  fruiting, but only after much patient plodding and formative pruning. It also takes a long time to grow old friends, as they say, and there were a heart-warming number of those in evidence on the night. At the Occupy London Stock Exchange on Tuesday night, Reverend Billy preached on the “radical patience” required to build communities of resistance.

Maybe time is on our side after all.