Changing of the Gourds

“We are changing the rhythms of nature by which we have live our lives and planted our crops and written our poetry for the last 10,000 years” – B. McKibben

In this age of carbonated climate insecurity, all the more tear-jerking the joy when the seasons turn to show a recognisable face. We did have a summer after all, late and glorious for a’ that.  Yields per acreage are down, but not out, in many areas; in some they have held: nature is, as ever, more forgiving and generous than we have the right to expect. The beetroot and tomatoes have been fantastic in every way, and the high-rise sweetcorn have ripened, which didn’t seem highly likely a couple of months ago.

The golden cobs are, as we speak, being enthusiastically endorsed by Epping Forest’s grey squirrel population. This is not the result of any nature-inspired unexpected generosity on our part, only of our inferior wit. The tussle between human and rodent intelligences is one of gardening’s timeless spectacles. It is, variously, endlessly fascinating or rather tiresome, depending, frankly, on whether we’re winning or not. The rats have been driven out of the glasshouse, but this year the squirrels have won the Hundred Maize War. Fortunately, growing veg is, as Bradley Wiggins said of the Tour de France, “not the World Cup”: it comes around every year. Next season, there’ll be all to play for, and we hope to have the Jolly Green Giant on our side.

More joyfully, the shift from summer to autumn happened bang on the equinox, ancient textbook fashion, a cold wet front arriving just as night drew level with day. And this week, the changing of the gourds.

A seemless Hawkwood relay.

This is us at our best: Adam picked the last of the “Suyo Long” cucumbers on Tuesday afternoon. Mary’s team cleared to compost their wrinkly plant remains on Wednesday morning, and after lunch Dean and Steven planted brassica salads in their wake. These snake-like cucumbers have been our rising stars: they come with a flavour subtle and surprisingly sweet, in a range of comical shapes and sizes. Slow food restaurants and farm stall customers have preferred them to our mainstay “ridge” type. Its trump card, though, is that it is one of a precious few vegetables that you can not only eat, but also drink (in Pimm’s) and wear (as scarves, necklaces, bracelets). Build a shelter out of them and that’s all your basic needs sorted.

As the last of these versatile reptiles lies coiled on the farm stall, I see Dean stand back from its compatriot replacement, Oriental Mustard, as Ed passes by carrying the first of another Eastern-East End delight, a crate of “Uchiki Kuri” pumpkin, freshly picked from the Entrance Field. It dawns on me that there could be few more fitting events to mark the autumn equinox: the cucumber, which gives us moon-like discs of liquid cool to balance thirsty summers, is eclipsed by its cucurbit sister, the fiery red squash, whose bright globes warm our hearts and bellies into the winter.

The earth has turned. For one more year, we can live our lives, plant our crops, write our poetry. Amen.

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