Searching for Some Spring

Across the land snow has driven the spring back in, making this the slowest start to a season since I began to record, if not since records began. Consequently, we’ve never been so prepared, with much of the winter work list fully ticked off, the ground still too wet to do the rest. Courtesy of Cathy and the City & Guilds Gardening class, we’ve even got round to getting the new tomato supports up, a good month – hopefully in more than one sense – before they will be pressed into action. You could have been fooled into thinking we were a highly organized operation, at least until we ran out of string, close to the raised bed’s finish line.

I am slightly ashamed to declare that, in the life of this project, we’ve now got through nine kilometres of polypropylene twine, that’s enough to tether the glasshouse to our distribution and outreach consulate, the Hornbeam Café. Quite what the purpose of doing such a thing is somewhat unclear though, so maybe we’ve made the right move after all, in using it to for plant supports.

Would that we could stitch a lifeline for other organic growers. The Hungry Gap arriving early after last year’s famously poor harvests, the last thing needed was an extended hiatus before the spring crops mature. However much you squint at them, the short-range weather forecasts don’t look too pretty: air temperatures of less than ten degrees do not a growing season make.

In the top corner of my little office pinboard is a quote from one of my organic growing gurus, Ian Tolhurst: “If you worry about the weather, you are in the wrong job”. I try to follow this teaching, and, like all religious followers, I am careful to find the loopholes in the text: there is nothing in Tolhurst’s commandment that prohibits one from being grumpy about the weather, for a start.

With the light growing and the sap rising, it feels like spring’s tightly coiled, ready to burst forth as soon a temperatures pick up. Stephen, Kate, Ian and I got the glory leg, finishing the heavy mulching of asparagus beds and paths, and right away I could hear the soft spears starting to stir. All we are all waiting for is for someone to bring us a bit of sunshine…

Perhaps it’ll be the ten rescued hedgehogs Stephen will be bringing from South Essex Wildlife Centre. Or this year’s flux of trainees. Usually, they start in April and have to hit the ground running: this year, Aimee, Jen, Olivia, Paul, Rob, Holly and Kristen will begin, next week, pretty much at the beginning. The seeds that have been sown sit, pent, on the glasshouse staging, the first stage of their brilliant journey. Unworried and unhurried.

Something to Sprout About

“March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb”, so they say. This year, the lion has been lying down with the lamb a lot. Over the glasshouse salads, the horticultural fleece has been going back and forth like a turnip hoer’s elbow, as gladdening sun rapidly rotates to wild wet and bitter cold. Yet the spring tide takes, irresistibly.

My biometric diary entries are heavily concentrated into March, April and May; the Firsty Times. All the great debuts occur here: the first blackthorn blossom; the first bee; the first hoverfly:  through to the premier bluebells and mayflowers. All bring the news we all need to hear: we can start again.

In the garden, a series of firsts crests the ridge between bright and dark side. It is not uncommon to sow the first seeds (tomatoes always tomatoes) indoors whilst the world outside freezes over. Even so, Wednesday was remarkable. Having issued notice to the winter compost heap residents that normal management operations would commence, we spent the day turning a good few tonnes of partially decomposed matter a few metres to the left. We moved a mountain. The day warmed a little, and the heat rose from the centre of the windrow. We were sweating and some of us stripped to T-shirts , as we dug on in the face of the blizzard.

Short sleeves in the snow. This is a tough month. A friend who worked through winter on farms in the Arctic Circle in Finland once told me that the real horrors – the suicides, domestic violence and narcotic oblivion – peak not in the depths of midwinter, when dark and ice have everyone in their absolute grip, but during the meltdown, just as the colour and warmth appear, but are not quite in grasp. Just a kiss away.

The labour, hope, movement for something better, which is in sight but still has to be worked at: this month deserves its own verb, Marching. As the rich ramp up their attacks on our lives, our communities, and our sweet earth, there is much to March about right now, in the streets…and in the fields and gardens.

In the latter, here at Hawkwood, there is glory. There are few more awesome sights in horticulture than the current two highlights; the pink stems of blanching rhubarb rising in the darkness of our Cockney Blanching Benders, fists of clenched golden leaves; and the almighty hatching of the tiny seed. We’ve taken to celebrating this time of germination by making spring our beansprout season. Beans, lentils, sometimes alfalfa, mustard, clover, are germinated indoors en masse, for inclusion in our weekly vegeboxes. Of course, we – and you – could be sprouting all year round, as many people do: but for us, sprouts’ great niche is that they are a very quick-growing and nutritious something to help fill the looming Hungry Gap. In turn they help tune us in to the underlying energy of the moment, that of birth, renewal, awakening.

Later, we March out.

Spring of Memories

Say what you like about them, but I wouldn’t have got where I am today without a good food scandal every so often. The Tesco horsemeat saga is merely the latest chapter: in recent memory, over the white noise of pesticide contamination, there’s been salmonella, e-coli, foot and mouth, “mad cow”, bird flu, genetic engineering. In the war of worlds, all battles lost by the military-industrial-agricultural world; all sparking minor flurries of interest in sustainable alternatives, some of which is sustained. The growth in organic food and farming, in localised food systems, over the last three decades, can be traced in some part to such publicised calamities.

These scandals serve as reminders, snoozed alarms, of what is going on relentlessly under our noses, even as attention drifts to the next news story. They are all legally born of the modern food system’s complicated, heavy, input and supply chain, tethered to the twisted logic of profit.

I think this is a time of reminders. The seed swap event at the Hornbeam Centre on Friday was a reminder of the eternal promise of seeds, and the power of cultural exchange and community: people power buzzing and swarming through the cracks in the edifices of corporate power, in the belly of London.

On the day the last of the dry asparagus stems was fed to the wood burner, we began mulching up the asparagus beds, remembering the sleek spears’ sliding white to green, and their sublime spring succulence.

I’m remembering how the spring seed sowing schedule is meant to go again; remembering to check on the plants again; rediscover them as they rediscover growth. They are remembering themselves. As we remember again, after The Long Trudge through the winter garden, how to handle the hoe and plug tray: we re-member ourselves of planet Earth.

The bird song, the freshest green, the chitting seed, the golden light. It all comes flooding back.