Nor Shall My Spade Sleep In My Hand

In recent times, I have been encouraging people to sing Blake’s “Jerusalem” whilst planting or harvesting Jerusalem Artichokes. And so, on Wednesday, a distinctly un-angelic version of the hymn fell from the upper echelons of the Old Kitchen Garden, as the red-skinned tubers were troweled into the cold ground.

“Alternative national anthem” it may be, but my research shows, when it  comes to that section of society that plant artichokes, over half don’t know the tune, and of those that do, half of them don’t get it. These facts don’t make for a great choral recital, but listen, very few vegetables have their own theme tune, so why waste a rare opportunity?

For those of you in the majority camp, let me explain that in this song William Blake, the eighteenth century London mystic, juxtaposes the spectre of pollution and suffering of the industrial age, with an imagined golden era when Jesus rambled round England’s pleasant pastures showering blesssings, and “the countenance divine/ [shone] forth upon our clouded hills”. He goes on to commit himself to mentally and physically struggle to build Jerusalem – the promised land – “in England’s green and pleasant land”. Stirring stuff, but what the onions has it got to do with gardening?

As in so much poetry and prose, the natural world, and the stewarded natural world, are presented as a vision of redemption in a landscape where people are incarcerated in “dark Satanic mills”. Such was the scene in our industrial cities then. If Billy Blake is watching now, he’ll see the smokey factories have merely been relocated to other, exotic, locations. For us, the work may now be less “dirty”, but drudgery and alienation remain the order of the day. And the same push-pull factors that prized the English peasant from their pleasant pastures and mountains green to fill the filthy city streets, remain in full operation. As reported in the winter issue of The Land, the global financial and resource crisis has sparked off a “land rush”, with governments and multinationals buying up vast tracts of “underutilised” agricultural soil, for industrial agriculture and mining: vast numbers of people being slung off their farms and gardens. Taking with them their ancient feet, their holy lambs. History repeating itself, tragically. At Hawkwood, as in community gardens across the urban scene, we see the burning desire to return to the garden. 

But what the parsnips has this all got to do with Jerusalem artichokes? well, precious little it must be conceded. Their connection to the literal or conceptual Old City is tenuous indeed. A Native American crop, they arrived in Europe in the early seventeenth century. Their name stems from a misunderstanding, intentional or otherwise. If you ignore the gardening books and let them flower, you’ll see the resemblance to their close relative the sunflower. So the Italians named it as they named the sunflower, girasol, after the flower’s habit of turning to the sun. Another theory posits the bastardisation of Ter Neusen, the area in the Netherlands where the tuber was originally introduced to Europe.

The name may be an apparent accident of diction, but may be not: they are by no means an inappropriate plant to carry Blake’s ode to hope. They are planted in the dark times, even in the snow, as we did last week. For us they are the first plantings of the unborn growing season, premature harbingers of spring, that green and pleasant land in waiting. From there, they rise up, and up: as tall as a tree, in a season, following the sun, eyes on the prize.

This week, clouds unfold. The first salad harvest, the tomatoes are sown. Bring me my wheelbarrow of desire.



“You have to know the difference/ Between the roundabouts and swings /No matter what the distance/ Winter turns to spring”

  • Robb Johnson, Winter Turns to Spring

Winter is not yet passed: indeed, another freezy spell is on its way: yet there are glimmers now, and the odd miracle. On the West Bank terraces it plummeted to minus twelve degrees in the Big Chill. Venturing out this week to pay witness to the wreckage in its wake, it was a shock to find a full bed of leaf celery pushing energetically against its tidy fleece. A thin fleece, small protection for such tender stems. I can only imagine that the act of care in clothing the plants gave them some extra spur of encouragement to stick it out.

Our early encouragement is provided by the perennials, as ever. On the salad beds, the chives and burnet are already looking pretty lively, whilst around the place hawthorn buds crouch and haze catkins purr. Temperature is, after all, only one part of the equation: day length is another. We are now closer to the spring equinox than the winter solstice, and the plants know it. The first pea flower was out on Tuesday.

We have entertained Jack Frost and the Wild Western Wind at Hawkwood this last month, both bringing their particular brand of joy and havoc, but neither have done much to dry out the soaking fields. I have never known the place so wet for so long. The paths have lapsed into drawn-out puddles, whilst the cultivated soil is, or rather should be, off bounds to human tread, to prevent further structural damage.

Spring always comes burdened with heavy expectations, and its possible promise of a warm drying spell is the current great white hope. It’s a hope glimmering like a miracle some distance away yet, after all,  Spring is what hope does.