Tomatoes, and the Triumph of Hope

I’ve made mention here before of  how, in the garden calendar, every week witnesses an annual event, a holy day, so that the garden seems to become the venue for a series of small festivals. Last week saw the Last Week of the Strawberries, but before the glittering red decorations were down, the garlic was brought in, decking the glasshouse with its muddy white ribbons.

Even in this gloomy growing season, the regular harvest festivals serve to lift the spirits and bring reasons to be cheerful: the possibilities of redemption whatever the weather. In this gloomy growing season, the more reason for smiles and small celebrations as we greet the slow, but blessedly sure, fruition of beetroot, cucumber, french beans, tomatoes. And the greatest of these is tomatoes.

What is it with the British ans their tomatoes? for a Central American plant long regarded as a poisonous (due to its membership of the Nightshade family) ornamental, and only admitted into full culinary citizenship during World War Two, it is surprisingly central to our food and gardening culture. When it comes to flying off the shelves – or rather, sliding off the grocers’ grass – of our market stalls, they beat all comers, even strawbs. The same is true for our plant sales: in London it seems every gardener of every culture is somehow compelled to raise a few toms. And also non-gardeners: in so many urban yards and balconies, the “love apple”, or “wolf peach”, as it has been variously known, is the only cultivated plant on show, in grow bags, pots, or rare squares of ground.

In a bad year – of which 2012 is an outstanding example  – the plants might give few ripe fruit even, and green tomato chutney will be the only order of the day. For this reason I, perhaps dogmatically, regard them as an “indoor crop”. Conversely, perhaps this riskiness gives an extra frisson that makes planting some “Gardeners Delight” even more irresistible. Perhaps, after all, we all live in hope.

There is nothing remotely frisson about Blight appearing on our Black Russians in early July. Though I suppose the premature presence of this awful disease will result in greater rejoicing for every week of surviving tomato fruitfulness hence. Amongst our other heritage cultivars this year are local heroes “Kondine Red” (see March 2010 entry) and “Essex Wonder” (see March 2011); “Garden Peach”; “Tiger Tom”; and “Carter’s Golden Sunrise”.

“Tiger Tom” is an early, good cropper, with attractive stripes, that wins many of our taste tests, striking a near-perfect balance between acidity and sweetness. “Carter’s Golden Sunrise”,  a  bright yellow orb, tastes like tomatoes used to. It was raised by Carter’s of Raynes Park, London, in the 1890s, when the ubiquitous popularity of this odd, blight-prone, cold-intolerant plant can barely have been imagined possible. But other worlds are possible, beyond this climate chaos, and other symptoms of our social and environmental malaise: there truly is hope in the nightshade.

From Weather Systems to Food Systems

Within the last week, two of the farmers I have the most time for – Gerald Miles in Wales and Ian Tolhurst in Berkshire – have cited this as the worst growing season in living memory. These are long (thirty to forty years apiece) and detailed memories. Mine is shorter and almost as cloudy as our spring/ summer: the sun has rarely fully shone, the rain never convincingly abated. Hopefully 0212 will go down as a terrible year rather than the start of a terrible trend, though Tolhurst observes that “extreme weather events” have been occurring at closer intervals over the last decade. August or September may bring a reprieve, who knows? Certainly not the meteorologists and weather pundits, who seem to have found the whole thing as unfathomable as the rest of us.

Given all this, we feel doubly blessed with what we have achieved so far at Hawkwood. Despite the inevitable slow growth, and the equally inevitable boom in slugs and rots, the land has poured forth a steady stream of salad, some fine asparagus, and just recently nigh on a tonne of saleable broad beans and strawberries: enough to kill you if they landed on your head in an extreme weather event of biblical proportions. This in a year when the Asparagus Festival was cancelled; even industrial UK strawberry production plummeted, and in some areas of the Old Kitchen Garden 90% of the crop had to be abandoned for slugs to finish what they started.

Not a great time to be doing local food, you might say. On the other hand, in tough times like these, time and again the small-scale and diverse systems have been shown to have many advantages over operations that are machine-dependent and/or monocultures. The dull wet conditions have not benefitted our tomatoes, but they’ve kept the salad leaves unseasonably green and fresh; London gardeners can at least get onto their slug-ridden allotments, whilst commercial growers who use tractors for every cultivation can only fidget indoors until the soil dries.

Last weekend, 140 people came to Hawkwood to explore possibilities for building a food sovereignty movement in the UK. Food sovereignty as a concept developed from attempts in the global South to voice a positive alternative to food security, encapsulating “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agricultural systems” (Declaration of Nyeleni 2007)

In many ways this is the realisation of an elusive dream for OrganicLea – community gardeners, global justice campaigners, producers and food activists coming together to form a tangible alliance for “Transforming Our Food System”. A small step on a world-changing journey, but by Tuesday something had already changed. Picking through slug-damaged beans, on your knees, in the rain, is the kind of work that could make you question what on earth you’re doing with your life. In the wake of the gathering though, it felt like vital work: part of a movement, a wider struggle.

If, as appears to be the case, we can’t gain democratic control of the weather, democratic control of food production and distribution has to be the next best thing.


Good As It Gets

At the risk of tempting fate, or any other mysterious force that might catch wind, summer has largely settled here, and the garden grows: grows away from the sorry spring’s torrential woes. Almost six months to the day after telling Mary, “it doesn’t get much worse than this”, as we picked chilled salad with frozen hands, I lined up with apprentices Dean and Adam, peered through the riot of companion flowers and onto the verdant greens of youthful glasshouse and field crops,  and muttered, “this is as good as it gets.”

Both statements are a shadow of the truth. Winter has its share of comforts and joys, of course; all seasons, all days, have their moments of paradise, their hours of grind. Yet, all things being equal, the garden in early summer is at its most alive: lush spring leaf overlaps with fresh summer flowers and exuberant ripe fruits: no other time can hold these three crucial ingredients in such measure.

Our early fruits are strawberries and broad beans (the latter are, after all, fruiting vegetables). And this week’s harvest will be as bumper as any other this year: the autumn beans have been caught by the spring sown stock; the maincrop strawberries reached the red of the earlies: all round, a time of crescendo. We are very grateful to Inspiral and Growing Communities for giving us an outlet for the abundance, and saving us from the unthinkable: crops rotting “on the vine”.

Both are time-consuming to pick, something I perhaps should have considered when I plumped for filling the Old Kitchen Garden with broad beans whilst plotting the planting plan in the depths of December, but hey. To be up early doors, on a fine summers’ morn, or even a damp one, as the birds begin to find their voice: a flask of coffee, some friends, and more beans than I’ve ever eaten. Moments like this.