Water of life

It’s rare to find myself on the same page as the capitalist media, but these days we’re all agreed that this unseasonal dry spell is headline news.

A hosepipe ban begins in the south east next week, whether or not the tradition of April Showers makes a welcome comeback. The ban won’t affect commercial growers…yet. But Graham and Lizzie, our campaneros in the East, report that organic growers there are already scaling back this year’s production plans. We’d be pondering a similar move had Huf, Norman and Pip not spent many hours last year at the gutter, looking at the stars, in order to divert the heavens that open up on the glasshouse roof into two 36,000 litre fonts.

Rainwater harvest, in these unsure times, is an obvious, but not necessarily simple, step for gardeners and growers. And water butts don’t actually work unless it actually rains, regularly: I’ve yet to find a manufacturer offering any such guarantee.

Then there are the little leaks, previously unnoticed, that Huf, who “bottom lines” building & facilities, has been identifying. His idea of tapping the Victorian spring-fed well at the top of Spring Field has made a meteoric rise (or descent, depending on how you look at it) from Blue Sky Vision to possible inclusion in his next six-monthly work plan.

Ultimately, spring-fed wells don’t actually work unless it actually rains, either. But what the current water crisis is doing is re-focusing our attention on how to make best use of the precious liquid that does enter, and exit, the site, something that is second nature to peasants in the dry lands.

Water is one of the many forces that flow through Hawkwood: with plants and panels, we’re trying to better intercept and harness the solar power that pours down on us. And then there are people.

Human energy, and its wise use, was the theme of last Sunday’s well-attended Open Day, with thoughtful yet active contributions from writer/ grower Rebecca Laughton, and our very own people person, Clare. Alumni from the most recent Permaculture Course returned to implement one of their design projects; whilst Pip and Naomi marked their last weekend here. They served as apprentices, before breaking  into the ranks of BloGPeTHAs (Bloody Good People To Have Around). Now they embark on a voyage to join the dots of scattered land-based projects on this island and beyond.

This is how it flows here: people appear, for a day, a life, a while, a year, a spell: with questions, ideas, inspiration, hands, eyes and muscle. As project workers our job is to try to see that that energy is held, not leaked. This all seems to make sense. The question that still bugs me though is this: is raindancing a waste of energy?

From Where Rhubarb Stems

This week we began picking the earliest of fruits in the Old Kitchen Garden, and in a soft-focus moment I remembered how, two years ago last month, a bunch of us set forth to navigate the Rhubarb Triangle, as my birthday treat. This might seem a strange idea, but really, if you can’t drag your mates off to a small village near Wakefield to spend an afternoon watching rhubarb grow in a shed on your birthday, then what, other than for being born, is the point of it in the first place?

It was a sight of eerie magnificence: as far as the eye could see, darkness, but for a few candles illuminating dense screaming crimson stalks stretching starwards with the simplest and surest faith in light.

A unique combination of environmental and social factors led to rhubarb production being concentrated in a frost pocket between Wakefield, Leeds and Bradford. Similar but different to those which made our Lea Valley the hotbed of glasshouse salads: for both, these factors have declined in importance, or disappeared, but a legacy continues.

For those in the Triangle, it’s a living legacy to be proud of: shortly after our visit (though, I regret to say, unconnected to it) Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb achieved European Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status: only the second British fruit & veg to achieve it, after Jersey Royals; and putting it in the same league as Champagne wine, Parma ham and Kentish Ale. Yet whist West Yorkshire may be the home of “Champagne rhubarb”, as this early crop is known, its origins are firmly rooted in the Thames Valley basin.

Into the nineteenth century, rhubarb was solely used as a medicinal herb, its root being an effective purgative. It’s also an effective hair bleacher, and I guess I’m not the only fair haired rhubarb grower to have been accused of resorting to this herbal dye. Fortunately, this smear didn’t stick, as most people concede I must have some blonde genes, due to my undeniable gormlessness.

Gorm was also in short supply at the Chelsea Physic Garden in the winter of 1816, when some local tradesmen were repairing a wall. Job done, rubble and detritus were duly left on the Rheum rhabarbarum bed: that spring as ever, the gardeners were left to make good the builders’ collateral damage. In so doing they found a collection of straining, bleached shoots desperately trying to push through the ruins. Natural curiosity being what it is, they sampled the freak plant growth, and found it to be much sweeter, more succulent and edible than the tough trunks they had hitherto known. Before long, rhubarb pies were being sold on London streets. By the end of the century, West Yorkshire folk had knocked up some forcing sheds and taken it to new scarlet heights.

“The best things in a garden happen by accident”, says the almost infallible Monty Don. And like all accidents, they can come from some pretty surprising corners: for champagne rhubarb, their crowning achievement, Northern horticulturalists have to thank not just a soft Londoner, but that most maligned of London characters, the cockney cowboy builder. Of Chelsea. If the Physic Garden had only taken the reasonable step of freezing their wall repairs budget until various brick taxes and imperial wars had settled down a bit, he might have been a Chelsea fan to boot.

Here at Hawkwood, we don’t go to the stoic effort of digging up our “Timperly Early” and carting it off to be forced in a shed: instead, we blanche it in situ. We don’t scatter London bricks; nor wool shoddy in the Pennine tradition, instead, the plastic fabric so beloved of the Lea Valley’s remaining commercial growers. I doubt we’ll ever get PDO status for our London Blanched Rhubarb. The smiling pink shank of this sweet & sour fruit of winter has to be reward enough.

Fresh Pickings

This week, normal sevice is resumed: our box scheme members, stall supporters, and five catering partners will once again be enjoying Hawkwood salad.

There are many reasons why mixed salad leaves are our flagship product here. As a labour intensive, highly perishable and high value crop, they are the obvious thing to grow at a small community-supported market garden a mere cycle trailer’s ride from its marketplace. Ecologically speaking, they allow us to dispatch commercial quantities of one thing whilst side-stepping the dead end of monoculture: last year forty three different species of plant passed through the mixing trough.

The mix evolves through the seasons, summer blend giving way to hardy leaves, enabling year-round supply. I say year round, but everything needs a break some of the time. Our corn salads and chicories get annual leave in January, when, for all anyone knows, they take long-haul cosmic flights to the Underworld and the Venetto. Then we commence picking before we leave Aquarius.

The best laid plans. This year, winter came hard and late, like Paul Scholes on one of his bad days, nipping new growth. Frustrating, but the flip side has been seeing the eagerness with which a range of folk have been asking after it, and the cheer with which last week’s first slim pickings of rocket were greeted.

Absence makes the heart fonder, I guess; or “you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone”, as Joni Mitchell chirped in that 1970 song of dawning environmental awareness. I found myself gnawing ravenously at the “graded out” leaves as I sorted them last week, as if I too was starved, not only of the flavour and texture, but of some vital element held in these fresh raw greens.

More broadly, the hunger we are seeing in the cities, for food with vitality, grown with integrity, hints at a yearning to retrieve what is gone or going: that natural fibre that threads us to our place in the world.

Yet always, after a going, a return. This week, our freshly engraved bike trailers will be “Pedalling London grown food”, satisfying at least some hungry people with one joy of a returning spring.