Poetry and Flour

At last the sun has burned through the rainsmoke, and here at Hawkwood last week people were wearing bright hats and smiles as they set about preparing the ground for the Sweetcorn Blocs out on the Entrance Field.

When thin green seedlings, it’s more easy to grasp the surprising fact that corn belongs to the grass family, Poaceae. This is a Greek word, though  surprisingly unrelated to another  Greek word, poesis, to create.  Yet the Indigenous Mexicans call themselves “the people of the maize”, as if the plant created them. A poetic notion maybe,  but haven’t those other grasses – sorghum, millet, rice, oats, barley, wheat – made our culture and society, for better and worse?

Into the beds will go “Golden Bantam”, one of the few commercially available open-pollinated (i.e. not F1 Hybrid) cultivars, and “Bloody Butcher”, a non-commercially available, heritage variety, whose kernel colour is, as the name implies, every bit as bloody as the mission to civilise the New World is.

At the weekend, some of us headed out to Rothamstead, to a very different Poaceae patch. There, More than 400 growers, bakers and families from across England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France and Belgium marched against the return of open air trials of genetically modified (GM) wheat.

It’s in the make-up of well-intentioned, and well bankrolled, scientists to narrow the debate about genetic engineeering to small details, so that you can’t see the maze for the maize. Standing back allows us to see the bigger design, and ask more fundamental questions. Like,  should we work with nature, or against it? Should life forms be patented, commodified, privatised? Who should be more in control of food production: the corporation, or the  truly creative people, the producers?

With our hands, we create; with our hands, we destroy. We plant; and we weed. There is a time to give flowers; and, as the renewed GM campaign so rightly points out, a time to take the flour back.

Many Paths

“A path is little more than a habit that comes with a knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity” – Wendell Berry, The Art Of The Commonplace

Any grower worth their earth salt should make regular inspections of their site: the land, soil, plants, animals, events. This may seem obvious, but in the golden heat of the gardeners’ day there is usually just enough time to fulfill the urgent tasks of the day, before the outside inside world beckons you back. Usually, once a week I manage to “get round”, equipped with one main tool, eyes; and one main aim, renewing acquaintance with the whole, and the particular.

Sketched out, the main paths at Hawkwood resemble the veins of a leaf or the trickles of a watershed, enveloped by the peculiarly human artery of the boundary path. The scratched lines of access paths between raised beds fizz off the broad ways and into the dense neighbourhoodsof cultivation. The wildlife corridor is like a deep lake, Ian’s mown trails are the only bridges across it.

My weekly meander rarely takes an identical route, but follows seasonal patterns punctuated by topical highlights. In the winter I am more likely to beat the bounds, hunting for some sort of perspective that I know will lift once we arrive here, May-time, when attention is drawn into the epicentres of emerging vegetable crops. In recent weeks, the bluebell, apple blossom, stitchwort and asparagus communities have put on their annual shows, well worth going out of your way for.

There was once a notion that we might designate an official “Sit Spot”, a point on site allocated for communal observation and reflection. But no one space does equal justice to the multiplicity of meanings and values of a community market garden, plant nursery, training centre and nature reserve. I have my own favourite points which, throughout the spinning year, give views to live for.

Poets Corner is pressed into our highest, most south-easterly reach, under one of the sites’ majestic, tri-centurion oaks. It’s named in honour of the nineteenth century “peasant poet”, John Clare, a fierce and beautiful critic of the Enclosures, who inhabited Epping Forest shortly before the episode of Hawk Wood’s enclosure. It is likely that at some point during his stay, his own famous wonderings took him through our nook in the forest. Nowadays, from the oakshade you look out over the Lea Valley reservoirs, the glasshouse, and the curving lines of Entrance Field vegetables. Amongst them, you’ll likely see a crow pecking for grubs. Were she to fly due north from you, she’d arrive where three paths meet, at the head of the Old Kitchen Garden.

Here is as close as you get to a panorama at Hawkwood. The wedge of ancient woodland drops off to the Spring Field meadow, then behind the next tree line the high rise blocks of Edmonton remind you where you are, London town. To your right right now if there’s a gentle breeze you’ll note the rippling silver of the bean plants, catch their soft sweet pea scent. On Friday, as the rain let up to finally allow the soil to drain, we were able at last to work the broad beans, relieving them of the tall, rain-swollen goosegrass that was beginning to suffocate them.

We set amongst them, myopically freeing one stem after another, stopping only to take in the markings of a ladybird or the just visible apparition of minute bean pods forming. After so many walkabouts where I could only look over the beans in their multitude, with admiration and mounting concern, this felt like I’d walked home.

Out of the Shadows

After two years of active waiting, the asparagus crop is coming thick and fast. A fleeting, rare delicacy at the best of times, we’re especially precious about these tender stems right now. The floods and cold spring have stilled the dawn of the British season: the national shortage seeing the cancellation of the annual Asparagus festival. Our crown jewels have weathered frost and, so far, the flooded terrace, and now seem unstoppable: future fracases with horsetail and asparagus beetle hold no fear for them.

Marko and I were on the West Bank on Friday, prizing out the light-footed shafts from Subterranea for Saturday’s stalls. Turning back at the end of a long row, I swear some of the shoots had grown in the time we were going over them. You could never calculate how many bunches in the bed: more would keep popping up whilst you were counting, like blessings.

The glasshouse has been an ark of a blessing the last forty days and nights. It’s given us somewhere to stand whilst watching the ducks swim amongst the spinach, and enough of a microclimate to bring on the early lettuce, in marked contrast to the standstill outdoor specimens. Whilst much of the ground has been too wet to walk or work on, we’ve been able to keep ourselves busy at the propagation stations, seeing to it that the seedlings are potted on and pepped up for the annual round of spring plant stalls.

This extra attention has ensured that the tender veg plants look remarkably good considering: more proof of the Chinese proverb “the best fertiliser is the gardener’s shadow”. And the early signs from the stalls are that, despite the Great Outdoors being greatly inclement right now, the call of nature is still drawing green fingered citizens out.

The success of plant stalls, like all stalls, is somewhat precarious. Even on the May Day weekend, plant nurseries’ equivalent of Christmas time for sales, bad weather means bad takings. As community gardeners though, we believe that if someone can’t afford to buy our organic tomatoes, we can at least offer them the means, and information, by which to grow their own organic tomatoes, for a smaller initial investment. And free conversations happen: little interactions amongst little people; lives change in little ways. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Not much warmth, but the rain has eased, and we were finally able to set foot in the Old Kitchen Garden. Some of us were shocked at how well the broad beans – as well as the weeds – had come on: tall and flush with their two-tone flowers. It seems we’re coming to that time of year, when things grow out from the gardeners’ shadows; grow without you, without a care, without sunshine even, it appears.