When next you hear someone talk about the need to intensify food production to meet increasing requirements, bear in mind that all studies, experience and common sense have it that the most intensive mode of growing is the very small-scale: subsistence and peasant production. Community gardening, meanwhile, is highest in intensity of energy, information and relationships that are fed in, and harvested.
For the community market gardener, this can be intensely challenging. For example, many a crop is lovingly raised and set out here in response to a request from the wider community, but life, especially in London, can speed faster than the seasons’ pace. Chefs who have enthusiastically pledged to “take all the [basil/ celery/ Good King Henry/ salad leaves] you’ve got” when we are drawing up our planting plans, aren’t always hanging around when we return triumphantly brandishing the green stuff. Granted, nine months might seem like a long time to process an order, but hey, we don’t make the laws of nature.
Last week we finally rotavated in the bed of St. John’s Wort that an herbalist had asked us to grow, shortly before they fled to the (admittedly herbier) pastures of the West Country. Gradualy, sadly, you become more cautious towards such suggestions. But when Eleanor from Pretty Delicious (www.prettydelicious.org) showed up at the start of the year, she found a soft spot.
Whilst at Growing Communities, I studied the work of Joy Larkcom, and decided that every bag of mixed salad leaves hence should, by rights, contain a free edible flower. At OrganicLea, we rigidly pursue this dogma, albeit sometimes stretching the definitions of “edible”, “free”, and, on occasion, “flower”. The yellow buds of prickly gorse are harvested at quite a cost to the poor pickers, and don’t taste that great, but tell me what other petals can you find in February? In the main season though, there’s viola, nasturtium, shungiku, marigold and oyster plant, causing nothing but delight all round. I regard floral garnish as the signature of a really fresh, handmade salad, as well as adding a splash of vivid colour and their own unique nutritional and medicinal properties to the mix. In the garden, these flowers are vital, for our pest management, and also for our souls. As the Lawrence Strikers first put it, “give us bread, but give us roses”.
Eleanor has taken the edible flowers concept a step further, dealing in scrumptious bouquets. We’ve been stunned at the displays she’s conjured up from our motley assortment of flowering herbs, bolting vegetables, companion plants and green manures. Each posy is sold with a card detailing imaginative recipes for the blossoms once they have cheered the dining table for a while.
As we approach our Produce Review and Planning Process for 02013, I’m looking forward to increasing and diversifying the floral tribute to Pretty Delicious. As autumn draws in though, I’ve gleaned one further, unexpected yield from this connection. In midsummer, everything and everyone wants to flower. By late summer you have to look a bit harder. Last week, before Eleanor’s Saturday stall at the Hornbeam Centre – flanking our veg stand – where had all the flowers gone? Garland chrysanthemum, mint, chive, borage, oregano: gone to seed heads every one.
Commencing picking veg with this in mind, my eyes were opened to the utter beauty and audacity of the late flowering – and fruiting – plants that are still out there: calendula, clover, alfalfa, ice plant, chamomile, hedge mustard, yarrow, shiso; rosehip, crab apple, hawthorn, blackberry, chilli: all ornamental and tasty. All to cherish, yet last year I barely gave them a second glance. Excitedly, I rushed to give Hannah regular updates on the latest botanical discoveries.
Funny how things that start off sweet can quickly become nauseating. Double chocolate cake, say; or, I guess, scruffy men bursting into your office at random intervals and barking the common names of herbs at you. We soon agreed I should instead commit my findings to a written list. This I’ve done: our full mid-October menu of edible floristry products is simultaneously a chronicle that might prove half-decent reference material in years to come; and right now it makes for uplifting reading just as Jack Frost stalks the valley again.
“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”, said William Morris of Walthamstow, and I like to think he thought of the garden as part of the house. So should we all.