Seivings of Spring

On Tuesday, trudging up to the Old Kitchen Garden for more winter digging, my thermal undergarments hung distinctly heavy on me. The earliest of early weeds, Cleavers, or Sticky Willie as he’s known to his friends, was cagily creeping across the soil surface. With the dry weather forecast on our side, we had a hoe down on the rows of broad beans. And spring was in my step: whether it was the amplified bird song; a subtle tone change in the forest that embraces, and bleeds into, the site; or the minute vibrations of sap rising around us, I don’t know. All I know is that thick-thin rush pulsing up through me: growth is returning.

The plants that have hunched with us through a hard winter are beginning to stretch yawningly, first in the glasshouse,then al fresco. In the former, the rocket is already bolting. Even the escarole, which for the last few months has been complaining that it would rather have been left at home on the Med in the first place, is starting to look less sorry for itself.

The day came to a glorious close with a second planting of broad beans, on the extended perimeters of the garden: a kidney-shaped full stop on cold days spent chipping away at the bramble knuckles.

Despite its infinite wisdom, even nature makes false starts sometimes, and some of the weather prophets are still talking of a returning Siberian snap. But here at Hawkwood, we know it is time to dust down the potting benches: when our elders, Ken and Brian, start seiving leaf mould, it is a sure sign that the seed sowing season is upon us.

Under The Concrete

In a week where a nation skidded into “snow chaos”, and even the mighty Stevenage FC declared their frozen ground unplayable, I am proud to report that a quorate Hawkwood crew carried on gardening.

Digging in the Old Kitchen Garden continued apace, leaving a rich black slice set in the driven white, a sight that resembled a giant Christmas cake or megapint of stout, and was equally as cheering. The only patches of land not covered to ankle-level are those under cover, the glasshouse and the garage/ workshop, and here there’s been much brisk activity.

The council concreted most of the half-acre of land under glass:  their operation was all about containerised plants, for shipping out to bloom the borough. Two years into our occupation, and it looks like our requirements are the reverse: a relatively small proportion of the glasshouse is used for propagation, even though we raise thousands of plants for sale; whereas any amount of vegetables grown under glass, in the Lea Valley tradition, seem to be well-received by our members, partners and customers. Each winter, we chip away at the cement face, opening up more ground.

Having broken rock, this week we rolled away the last of the boulders standing in the way of this year’s six new veg beds. More milestones. It felt like the right moment to turn to Paco, our Parisian migrant worker, and mutter that fine slogan of the May ’68 Rising “Sous le pave, la plage” [under the pavement, the beach]. Revolutionary spirit dented, but not defeated, by having my pronounciation corrected, I considered the act of returning hard landscape to soil, to plants: an alternative model of regeneration, and a highly symbolic and satisfying one, wherever it is performed. The OrganicLea logo features a boot and garden spade lifting a paving slab. This image was scrumped (with their blessing) from an Adbusters image of the same tool going through a Safeways (remember them?) supermarket. The dream of a return to the land exploding the nighthmare of soullessness.

The natural magic of snow might temporarily mask the cold hardness of our architechture, but in all times and all places there waits, under the concrete, the earth.

Cold Hands Warm Glow

This week, I’ve lain in bed shivering, but warmed by the heat waves of grim satisfaction that accompanies a hard cold snap.

Gardeners in particular like a spell of ice. Traditionally round here, they’d expose clay clods to the frosts’ shattering forces. Organic practitioners abhor a bare soil in winter, but see Jack Frost as an ally in killing off  key pests such as slugs and aphids. There’s also the notion that a “proper” winter begets a “proper summer”, one that recent patterns would appear to confirm.

At Hawkwood, the restart of salad picking has been put on hold, and the glasshouse taps have burst. Digging work is slow in the morning as spades have to break soil hard as stone before getting in to the soft underbelly, to remove perennial weeds or make trenches for raspberries.

But these winter curses are offset by the aforementioned gardeners’ delight, the joy of the crisp fresh days of golden light, and a widened window for fruit planting and pruning. Mary, our new Veg & Fruit worker, will be grateful indeed for this, given the complex and diverse plans she has inherited.

These include the speculative planting of almonds, which I heeled in on Friday, dreaming all the while of the pink-white honeyed marzipan blossom I walked amongst but two weeks ago in Andalucia. There, I was told, they didn’t have a winter, more like two springs. All well and good for southern Spain, but amongst the terrible fears for climate change is the psycho-culturally deep one, that our planet’s rich diversity of seasonal rhythms will be eroded: bland capitalist monoculture creating a global weather system after its own image.

To which the hushed notes of the falling snow reply, give us cold toes but give us parsnips.